You can see this arrangement in the typical 6-by-6 mile Township. If you take a look at Lena Township (a 6-by-6 Township) on an Oconto County Road map, you will see numbers in the center of some of the sections in the Township. If you filled in section numbers for the rest of Lena Township, you would see the same arrangement of sections as appears in Figure 3. Now that you know the arrangement of the sections in Lena Township, you can see that the village of Lena occupies parts of Sections 26, 27, 34 and 35 of Lena Township. This gives you another piece of the typical property description. Let's try putting this together with what we learned above about dividing Sections. If you look at the portion of the Village of Lena that is in Section 26, it appears that that piece of Lena is approximately the west half of the southwest quarter of Section 26. Or, to put it in formal property description terminology, it is the W ½ of the SW ¼ of Section 26 of Lena Township, Oconto County. Now one more step remains - dividing the state of Wisconsin into these 6-by-6 squares we are calling Towns.
In this article, we will be dealing with dividing up the entire state of Wisconsin into 6-by-6 mile squares which we are calling Towns. That is done with something called Town lines and Range lines. Before I talk about Town and Range lines, I need to set out a few disclaimers and qualifiers. First the disclaimer: As I indicated in the first article, I am no expert on this and the following is largely experience, observations and a certain amount of logic. If any of you have a better explanation for anything you see below, please e:mail it here for inclusion here. Now for the qualifiers: The following statements are at least 95% true almost all of the time, but before I can talk about the exceptions, we need to go over the basic framework. We'll get to the exceptions in a future article, but for now we will deal with just the basic system.
The entire state of Wisconsin is subdivided by a grid of north-south and east-west lines. "Range" lines run north and south. There is a range line every six miles. "Town" lines run east and west. There is a town line every six miles. What this gives you is a grid that covers the entire state with squares six miles by six miles. In order to tell exactly where the grid lines are to be placed, two reference lines were established - one a primary range (north-south) line, the other a primary town (east-west) line. With those reference lines, you can tell exactly where to put the other lines. You can also identify those other lines be how far they are from the primary lines. Once you add the other range and town lines, you get something that looks like Figure 4. Figure 4 is too small to hold all of the Range and Town lines, but it gives you the general idea.
In Wisconsin, the primary range line runs north-and-south from the western tip of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the north, to a point on the Illinois border about 10 miles east of the extreme southwest corner of Wisconsin. (In a future article we can talk a bit about why the primary range line was placed there.) The primary town line runs east-and west and is the southern border of Wisconsin. Once you have those two primary lines established, you can then draw the other range and town lines, with each square on the grid being a Town. Then every Town in the state can be identified as being a certain number of range lines east or west of the primary range line and a certain number of town lines north of the primary town line.
There is a shorthand way for saying how far a particular "Town" is from the primary range and town lines. All Towns that are immediately to the east of the primary range line are "R 1 E". The next row of Towns to the east are labeled "R 2 E". All Towns immediately west of the primary range line are called "R 1 W", and so forth. The same arrangement applies for how far north of the primary town line a Town is. All Towns that are immediately to the north of the primary town line are "T 1 N". If you put those two elements together, you get a code for identifying any Town. For example, the two Towns that touch the point where the primary range and town lines meet are known as "T1N R1E" and "T1N R1W". In other words, they are both in the first row of Towns north of the primary town line. And both are in the row of Towns immediately adjacent to the primary range line.
I know that this is a lot of new jargon, but I think it might make a little more sense if we take an example from the Oconto County road map. Let's take a look at Underhill Township, which is due west of the City of Oconto, at the west edge of Oconto County. If you remember, Underhill is a typical-sized township; it is a six-by-six-mile square. If you look immediately below Underhill Township on the map you will see "R 17 E". That tells you that you are in the 17th six-by-six-mile square east of Wisconsin's primary range line. In other words, you are approximately 102 miles (i.e. 17 x 6 miles) east of the primary range line. If you look at the map again, immediately to the left of Underhill Township, you will see "T 28 N". That tells you that you are in the 28th six-by-six-mile square north of the Wisconsin-Illinois border, or approximately 168 (28 x 6) miles north of the Illinois border. Put the two pieces together and you have "T28N, R17E". Once you know the code, those four letters and two numbers tell you the exact location of Underhill Township. If you see any Wisconsin property description that includes "T28N, R17E" you know that that piece of land is somewhere in Underhill Township, Oconto County. If you look around the outside of Oconto County, you will see a succession of numbers like T 28 N and R17 E. Going back to our Lena Township example, if you look far to the left of Lena Township, you will see "T 29 N." If you look a little above Lena Township, you will see "R 20 E." That means that Lena Township is T 29 N, R 20 E.
Lets look back at our earlier example, where we said that the portion of the village of Lena that is in Section 26 is the W ½ of the SW ¼ of Section 26 of Lena Township, Oconto County. We can now go one step farther and give the complete description for that piece of land: it is the W ½ of the SW ¼ of Section 26, T 29 N, R 20 E, Lena Township, Oconto County.
Some of you may ask, "Why bother adding the town and range numbers? We could find that part of Lena Township just fine with just the section, township and county information." Well, there are at least two reasons. For the first one, let's take a look at Lakewood Township at the north edge of Oconto County. Lakewood Township is 12 miles by six miles. It contains two 6-by-6 mile squares. The east half of the township is T 33 N, R 17 E and the west half is T 33 N, R 16 E. Each half has its own set of 36 sections. So you need the town and range numbers to tell you which Section 2 or which Section 6 from that township you mean. You run into the same problem with irregularly shaped townships, like Pensaukee Township along Lake Michigan. The second reason for using range and town lines has to do with history, and therefore genealogy. As you may be aware, Wisconsin has more counties than it used to. Originally there were fewer, larger counties. Over time, and as population grew, those large counties were split up. Oconto County used to be much larger than it is today. I presume that townships also shrank in the process, with new townships being formed. So when someone owned land in a county that was going to be divided into several different counties, he couldn't rely on the township and county part of his property description any more. He had to go by the range and town numbers to tell him which "Town" his property was in. County and township lines come and go; range and town lines are forever! And "forever" is what counts in property descriptions.
In fact, the redundant part of the Lena Township description we started talking about is the Township and County information. You could just as well describe the northeast part of Lena as the W ½ of the SW ¼ of Section 26, T 29 N, R 20 E. The added township and county is basically for convenience.
In the next article we get to talk about those exceptions I referred to above. We also will talk about things that may be more interesting to you than dry sections and range and town lines - we will talk about what all this range and town stuff can tell us about the history of Wisconsin and about the remnants of the town and range system that are all around us, but often go unnoticed.