We took a Christmas trip back to see family in Arizona. There’s nothing like a good road trip to see friends and family, to enjoy some great conversation and enjoy scenery, even if you have driven the same route many times over the years.
Such a road trip is not complete if one does not encounter “40 Acre Ranch Parcels for Sale!” signs in some of the rural stretches. We saw more than a few along the way and like many things in life, it got me to asking me few questions. This time, my mind ran along familiar land measurement terms and in reality how little I actually knew about them. Even more interestingly, where did these measurements come from? What are they based on? How did we, as a society, settle on these units of land area? Ah, questions, questions, questions.
In reality, there are fascinating stories and histories behind all our units of measurement, rooted many times in ancient cultures or first developers of a technology or labor-saving device. For today, let’s focus on land area.
Without some agreed-upon definitions of area, legal descriptions would be just about impossible. Land ownership has been a complex issue through the centuries in various cultures. Without authoritative and objective mapping, land boundaries had to be marked physically at corners and changes in direction in the edge. You can see this in ancient writings, the most familiar being the Bible. Old Testament admonitions to not move land markers are readily found.
Today, we still physically mark key reference points, and then describe property as distances and directions from that corner pin. The pins were placed by surveyors. The modern system of locating and sizing land parcels is highly dependent on the craft of surveying. Surveyors are trained and must maintain certifications to assure fidelity to standard definitions and terminology.
Undoubtedly, you’ve heard of acres. You may have even heard of parcels, sections, townships, and ranges. But if you’re like most people, you can’t readily define what they are and how they relate to each other. Hence, the title of this article. After you read the remainder of this column, you’ll be informed about such matters. It will give you one more thing to talk about and show your intellectual capacity at the next social gathering.
How land has been measured has changed over the years. A legacy system that was in use from some time was metes and bounds. This was in popular use in England when the Colonies were founded, and that measurement system (and some others) was, and is, used in the eastern U.S. While functional, it had its limitations because it was heavily dependent on markers, landmarks, geographical features, and even historical references of where something used to be situated. It was also difficult to use in rough terrain with plentiful mountains, cliffs, canyons or other rapid elevation changes. As you can imagine, this invited all sorts of error and disputes. Issuing deeds to land that gave long-term assurance of ownership and precise boundaries was hampered. While the system worked reasonably well, clearly something better was needed in working with new areas.
The western United States now uses the Public Lands Survey System (PLSS). It addressed the major shortcomings of its forebearer, but there are still imperfections. These shortcomings are minor though, and in reality are factored in. These imperfections enter in for a couple of main reasons. First, the earth itself has irregularities that defy precise squares and straight lines. Second, the system is based off both established parallels (lines of latitude) and meridians (lines of longitude). While they are almost universally accepted baselines of measurement and locations on the face of the earth, there is one big issue. Latitude lines run east and west, and are parallel to each other (hence their common name of a “parallel”). Longitude lines run north and south and converge at the poles of the earth.
Because we are in the northern hemisphere, the distance between two meridians will be further in the south, and closer in the north. So, as land is surveyed and recorded on maps (platting), errors do accumulate. On smaller parcels of land, the difference in distance along the southern edge and northern edge can be minute. However, as larger plots of land are measured, or several smaller plots of land are added up, the error can be significant. Like adding another day every four years is necessary to get our calendar back on track, correction entries need to be made, meaning those parcels that have been corrected will not be absolutely symmetrical. But, without them, what was being mapped and what physically existed would differ.
Let’s look at how some common units of land area are interrelated. When the westward expansion of the U.S. began, laws were passed in 1785 that prohibited land from being sold in other states until surveying had been done under the PLSS system. The land was divided into sections. A section is one square mile. Thirty-six sections comprise a township (six miles by six miles). One of the sections would be set aside for school use. Obviously, one square mile of land is more than a school could use, so, the excess portion would be sold to fund the construction and operation of the school.
Measurements are done by using range and township lines. Range lines are north-south lines, while township lines are east-west lines. This allows for property to be described by its location north or south, and east or west from fixed points.
Here’s where it gets really interesting. The size of a section allows easy quartering into common sizes (up to seven times) without having fractional acres. Not only is a section one mile by one mile, but it is also 640 acres. So, a quarter-section is 160 acres. A quarter of a quarter-section is 40 acres! So, that’s why it’s a common block of land that we’ll see advertised along rural stretches. The convenient fractioning continues in the form of a quarter of a quarter of a quarter-section being 10 acres. One other common division is one half of a quarter of a quarter of a quarter-section, or five acres. There are many five-acre parcels in the Tooele area — in fact, we own and live on one of them.
Lastly, how large is an acre? It is 43,560 square feet. So, any area of land, regardless of its shape, is an acre, as long as its total area is 43,560 square feet. This is a holdover from the old English measurement system using furlongs, chains and rods. The common size of an acre was one furlong (660 feet) by one chain (66 feet). As a sidenote, a rod is 16.5 feet, which is one quarter of a chain. Furthermore, it’s no coincidence that the amount of feet in a mile (5,280) is either eight furlongs or 80 chains. In fact, all of the measurements used in surveying are related to each other in some way and have some amazing equivalents, multiples and divisions. Check it out by visiting www.blm.gov/or/pubroom/files/land-descript-diag.pdf. Congratulations, it’s official — you’re a wise acre!
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.