Researching property history in Arizona

Phoenix renews: that’s built into the name. The city’s ashes, both figurative and sometimes literal, surround us. You don’t have to look far to see such traces. Clues abound: An empty lot has a barren sidewalk and foundation flanked by overgrown palm trees, suggesting a house.  Who lived in that house? Who built that house? What past lives has the vacant lot you pass by every day lived?

This is the first in a series of posts to inform interested researchers how to use electronic and physical resources to start answering those questions. Not everything is online, but the wealth of digital resources can help focus your research and prepare you for finding the sources behind them.

Multiple Arizona agencies, including state, county, and city interact with property records. Knowing each of them, what records they hold, and how to use them will benefit your research. For the purposes of this series, Phoenix and Maricopa County serve as examples due to ease of online access, but same basic principles apply statewide.


(By Map says Bureau of Land Management; caption at bottom says United States Geological Survey., Public Domain,

Before you get started researching, it is vital to know Arizona is a Public Land Survey State.

This system divides Arizona into a grid that subdivides into smaller grids. The large grids, called townships, each cover 36 square miles. Street atlases for Phoenix have one township per page. Townships are located using coordinates from an initial point—in Arizona’s case, the Gila and Salt River Meridian, located on Monument Hill, slightly east of the Phoenix International Raceway.

In this system, you can find any point of land north or south of that point in terms of “Township”. “Range” refers to how far east or west it is. If anyone remembers Cartesian coordinates from geometry class, Townships are the Y axis, Ranges are the X axis.

Central Phoenix, for example, is in Township One North, Range Three East (T1N R3E) from that meridian. For the curious, Arizona goes north 41 townships, south 34 townships. Ranges go east 31 townships and west 21 townships. Inside each township are 36 numbered sections, and those can subdivide into half and quarter sections. A street atlas will tell you township, range and section number.

Why are these terms important? Because most deeds in Arizona refer to this system. Nearly every arterial street in the Phoenix metropolitan area runs along these section lines. Guide books such as place name dictionaries, stage-coach encyclopedias and ghost town directories all make use of these coordinates, as well as land ownership maps. Township, range, and section number will give you the precise location of any square mile in the state, even if it’s a square mile in the middle of nowhere.

(This is Part 1 of a series written by Research Library team member Chris Seggerman. Read Part 2Read Part 3.   Read Part 4.)