Whether you are trying to trace where your ancestors lived or the history of the property where you are currently living, sooner or later you are likely to run into a bunch of whole numbers, fractions and single letters something like this: S ½ of the NE ¼ of Section 9, T 29 N, R 20 E. With two basic concepts and a little practice, you could tell that that piece of land is 80 acres just North of Lena in Lena Township, Oconto County, with a little frontage on the Little River. The following two brief articles will try to get you there.
I am no surveyor or expert on this stuff. These are just a few things I have picked up in connection with my work and because I am a map freak. (If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a good map is worth 1,000,000.) If you would like to add anything or correct anything you see below, feel free to do so. I'm sure there will be some shortcomings, but hopefully no major mistakes.
Before going further, it would be helpful if you had a map for illustrative purposes. Due to the name of this web site, I will use an Oconto County road map. Hopefully, you can get one easily. If not, you'll just need to use a little imagination and adapt what I say to whatever county map you have available.
The first concept to grasp is the "section," the basic building block of property description. A section is a square piece of land that is 1mile long on each side. A section (or a square mile) is also 640 acres of land. A section is kind of like an atom or molecule. You can split it up into pieces, but every larger piece of territory (townships, counties, and states) is made up of sections. This article deals with splitting up sections. The next one deals with combining them.
The way you split up a section, for land description purposes is by splitting it into smaller and smaller rectangles (preferably squares). The rectangles are made with points of the compass. You can split a section into 4 quarter sections like this:
You then have a piece on the Northeast corner of the section (the "NE ¼"), a NW ¼, a SE ¼, and a SW ¼. The lines around the section are the section lines, and the lines that divide a section in quarters are quarter section lines. Each quarter section is ½ mile by ½ mile (or ¼ of a square mile, or 160 acres. If you take the NE ¼ and split it in half, you would have the N ½ of the NE 1/4 and the S ½ of the NE ¼. (Or if you halved it the other way, you would have the E ½ and the W ½ of the NE ¼.) Either way, half of a quarter section is 80 acres. If you spilt a quarter section into quarters (e.g. the NE ¼ of the NE ¼) each piece would be ¼ mile by ¼ mile, or 40 acres. Even those of us who haven't lived on a farm have heard references to "the lower 40" or "the back 40". Those references are to a 40 acre piece of land. In fact, if you look at the size of farms and larger pieces of land, they often come in multiples of 40 acres.
If you want to split things up even further, you just keep dividing the piece smaller by adding more and more ¼ or ½ designations. For example, you could have the S ½ of the SW ¼ of the NE ¼ of the NW ¼ of a given section. If you want to try to decipher such a description, just get a picture of the section in front of you and start from the right end of the description. Using the example I gave a few lines ago, you find the NW ¼ of the section (see Figure 2, below). Then you take the N/E ¼ of that (see below), and then the SW ¼ of that (see below), and, finally, the S ½ of that. And you end up with the 5 acre piece shown below. (As you may have noticed, if you ever have a ½ in the chain, it is for the last division. Once you take ½ of something, you no longer have a square, and you really can't split it into quarters anymore.) And once you get into pieces of land smaller than 10 or so acres, you often get into other forms of land division like plats, and government lots, and defining land by meters, rods, links, chains and bounds or other variations beyond the knowledge of this author. (Which means you will have to find out about them somewhere else, unless one of you is willing to write up an article on them and e:mail it here for posting.)
Now, for those of you who have your Oconto County maps (or almost any county map will do), let's lake a look. You can look in virtually part of the map (for now, please stay away from Chase Township, where the squares get somewhat distorted), and you'll find lots of squares. Those are sections, and the lines are section lines. If you look a little longer, you will notice that an awful lot of the roads that are major enough to be on the map either follow the section lines, or go straight through the middle of a section. (The ones through the middle of the sections are following the quarter section lines.) Not really being an expert, I have to guess how the roads came to be on the section and quarter section lines. But if the section lines were major property division lines, having the roads follow the section and quarter section lines would be a good way of giving as many property owners as possible direct access to the roads without splitting up more peoples' farms than necessary. (If anyone has a more definite answer, please e:mail it to this site.)
So now you know the basics of the building block of land description, the simple, under-appreciated section. In the next installment (which I have not written yet) we will see some of the wonderful and elaborate things you can build from sections (like townships, counties and even States!). We will also uncover the hidden mysteries of how to find one specific section out of the hundreds and hundreds of sections that make up the great state of Wisconsin!