The word " town " has a variety of meanings. It is commonly loosely used to designate merely a settlement or a community. In New England, however, it is the primary administrative division. It is there very irregular in shape and size, following the lines of contour and of early settlement. In New England, outside of Rhode Island, a township unit was essentially an ecclesiastical unit. In Rhode Island, the township government was separated from church control. In the South, the county came to be the primary political unit in most cases, and there is no highly developed township system.

The New England type of town spread westward to New York, although the full town-meeting form of government did not follow; the townships remained irregular and followed no system of territorial division. When the new public domains began to be surveyed by the federal government, a regular system of townships, or territorial divisions, was laid out. These townships are right-angled, being six miles on a side and containing 36 square miles. They are determined and also divided by the intersection of meridians or range-lines running north and south, and by parallels or town-lines running east and west. The township is subdivided into 36 square miles, each of these square miles being known as a section " and containing 640 acres. The sections are numbered consecutively from 1 to 36, beginning at the northeast corner of the township and running directly across to the northwest corner, then back again to the east and back to the west, and so on back and forth until the 36th section stands at the southeast corner of the township, as shown in the diagram. In each township, section 16 is set aside for school purposes. The sections are themselves divided into quarter-sections, each containing 160 acres. These quarter-sections are again divided into fours, of 40 acres each; and these 40 acres are the smallest divisions recognized in government surveys.

The location of any piece of land is determined by the section number and by the half-section or quarter-section in which it is located. The township itself is located by its town-line and its range. That is to say, a township in any state might be number 10 south of the base-line that was established by the goverment, and range 9 west of some one of the principal meridians fixed by the government. A particular quarter-section in this township might be the southwest quarter of section number 27 in township 10 south and range 9 west of the sixth principal meridian.

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