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What is Cadastral Survey?

The term Cadastral Survey is held to be those boundary surveys performed under the authority of Title 43 U.S.C. Cadastral surveys in general create, re-establish, mark, and define boundaries of tracts of land. The BLM is required to perform Cadastral Surveys on all Federal interest and Indian lands and all private land-claims. Such surveys cannot be ignored, repudiated, altered, or corrected, and the boundaries created or re-established cannot be changed so long as they control rights vested in the lands affected. The official record of a cadastral survey ordinarily consists of a "plat" and a written description of the field work, "field notes". The plat represents the lines surveyed, showing the direction and length of each line; the boundaries, descriptions and area of the parcel of land; and, as far as practicable, a delineation of the culture and improvements within the limits of the survey.

To this universal definition we add pertinent citations from the laws, leading (and often landmark) court decisions, and decisions of the Secretary of the Interior. All of these references are based upon the intent of the Ordinance of May 20, 1785, which established our rectangular survey system; several following amendatory statutes; and the regulations which were subsequently prepared as required by the laws.

For emphasis, we have underlined certain phrases in the following quotations: 

1. A United States surveyor's survey or map is inadmissible evidence to establish boundaries, without proof of the orders or authority under which he acted. The mere fact that the survey was made by the United States Surveyor is no proof that it was a public survey authorized by law. 43 U.S.C.A., sec 751, note 23; (Rose v. Davis, 1858, 11 Cal. 133). 

2. A survey of public lands does not ascertain boundaries, but creates them. 43 U.S.C. Annotated, sec. 751, note 5; Cox v. Hart, (Cal. 1922), 43 S. Ct. 154, 260 U.S. 427, 67 L. Ed. 332. See also, Vaught v. McClymond, 1945, 155 P. 2d 612, 116 Mont. 542; State v. Aucoin, 1944, 20 So. 2d 136, 106 La. 786. 

3. The running of lines in the field and the laying out and platting of townships, sections, and legal subdivisions, are not alone sufficient to constitute a survey, and until all conditions as to filing in the proper land office, and all requirements as to approval have been complied with, the lands are to be regarded as unsurveyed, and not subject to disposal as surveyed lands. 43 U.S.C.A., sec 751, note 6; Cox v. Hart, (Cal. 1922), 43 S. Ct.154, 260 U.S. 427, 67 L. Ed. 322, supra. 

4. When lands are granted according to an official plat of survey, the plat with all its notes, lines, descriptions and landmarks, becomes a part of grant or deed by which they are conveyed, and controls so far as limits are concerned, as if such descriptive features were written out on the deed or grant. 43 U.S.C.A., sec. 751, note 53; Vaught v. McClymond, 1945, 155 P. 2d 612, 116 Mont. 542, supra. 

5. The field and descriptive notes of a survey form a part of the survey, and are to be considered along with the plat. 43 U.S.C.A., sec. 751, note 58; Heath v. Wallace, Cal. 1891 11 S. Ct. 380, 138 U.S. 573, 34 L. Ed. 1063. 

6. The field notes of the survey of public lands are competent evidence and have the force of a deposition. U.S.C.A., sec 751, note 58; Kirby v. Lewis, C.C. Ark. 1889, 39 F. 66. See also, U.S. v. Breward, Fla. 1842, 38 U.S. 143, 16 Pet. 143, 10 l. Ed. 916; U.S. v. Low, Fla. 1842, 38 U.S. 143, 16 Pet. 160, 10 L. Ed. 923; U.S. v. Hanson, Fla. 1842, 38 U.S. 143, 16 Pet. 196, 10 L. Ed. 935. 

There are three basic elements to any cadastral survey:

I. The initiating documents, which include:  

A.  A "request" with proper justification which is the basis for determining the validity of the survey and whether or not the survey is authorized by Law. Therefore, it should be written and a matter of record since it initiates a chain of official action. (See DI Form 9600-4

B. The "Special Instructions" are prepared citing the pertinent authority, the appropriation of funding, the nature of the work to be performed, and specific instructions peculiar to that job which may not be covered in the Manual of Surveying Instructions. These instructions are considered legal documents. 

C. The "Assignment Instructions" are also important in that they authorize the responsible employee(s) to execute the work cited in the Special Instructions. 

These initiating documents are very important - often they are the most critically important part of a survey, many years after the survey has been officially accepted and approved. 

II. The actual survey in the field and the preparation of the official records of the field work. Field work may require years to complete depending on the size of the project and annual appropriations.

III. The official approval process, including filing and publication.

Protest or appeal of cadastral survey is a formal process, allowing objections to be raised by any person to any action proposed to be taken in any proceeding before the Bureau. (43 CFR 4-450-2)

It should be quite obvious that a cadastral survey is much more than the mere measurement of distances and angles between monuments in the field. The role of the modern Cadastral Surveyor requires considerable technical and legal knowledge (Federal and State) in order to determine the extent and nature of private rights adjoining public or Indian lands. The results of these surveys are legal documents and monuments which can only be obtained by a series of events possessing all of the above elements in their proper proportions, and in their proper order.

Last updated: 06-28-2012