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Why are towns in Massachusetts odd shapes and square in other parts of the country?

The Original 13 Colonies used a system of measurement called metes and boundaries which relies on natural features such as streams to measure boundaries.  Congress, under the Articles of Confederation, passed the Land Ordinance and Northwest Ordinance which became the models for surveying and admittance of new states into the union.  The survey system divided townships into an area of six by six mile squares.  And square building blocks help make more regular shade districts.

 

A map of the United States showing the variation in district shapes across the country.
County boundaries across the United States

From the Library of Congress

Land Ordinance 1785

Journals of the Continental Congress: Western Territory

Northwest Ordinance of 1787

Journals of the Continental Congress: Northwest Ordinance

Land measurement systems

  • Metes and Bounds - A surveying system used for the original 13 colonies that describes the perimeter of a parcel of land in terms of its bearings and distances and its relationship to natural features and adjacent parcels.

13 Colonies

New Hampshire

Massachusetts - included Maine (statehood 1820)

Rhode Island

Connecticut

New York - included Vermont (statehood 1791)

New Jersey

Pennsylvania

Delaware

Maryland

Virginia - included Kentucky (statehood 1792) and West Virginia (statehood 1863)

North Carolina – included Tennessee (statehood 1796)

South Carolina

Georgia

  • Public Land Survey System (PLSS) – A surveying system used in the United States to identify public land parcels normally in a rectangular area.  A basic unit of this system is a township which contains 36 equal sections that are six miles square. The PLSS may also use meandering.  For example, the boundary meanders with a stream meaning the survey line follows the twists and turns of the stream.

A theoretical township diagram, showing the method of numbering sections with adjoining sections.

General Land Office Plan, 1796

 

State Survey Systems

State

Survey System

Alabama

PLSS

Alaska

PLSS

Arizona

PLSS

Arkansas

PLSS

California

Spanish Land Grants and PLSS

Colorado

PLSS

Connecticut

Metes and Bounds

Delaware

Metes and Bounds

Florida

PLSS

Georgia

Metes and Bounds

Hawaii

Kingdom of Hawaii system in place when annexed

Idaho

PLSS

Illinois

PLSS

Indiana

PLSS

Iowa

PLSS

Kansas

PLSS

Kentucky

Metes and Bounds

Louisiana

French and Spanish Boundaries and PLSS

Maine

Metes and Bounds

Maryland

Metes and Bounds

Massachusetts included Maine (statehood 1820)

Metes and Bounds

Michigan

PLSS

Minnesota

PLSS

Mississippi

PLSS

Missouri

PLSS

Montana

PLSS

Nebraska

PLSS

Nevada

PLSS

New Hampshire

Metes and Bounds

New Jersey

Metes and Bounds

New Mexico

Spanish Land Grants and PLSS

New York included Vermont (statehood 1791)

Metes and Bounds

North Carolina included Tennessee (statehood 1796)

Metes and Bounds

North Dakota

PLSS

Ohio

PLSS and Metes and Bounds

Oklahoma

PLSS

Oregon

PLSS

Pennsylvania

Metes and Bounds

Rhode Island

Metes and Bounds

South Carolina

Metes and Bounds

South Dakota

PLSS

Tennessee

PLSS

Texas

Spanish Land Grants and PLSS

Utah

PLSS

Vermont

Metes and Bounds

Virginia included Kentucky (statehood 1792) and West Virginia (statehood 1863)

Metes and Bounds

Washington

PLSS

West Virginia

Metes and Bounds

Wisconsin

PLSS

Wyoming

PLSS

Information on public lands can be found at the US Bureau of Land Management and the General Land Office Records

Bureau of Land Management

http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en.html

Manual

http://www.blmsurveymanual.org/index.html

General Land Office Records

http://www.glorecords.blm.gov/

From General Land Office Records FAQ

http://www.glorecords.blm.gov/reference/default.aspx#id=05_Appendices|02_FAQ

 

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