j. matthew thomas
Metes and Bounds
Updated: Oct 15, 2019
Before The Public Land Survey System was established in the newly formed United States, the eastern colonies were mapped using a variety of methods deployed by the English. The primary one was ‘metes and bounds’, a system that uses physical features of the local geography to define and describe the boundaries of a parcel of land. With the Public Plan Survey you had lines drawn arbitrarily upon the landscape, absent of topography or human or natural features. With metes and bounds you describe the land in a running prose style, working around the parcel in sequence, from a point of beginning, returning to the same point. The perimeter then is dependent upon natural features, man-made monuments, trees or neighboring property lines. As you can imagine then, surveying was a subjective process open to interpretation by the person or persons producing the document as well as open discussion to the persons abiding by the document.
Metes. Refers to a boundary defined by the measurement of each straight run, specified by a distance between the terminal points, and an orientation or direction.
Bounds. Refers to a more general boundary description, such as along a certain watercourse, a stone wall, an adjoining public roadway, or an existing building.
"beginning with a corner at the intersection of two stone walls near an apple tree on the left side of Muddy Creek road one mile above the junction of Muddy and Indian Creeks, right for 150 rods to the end of the stone wall bordering the road, then 90 degrees along a line to a large standing rock on the corner of the property now or formerly belonging to John Smith…
In modern day deeds the direction is described not by a clockwise degree measure out of 360 degrees, but instead by a direction north or south followed by a degree measure out of 90 degrees and another direction west or east. It looks something like this:
“COM AT E 1/4 POST OF SEC, TH S 1 DEG 05′ E 112.42 FT IN E LINE OF SEC, TH S 66 DEG 08′ W 702.70 FT IN CENT OF HWY FOR PL OF BEG, TH S 14 DEG 06′ E 850.03 FT, TH S 66 DEG 09′ W 244.27 FT, TH N 22…
Metes and Bounds proved to be difficult to adhere to over time. The landscape itself evolved and changed over time. Trees died, creeks dried up, buildings were removed. The land was dependent upon tradition and long-term use. The landscape then was more integrated to what was present, real, and tangible. In many cases they were tied closely to community, history, even legend. Imagine a map based on storytelling. A landscape composed of descriptions.
Of Note: The eastern, or original states, continue to use the metes and bounds surveys of their founders. This system was imported to the original colonies that formed the United States. It is also used in some states that were previously part of one of the Thirteen Colonies, or where land was allocated before 1785. These include West Virginia, Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee and Vermont. Because Texas was an independent republic prior to statehood, its land system is primarily metes and bounds.
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