Understanding Legal Descriptions

York County, Nebraska
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 Legal Descriptions; Understanding Land Descriptions

Most people are confused by legal land descriptions until they've worked with them for a while, so don't feel alone. The examples shown on this page are specific to York County, Nebraska. However, the section titled "Understanding Nebraska Land Descriptions" at the end of the article will allow you to take the information shown here and locate any point within Nebraska.

We will start with simple legal descriptions.

The most common requests we get for help come from people with a township name, or those that have found ancestors in a census report and want to know how to take the "numeric" description at the top of the page and convert it to a map location. If that is all the information you have, the following map will help you identify where the location is within York County.

Keep in mind that these coordinates, and the township names, are only applicable to York County. The coordinates on this map are abbreviated, like you would find on a census report. In York County, the township designations will always 9, 10, 11, or 12 north; the range designations will always be 1, 2, 3, or 4 west. Most legal descriptions will include the terms township and range, or an abbreviation for them (Twp or T; Rng or R).







New York









West Blue

A full legal description consists of four segments: the tract description, the section number, a township number and direction, and a range number and direction. Here is a very simple land description, broken down into those four parts.

Description: SW1/4 17-T09N-R01W

Section (one square mile)
9N (or 9 North)
01W (or 1 West)

Can you find the location of the township and range coordinates (Township 9 North; Range 1West) in the map shown above? It is in the West Blue Township, located in the extreme southeast corner of York County.

Let's use a more complex land description now, and work our way through it. Here are three examples of land descriptions you might see they are written three different ways, but they are all for the same property.

  • A complete description might read: The west 1/2 of the northwest quarter, of Section 29, in Township 11 north of the baseline, and Range 3 west of the 6th Principal Meridian.
  • A modified description may use abbreviations, fractions and little or no text : W1/2 NW1/4, S29, T11N-R3W
  • A minimal desciption is just that, and generally only seen in local documents or situations (it's assumed you will know the missing parts): W2 NW4 29-11-3

If we were to divide that legal description into the four parts, it would look like this.

W1/2 NW1/4
11N (or 11 North)
03W (or 3 West)

The key to locating a property is to read the legal description backwards. For rural locations you will start by locating the township/range coordinate, then the section, and finally the tract you begin with the largest body of land, and keep narrowing it down to the smallest. That concept works with legal descriptions in towns and villages too. You would start with the largest segment (the town), then find the sub-division, then the block number, and finally the lot number.

Step 1. Start at the end of the legal description, and find the township/range coordinates. This will narrow our location down to thirty-six square miles. In this example we want to find where township 11 north, and range 3 west is located (highlighted in yellow, below). While you have a map to use for York County, I encourage you to read the explanations about townships and ranges at the end of this article. If you understand them, you will be able to locate land anywhere within Nebraska.

Step 2. Still reading the legal description backwards, our next step is to locate section 29. Sections are always numbered as shown below. Once we have located section 29 (highlighted in orange), we have narrowed the property down to within a specific square mile area.

Step 3. Now we are reading to work on the tract description. Since this tract description has two parts, once again we will work backwards. The tract description reads the "west 1/2 of the northwest 1/4 " so within that one mile area we first need to locate the northwest quarter, and then the west 1/2 of that quarter. The entire red area is the northwest quarter. The area with an "X" is the west 1/2 of that quarter. You have now identified the exact location of that land description.

A section, or square mile, is about 640 acres. It may vary slightly since the surveyors have had to make adjustments due to the curavture of the Earth. A quarter section is approximately 160 acres. In this example, since the tract is defined as the west 1/2 of the 1/4 northwest section, this property would be approximately 80 acres.

Understanding Nebraska Land Descriptions

Now that you understand how to find a location within York County, you can easily learn how to find a location anywhere within Nebraska. The only thing you still need to learn is how to township and range coordinates are determined. The basic things you need to know, when locating properties in Nebraska, are:

  • each township is six miles wide
  • each range is six miles wide
  • all townships are determined from the 44th parallel (the Nebraska/Kansas border); ranges will end with north or south, telling you if they are north or south of that line
  • all ranges are determined from the 6th Principal Meridian; ranges will end with east or west, telling you if they are located east or west of the meridian line

Legal descriptions that include "township 1 north" would mean that property is within the first six miles of the Nebraska/Kansas border; "township 2 north" would mean the property is within 7-12 miles of the Nebraska/Kansas border, etc.

Many maps will show where the 6th Principal Meridian is. If your map doesn't show the location, find the York/Seward County line and use that as your guide (that boundary is on the merdian). All range descriptions should state if the range is east or west of this line. This is very important, as you can have the same legal description on each side of that line. For example: township 9N-range 1W would be in York County, but township 9N-range 1E would be in Seward County.

There is a difference between township/range coordinates and township names, and this is important to remember when working with legal descriptions. In York County each township (named township) happens to match a specific township/range coordinate each named township is exactly the same as one township/range coordinate. This will not be true for all counties.

The township/range coordinates will be consistent throughout Nebraska, however, named townships can vary substantially in size. You may find named townships that include multiple township/range coordinates; or you may find multiple named townships, each with land in a single township/range coordinate. Likewise, a single township/range coordinate could be shared by more than one county, depending on where the county lines were drawn.


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