Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Metes and Bounds Primer for Genealogists

…on a south branch of White Oak on the south south side as follows. Beginning at a pine thence So67W 140 poles to a branch to three pines thence So7Et 120 poles to a post…to the beginning Containing 100 acres more or less.
From the White Oak Tree
We believe DeedMapper website best gives the advantages of platting your ancestors' land:

  • Find the location of a particular plot by anchoring a group of neighboring plots against a stream. We then overlay it using a current Google Maps , but that’s for another blog.
  • Discover genealogical relationships by showing that person X sold a part of person Y's land. Plus land platting results may give you kinship hints.
  • Untangle people having the same name by analyzing their landholdings and transfers.
  • Create a map of original landholders in a region. Or at least a map of your family in the region.
  • Trace changes in parcel ownership over the years.
Ancestors’ Land ?
There are two very different types of land surveys conducted in the United States: (1) “metes and bounds” and (2) “grid” or “rectangular” surveys. Metes and bounds surveys trace land boundaries based on physical features of the land, such as trees, boulders, roads, and fences. The original 13 colonies plus Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Texas, Tennessee, Vermont, West Virginia, and parts of Ohio make up the 20+ states that use the metes and bounds land descriptions.  

Let’s Do Math - Metes
I know this metes and bounds measurement “thing” seems random, but it really isn’t. It’s all based on a standardized length of chain determined in 1620 by Edmund Gunter. (No we cannot shun him).

Metes refer to distance (as in feet and inches); bounds describes the direction in degrees of a compass. And the total distance is described in terms of chains (Gunter Chain).  The Gunter’s chain measures 66 feet in length. So all of the units of measurements - poles, rods, or perches – are divisions of the chain.  One rods, pole or perch equals  16.5feet (or 25 links) on a 66 foot Gunter's chain.  Four of them add up to a full 66’ chain. (4x16.5ft= 66ft).

So Gunter figured fields were measured in acres, which is 1 chain (or 4 rods) by one furlong (group of 10 chains). I know what you are thinking…why can’t an acre just be 11 chains?  Well it is, but I’m guessing in the 1600’s categorizing groups of chains was really important – thus a furlong is a group of 10 chains. Either way, the metes and bounds measure boundary lengths in rods, poles and perches instead of feet or meters.

…And Bounds
As already mentioned, bounds describes the direction in degrees of a compass. Just remember very few places run due north, south, east or west, and very few plots were wonderful squares, so in the metes and bounds system, the directional degrees of boundaries are important. For this reason the degree (i.e. N33W) should be noted.

Where to Begin
You could draft your map with a protractor and ruler, but software like DeedMapper offers a platting tool.  Even if you are using a platting/mapping program, like DeedMapper, you must be familiar with the terms and the survey. I suggest you transcribe what you have before entering it in any software.

Here are a few more vocabulary tips:
Corners. Your survey will always begin at a corner. It may be a corner at the big Oak tree, but still a corner. The idea is you should make your various turns and movements and end back at “that” corner. Seems insignificant, but the big Oak tree was later the center of a lawsuit (became kindling for a few bad neighbors) and the court case proved to be a treasure trove of family information and names.

Shared Lines/Boundaries. This is a genealogical treasure. We already know cluster research gives us hints to family units. So we want to know whose land our ancestors bordered. Sometimes this leads us to children, parents, female maiden names, etc.

Meanders. My ancestors loved streams and rivers. I know that because their surveys all meander along the French Broad River, or another waterway.  The key is up or down stream. Surveys may also “meander on a road.” Note: always access an old map this will assist with not only identifying the land, but the meandering pattern.

Kathleen Brandt
Accurate, accessible answers


  1. I am always so impressed with the methodology of this. I hope to be able to apply it when I have more time.
    Great post.

  2. Wow. Wow. Someday I will be skillful enough to deal with surveys and deeds and land grants. And when I am, I will refer to your post, which is so concisely explained. Makes me wish I had a land document in front of me. It could happen! I'm copying the link to this post. We are all in debt to you.