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The French Signeural System
The French were also among the earliest European settlers in North America.
Their initial area of settlement occurred along the St. Lawrence River and into the
Great Lakes area in the early sixteenth century. Later they would explore and lay
claim to lands along the Mississippi River down to New Orleans. The French
Signeural system was similar to the Spanish system in that it involved the
granting of large tracts of land to a single individual who was then responsible for
encouraging European settlement. In both instances, there was an effort to
replicate the feudal system of nobles and peasants which had dominated Europe
for the previous thousand years. The French, however, were less successful than
the Spanish in doing this.
French Long Lots
Another name for the form of land division used by French is the "Long Lot"
system. The early French settlers were as much fur trappers as they were
agriculturalists. They placed great emphasis on water as a means of
transportation and communication. The Signeural would be divided into individual
lots for settlement base on the major waterways that passed through it. Land
division lines were drawn at right angles to the course of the water. Each plot of
land was between about 100 and 600 feet wide facing the river, and extended
back about one mile. The settler's house would be near the river end of the land.
This way the river could be used for easy access and communication. He would
then gradually work the land extending back from the house. In areas of dense
settlement, a road would be built at the back of the first row of properties, and a
second series of longlots would then be extended for a mile back from the road.
French Long Lot agricultural fields in Louisiana
Advantages and Disadvantages of French Long Lots
The French long lot system was easy to survey and gave each individual settler
an equal share of both the best and worst lands located in an area. This system,
however, also has its problems. As long as a river is straight, right angle lines will
remain parallel to one another even a mile away from the waters edge. When a
river bends, as the Mississippi River frequently does, properties take the form of
either thin triangles (inside the bend) or broad fans (on the outside of the bend).
Furthermore, when a river floods and changes its course, some properties may
completely lose access, while others become bisected by the new river channel.
This is a common land division problem today in Louisiana.
Spanish, French and English approaches to Land Division (each black square is a home)
The English Metes and Bounds System
English settlement of North America began in the early seventeenth century,
some time after the arrival of the Spanish and French. They brought with them a
form of land division which had gained wide use in the British Isles. Their form of
land division is known as the "metes and bounds" system. Metes and bounds
means "measurements and boundaries." A typical metes and bounds land deed
would define the property boundaries as:
Beginning with the Large White Oak 13 poles above the Sinking Spring, or Rock
Spring, Running thence North 9 1/2 degrees East, 310 poles to a stake in John
Taylor's field, thence South 89 1/2 degrees East, 310 poles to two Blackjacks,
then North 89 1/2 degrees East, 155 poles to the beginning.
This example is from the property deed for land on which Abraham Lincoln was
born on February 12, 1809 in Kentucky. The boundaries of the property are
irregular and based on natural features in the landscape. Most of the eastern
portion of the US from the Appalachian plateaus to the coast was divided using
this land survey system. Streets patterns and county lines throughout much of
the Atlantic Coast reflect the irregularity of the metes and bounds system. The
systems of land division was used in only rare circumstances in the Midwest and
west of the Mississippi River.
Problems with the Metes and Bounds System
A major problem with this system is that trees, rivers, field stakes, and other
markers are impermanent, thereby making later verification of boundary lines a
problem. Similar problems occurred with poorly written Spanish land grants in the
West. The resolution of land division disputes, caused by informal early land
division systems, still often requires courtroom adjudication.
The Spanish Land Grants
The Spanish "Land Grant" system in Mexico involved the granting of extremely large
(thousands of acres) tracts of land to single individuals who were then responsible for
organizing the native population and encouraging Spanish settlement of the land. In New
Spain (Mexico) this was known as the "encomienda" system. Throughout Latin America,
this system has resulted in a very small group of individuals owning most of the more
productive land, while large numbers of peasants are landless. The second Mexican
revolution (1911) instituted a major land redistribution program, creating communal
peasant "ejidos" out of former land grants. Other Middle American countries, however,
have been less successful in redistributing large Spanish land-grant lands.
The Hacienda System
By the time the Spanish reached the Southwestern United States, the older encomienda
system had been replaced by the "hacienda" system. The process was essentially the
same under the new system, but size of the land grants were made smaller (a few
hundred acres), because land was becoming less available. Within the hacienda, a
village would be established, usually located where an adequate water source was
available. The village would be set up based on the Spanish "Law of the Seas"
guidelines established by King Philip II of Spain in the late 16th century. These
guidelines called for a communal square at the center of the town, with the Catholic
Church facing it. A grid street pattern surrounded the square and church. Residents lived
within the village and would work the surrounding lands. This street pattern can still be
seen in many of the villages of New Mexico and in the border areas of California,
Arizona, and Texas.
Modern Impacts of Spanish Land Grants
The large hacienda land grants can be found in California and New Mexico, where they
form political boundaries and have enabled the development of large residential
subdivisions in the twentieth century. It is much easier and cheaper to purchase a single
large tract of land, such as a former hacienda, to build a subdivision than it is to
purchase numerous small parcels and combine them together. The use of haciendas in
this way has been particularly important in the Los Angeles basin area.
The Jeffersonian Ethic and the US Public Land Survey (USPLS)
Part of the requirement for a state to join the newly formed United States of
America was to transfer all non-private land holding to the federal government.
(Texas was the only state that did not do this when it joined the Union.) Thomas
Jefferson chaired a commission responsible for the redistribution and settlement
of Federal lands. Jefferson held distinct ideas regarding land and society. He
believed that the ideal society was one of self-supporting farm families. This is
known as the "Jeffersonian Ethic," and was a widely held attitude in the early
colonies. In order to create such a society, he established the US Public Land
Survey system (USPLS) in 1787. (USPLS is sometimes referred to as the Public
Land Survey System, PLSS)
USPLS Townships and Sections
The USPLS required that all Federal lands be surveyed before they can be sold
and settled. Survey lines must be in a north-south and east-west directions. A
series of base points were established across the US from which survey lines
were measured. This system is also known as the "township and range" survey
system. A "township" line was located every six miles north and south from the
base point, while a "range" line occurs every six miles east and west of the base
point. Each six mile by six mile "township" square is further divided into 36 one
mile by one mile "section" squares. (Townships were based on the early English
townships, which were six mile by six mile areas controlled by a single
USPLS diagram
The largest grouping is the township which is named in reference to a Principal Meridian
(P.M.) and a Baseline. T2N, R1E refers to Township 2 North (of the Baseline), Range 1
East (of the Principal Meridian).
Settlement Patterns of Central and Western US
The USPLS facilitated the settlement of the central and western US (an identical
system was used for surveying Western Canada.) The Homestead Act of 1862
allowed any head of a household who was 21 years old or older to have a
quarter-section of land at a nominal fee (essentially for free), if it was settled and
worked for 5 years. The USPLS only applied to unsettled lands and had little
impact on the eastern states. The USPLS grid system is interrupted in areas
where earlier, preexisting land division systems were present, such as in
California and Louisiana. In addition, surveying errors in some locations have
resulted in township and section lines that do not align with the cardinal