Tag Archives: land descriptions

Maps: Visualizing Your Ancestors – Metes and Bounds Land Descriptions

As described in the last post, there are two main survey methods in the United States. This post will discuss briefly the system of “metes and bounds.” There is a lot to know about this system and one blog post isn’t going to cover everything. In fact, they offer week-long institute courses on this subject (See SLIG 2023 course line-up.)

The metes and bounds system is a centuries-old system that was used in England and brought over with the early colonists. The land descriptions are in a “narrative” style that begin with a particular point and work their way around the land parcel being described. The describe physical points and markers such as trees, rocks, rivers and creeks, and often they will mention neighboring land lines. These types of descriptions heavily depend on physical characteristics of the land and because of that, the land description can change over time or be difficult to re-survey because those markers are no longer there. Trees die or blow down in storms, rocks get moved, rivers and creeks change their shape during floods, and so on.

The land description is a series of calls that give a point of reference, a direction, and a distance. The description uses “metes” and “bounds”:

  • metes – angles of the property, and in what direction (45 degrees southwest)
  • bounds – boundary lines of the property, length (60 chains, along John Smith’s line)
Metes and bounds land description, drawn by author’s spouse.

A metes and bounds description will read like “Beginning at the great white oak, 45 degrees southwest, 30 chains to the felled maple; 76 degrees southwest, 60 chains along John Smith’s line to the marked oak; 5 degrees southwest 16 chains, to the big rock…” You will get odd shaped land parcels. These unique shapes are very helpful if you are trying to reconstruct an area or neighborhood because they should fit together like a puzzle.

The cool thing about these land descriptions is that the naming of the neighbors giving you an instant “FAN Club” member (Friends, Associates, Neighbors). You also get a rough idea of what some of the land might have looked like. (I’ve seen a land descriptions out of Texas that used things like an old axle or a railroad ties as the markers, because the land was desolate and there weren’t any trees or rocks to use as starting points!)

Vocabulary you will see:

  • Acre – 43,560 square feet, 160 square rods
  • Arpent – Similar to acre, used in French sections of US (LA, MS, AL, MO, FL). One arpent is .84625 acres. In MO, it was .8507 acres, or 192.5 square feet.
  • Chain – 66 feet long, with 100 links; one mile is 80 chains
  • Degree – 1/360th of the distance around a circle; used to measure direction; 0 degrees is North or South and other directions given in terms of degrees from N or S
  • Link – 1/100th of a chain, 7.92 inches long; 25 links = 1 rod
  • Perch – same as a rod
  • Pole – same as a rod
  • Rod – 16½ feet; measured as ¼ of a chain or 25 links
  • Vara – Unit of measure used in sections of the US settled by Spain; varying lengths; Texas vara = 33.3333 inches or 36 varas = 100 feet (the Florida vara a little larger, the Southwest vara smaller)
Surveyor’s chain, 100 links = 66 feet; photo taken by author.

Conversions:

  • 1 mile = 80 chains = 320 poles, rods, perches = 5,280 feet
  • 1 chain = 4 poles, rods, perches = 66 feet = 100 links
  • 1 pole, rod, perch = 25 links = 16½ feet
  • 1 link = 7.92 inches

There are software packages that will draw the calls for you. I don’t do enough metes and bounds work in my research to use them. I use my trusty protractor, ruler, and graph paper to draw them when I need to.

Author’s metes and bounds drawing supplies.

There is a lot more to know about this survey system. More than I have time to cover in this blog post. If you have research in areas that used metes and bounds and want to understand your ancestors more, take a land-platting class.

We will talk about the rectangular system next time.

Maps: Visualizing Your Ancestors – Land Descriptions

When working with ancestral land records, there are a few things you need to know in order to attempt to find your ancestors’ land on a map. In the United States there are two types of land surveying systems. They are known as the “state land states” which use the “metes and bounds” system, and the “public land states” or the “federal land states” which use the “rectangular” survey system.

The states that fall into the state land state category are those states created from the original thirteen colonies and Hawaii and Texas. (As a side note, Texas has its own land survey system because Texas was a country of its own before joining the U.S., with their own survey system already in place. See the Texas General Land Office for more information.) Those states are:

  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Kentucky
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia
The states in red in the map above are State Land States, plus Texas and Hawaii.

The land obtained by individuals for the first time usually was given by the colony or state. Records for those first land grants are kept at the state level, usually at a state archive, though the locations will depend on the state. Again, the state land states were surveyed using the “metes and bounds” survey system.

The Federal land states or “public land states” was land obtained by the federal government after independence. This means the rest of the United States. Primarily the land west beyond the Appalachian Mountains. After the Revolutionary War, land claimed in this western portion by state land states were ceded to the federal government. Additionally, the United States obtained land through various means such as the Louisiana Purchase, the War with Mexico (1846-1848), and so forth.

The land in the public land states would then be granted to individuals by the federal government. Those records are held at the national level, and many are digitized and available at the Bureau of Land Management General Land Office website. The land in the public land states were surveyed using the “rectangular” survey system.

Map from Bureau of Land Management. This map shows the Principle Meridians and Baselines used in the rectangular survey system.

When looking at a land description, you can usually determine quite quickly if you’re reading a metes and bounds or a rectangular survey. We will discuss the metes and bounds system next and the rectangular system after that.