How Land In Arkansas Is Surveyed

A brief history

Arkansas officially became a sovereign State on June 15, 1836. However, land surveys under the USPLSS (U. S. Public Land Survey System) had begun in October of 1815 with a contract authorizing Prospect K. Robbins and Joseph C. Brown, as Deputy Surveyors, to survey the 5th Principal Meridian, and the Baseline, respectively. The Baseline was run West from the mouth of the St. Francis River, while the 5th P.M. was run North from the mouth of the Arkansas River. They were then extended East of the St. Francis all the way to the Mississippi River, and South to the Arkansas River. Today, the 5th Principal Meridian runs through the Walnut Ridge Regional Airport, and the Baseline runs along Baseline Road in Little Rock. Their intersection, at the Initial Point, was established on November 10, 1815, in the middle of a Cypress swamp. It is the present day common corner of Lee, Monroe, and Phillips Counties. All aliquot parcels in Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, North Dakota, and parts of South Dakota and Minnesota, are referenced to this point by Township and Range. This particular point defines more land area than any other Initial Point in the USPLSS. A State Park now exists at the site, and public access to the Initial Point is possible via an elevated wooden walkway. Arkansas property boundaries (with few exceptions) are still referenced to to this Initial Point today. Although subdivisions today may be fully defined by lot and block numbers, these definitions are ultimately tied to a point that is referenced to the USPLSS in some way.

The original surveyors used measuring equipment that is crude by today’s standards, but it was state of the art at the time. The compass was most likely a vernier compass with a 6 inch needle and with slotted sights spaced about 14 inches apart with which to sight along the needle. This apparatus would have been mounted on a Jacob’s Staff, not a tripod, and having leveled and oriented the compass the surveyor would stand behind the compass, squint through the sights, and direct a flagman to plant a flag on the line thus sighted. The distance would have been measured using a Gunter’s Chain 66 feet in length with 100 links. A link was therefore 0.66 feet, or 7.92 inches. Thus, 80 chains was one mile, and each standard Section was 80 chains “square”. We say “square” because of the error inherent in the methods and equipment used in these surveys. However, we are somewhat in awe of these early surveyors as our modern measurements demonstrate how accurate they were, in most cases, given the hostility of the terrain and the rudimentary nature of their equipment.

Today we mostly use GPS based equipment that is accurate to within a centimeter. Yet we still have to be cognizant of the methods and equipment employed by the original Deputy Surveyors and their crews. Contrary to popular belief we cannot simply plug in a set of coordinates and automatically go to one of the corners set by the original surveyors. While there is a Plane Coordinate system in place for Arkansas, as for all the U. S. States, it did not exist until the mid 20th century, and even since then it has not been practical to tie USPLSS corners into the system in most cases. As it becomes more practical to do so, increasing use of this system will make the practice more common. Therefore even though we have modern equipment that can theoretically locate these coordinates, it remains necessary in most cases to retrace the work done by previous surveyors by locating and measuring from evidence on the ground locally.

The images in the table below illustrate the City of Paragould as it exists now via Google Earth, and as it appeared on the USPLSS official plats that were done before Paragould existed.
Google Image

Google Earth Image of Paragould, Section 36, Township 17 North, Range 5 East.

GLO Plat

1840s GLO Plat of Township 17 North, Range 5 East. Section 36 is in the lower right corner.

Google Image

Google Earth image of Paragould, Section 31, Township 17 North, Range 6 East.

GLO Plat

1845 GLO plat of Township 17 North, Range 6 East. Section 31 is in the lower left corner.