The metes and bounds land survey system relies on several different items to convey a property description:
- General Location - details on the property's location, possibly including the state, county, and township; nearby waterways; and acreage.
- Survey Lines - describes the boundaries of the property using direction and distance.
- Boundary Descriptions - details on natural features found along the property boundaries, such as creeks and trees.
- Neighbors - names of neighboring property owners whose land shares a line or adjoins at a corner.
How the Land Was Surveyed
Surveyors in early America used only a few simple tools to measure direction, distance, and acreage of a parcel of land.
Distance was usually measured with an instrument called a Gunter's chain, measuring four poles (sixty-six feet) in length and consisting of 100 linked pieces of iron or steel. Indicators hung at certain points to mark important subdivisions. Most metes and bounds land descriptions describe distance in terms of these chains, or in measurements of poles, rods, or perches - interchangeable units of measurement equaling 16 1/2 feet, or 25 links on a Gunter's chain.
A number of different instruments were used to determine the direction of survey lines, the most common being the magnetic compass. Since compasses point to magnetic north, rather than true north, surveyors may have corrected their surveys by a particular declination value. This value is important when trying to fit an old plot on a modern map, as the location of magnetic north is constantly drifting. There are two primary types of systems used by surveyors to describe direction:
- Compass Degrees - the standard system used in most locations, compass degree headings specify a compass point (North, South, East or West), followed by a number of degrees, and then another compass point.
Example: N42W, or 42 degrees west of north
- Compass Points - Found in some early colonial land descriptions, compass points, or compass card directions, refer to the 32-point compass card. This system of describing direction was, by its very nature, imprecise and, luckily, was also rarely used.
Example: WNW 1/4 N, or the compass point midway between west and northwest by one quarter point north
Acreage was usually determined with the aid of tables and charts and, due to meanders and strangely shaped, non-rectangular parcels of land, could often be fairly inaccurate.
When a boundary ran along a creek, stream, or river, the survey often described this with the word meander. This usually meant that the surveyor did not attempt to pinpoint all of the changes in directions of the creek, instead noting that the property line followed the meanders of the waterway. A meander can also be used to describe any line noted in a survey which does not provide both direction and distance - even if there is not any water involved.
Deciphering the Lingo
I still remember the first time that I saw a metes and bounds land description in a deed - it looked like a lot of confusing gibberish. Once you learn the lingo, however, you'll find that metes and bounds surveys make a lot more sense than they appear to at first glance.
...330 acres of land lying in Boufort County and on the East side of Coneto Creek. Beginning at a white oak in Michael King's line: then by sd [said] line S[outh] 30 d[egrees] E[ast] 50po[les] to a pine then E 320 poles to a pine then N 220 poles to a pine then by Crisp's line west 80 poles to a pine then down the creek to the first station....
Once you look closer at the land description, you'll notice that it follows a fairly basic pattern of alternating "calls," consisting of corners and lines.
- Corners use physical or geographical markers (e.g. white pine) or the name of an adjoining land owner (e.g. Michael King) to describe an exact location on the parcel of land.
- Lines are then used to describe the distance and direction to the next corner (e.g. South 30 degrees East 50 poles), and may also be described using physical markers such as a stream (e.g. down the creek), or the names of adjoining property owners.
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