This topic is more complicated than it sounds, so I’ll attempt to keep it high level.
Whether you’re doing present-day or historical research about a place, it’s important to know which levels of local government exist in the state you are researching (e.g. counties, cities, townships). Why should you care?
- It may determine which place houses the records you’re looking for
- The exact location often determines which local taxes are levied and which local laws are applicable
- It determines who has jurisdiction for a given location (e.g. police, sheriff, etc.)
In addition to providing some definitions, I’ll also point you to the Google Map tools on this website that map each level of local government.
What is Township and Range?
I’ll get this one out of the way first, as it’s often a source of confusion. “Township and range” is NOT a form of local government (not to be confused with “civil townships”, covered later). Instead, “township and range (and section)” is used to establish boundaries for land ownership in many states. “Township and range” may also be called a “survey township”, and is part of the Public Land Survey System (also called the Rectangular Survey System). Use the Section Township Range on Google Maps tool to explore “township and range.”
Shaded in redbelow are the states that use the “township and range” system (plus Alaska):
|Map of the U.S. states that use Township and Range|
What are counties?
OK, after that jumble of terms, let’s move on to the easiest form of local government below the state level: counties. According to Wikipedia, a county is “an administrative or political subdivision of a state that consists of a geographic region with specific boundaries and usually some level of governmental authority.” Counties exist in all 50 U.S. states (except it can’t be that simple: rather than counties, Louisiana has parishes and Alaska has boroughs).
Use the County Lines on Google Maps tool to see present-day counties or the Historical U.S. Counties on Google Maps tool to explore historical county boundaries for any historical date. Use the What County Am I In Right Now tool to find out what county you’re standing in.
Here is a map showing all countiesin the lower 48 states:
|Map of the U.S. showing county lines|
What are townships?
“Townships” (also called “civil townships“) are “a widely used unit of local government in the United States that is subordinate to a county. The term town is used in New England, New York, and Wisconsin to refer to the equivalent of the civil township in these states. Specific responsibilities and the degree of autonomy vary based on each state.” (Michigan uses “charter townships” instead.) “Civil townships” are not to be confused with “township and range,” explained above.
NEW: See civil townships with the Civil Townships on Google Maps tool. Several other tools on this website show “civil townships” by checking the “show townships” checkbox in the lower left of these map tools: City Limits on Google Maps, County Lines on Google Maps, ZIP Codes on Google Maps, and Elevation on Google Maps. Use the What Township Am I In tool to see what township you’re presently standing in. Be sure and read about the “Class Codes” described below the city limits map tool for exceptions to what is shown when you view “townships”.
Shaded in greenbelow are the states that have active “civil townships” (several other states, not shown here, have inactive townships, meaning they don’t serve a local government purpose):
|Map of the U.S. showing active civil townships|
What is a City and what are City Limits?
So as to not continue down a rabbit hole, this will be the last form of local government described.
Cities typically refer to “incorporated places“, which are “a type of governmental unit incorporated under state law as a city, town (except the New England states, New York, and Wisconsin), borough (except in Alaska and New York), or village, and having legally prescribed limits, powers, and functions. Requirements for incorporation vary widely among the states.”
“City limits” refers to the defined boundary or border of a city. When a city adds new land into the city limits, that is referred to as annexation. Further quoting from Wikipedia, “property within a city limit is subject to city taxation and city regulation, and expects city services. Areas outside any city’s limit are considered to be unincorporated, and in most U.S. states they are by default regulated and taxed by the county. In others, areas outside a city’s limit fall within another type of local government, such as the civil township.”
The main tool to see city limits is City Limits on Google Maps, although several other tools have a checkbox in the lower left to show “city limits”. To check if you’re currently standing in the city limits, use the Am I In City Limits tool.
Shaded in bluebelow is a map of all “city limits” (aka “incorporated places” discussed here):
|Map of the U.S. showing city limits of incorporated places|
Despite this article being over 800 words long, I’ve attempted to keep my promise of keeping this high level :) But it can be a complicated topic: For instance, as you can see from the above maps, there are many states that have both “township and range” and “civil townships”, while there are other states that have neither.
There are hundreds if not thousands of details and exceptions to the above definitions, and they vary from state to state. At a minimum, hopefully this article helps explain which map tools to use on this website to view the various levels of local government (plus township and range).
Feel free to point out important exceptions to the above definitions in the comments section below.