How to Read a Land Parcel Map With Compass Heading

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Early American land records were characterized by descriptions that often sounded like this 1812 excerpt from Connecticut: "... just 18 rods and about one half a rod or more from the stump of the big hemlock tree where Philo Blake killed the bear..." Today's U.S. Public Land Survey System is a grid system that is much more accurate. However, many land parcels in America also were surveyed using a Metes and Bounds system that describes land boundaries using landmarks and compass readings. To read a land parcel map that was surveyed using this system, you need to understand how to read the compass headings.

1 Metes and Bounds Surveying System

2 Read the map

Read the map with an understanding of how it was surveyed. The Metes and Bounds system surveyed a land parcel by describing it from one point to another, referencing landmarks, until it described the complete boundary of the land. The San Francisco Estuary Institute provides a sample legal description under this system: "Commencing from a point one-half mile upstream from Smith Bridge on Jones Creek, proceed northeast 500 feet to Spring Hill, then northwest to the large oak tree, then southwest to the large rock in the middle of Jones Creek, then along Jones Creek to the origin." Eventually, these descriptions were updated, replacing landmarks with compass directions.

3 Determine whether the map

Determine whether the map uses the Compass Degree system or the Compass Point system. The Compass Degree system, which was used for most Metes and Bounds surveys, gives a specific compass point (north, east, south or west), a number of degrees and then another compass point. This is the most widely used Metes and Bounds system. The Compass Degree system simply divides the compass into 32 directional points, without specifying numeric degrees.

4 Read the Compass Degree system

Read the Compass Degree system by starting with a specific point on the compass (north, east, south or west), and then reading the number of the degrees to the next point on the compass. An example heading might be N63E. This reads "North, 63 degrees East." Surveyors can mark the Compass Degree system as precisely as they want.

5 Read Compass Point headings

Read Compass Point headings with an understanding that each represents one of 32 directional points on the compass. The letter "x" represents the word "by." For example, between N (North) and NE (Northeast), there are three compass points: NxE, NNE, NExN. In some areas, the "x" represents 1/4 point; in others, it represents 1/2 point. So NxE could translate to "North and one quarter point East" or "North and one half point East." NExN could translate to "Northeast by one quarter point North" or Northeast by one half point North."

6 U.S. Public Land Survey System

View your land parcel map in the context of "townships" and "forties." The U.S. Public Land Survey System is a grid that divides land into 24-mile tracts that are subdivided into 16 townships of roughly 6 miles by 6 miles, or 36 square miles. Each township is divided into 36 one-square-mile sections. Each section is then divided into 16 forty-acre plots, referred to as "forties."

Find the legal description of your land parcel map. It should look something like this example from Michigan State University Extension: T39N, R23W, Sec. 4, NW1/4 SE1/4.

Flip the legal description so it reads backwards, from right to left, from the smallest to the largest unit. Our example would read: NW1/4 SE1/4, Sec. 4, T39N, R23W.

Use the land parcel map to help you as you read the legal description of the parcel. This 40-acre parcel is in township T39N, R23W. Townships are plotted in reference to a state's north-south and east-west survey lines. T39N refers to township or tier 39 north, and R23W means range 23 west. The parcel is in section 4 of this township. Within this one-square mile section, this forty is one of four in the southeast quarter of the section. Of the four possible forties in the southeast corner, our parcel is the one in the northwest.

  • Once land is surveyed using a given system, the description remains with that parcel forever.

Carolyn Enright began working as a professional writer in corporate communications in 1992. Her work includes executive speeches, annual reports, newspaper and magazine articles, newsletters and online training modules. Enright holds a Master of Science in corporate public relations from Northwestern University and a Bachelor of Arts in American studies from the University of Notre Dame.