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Knowing by Metes and Bounds

By Daniel Hubbard | July 26, 2010

Land records can be a great place to find evidence of relationships between people but I am going to write about a part of land records that normally makes the eyes glaze over. In many places, such as the eastern U.S., land holdings were not specified by the convenient lines derived from latitude and longitude with which many people are familiar. Instead the much older system called “Metes and Bounds” was used. “Metes” are sections of the property boundary given by a point,  a direction, usually a distance and a point at the other end. “Bounds” are existing lines and curves such as walls and streams. This is the part of a land record that has such a strong effect upon the eyes. Try saying “I love metes and bounds!” in a group of genealogists and you might as well have just sworn in church—at the top of your lungs—while throwing off your clothes.

A Run-in with Metes and Bounds

I suspect lots of people, often already engaged in a life and death struggle with terrible handwriting, decipher the beginning of the land record where the identities of the grantor (seller) and grantee (buyer) are defined then continue until they realize that the metes and bounds are beginning. Suddenly the eyes glaze, the room spins, comprehension fades, and the will to go on trickles away. Dazed, they skip to the end and check who the witnesses were in a desperate attempt to retain consciousness. Of course there are reasons why your genealogist friends might recommend a good therapist if you admit to loving metes and bounds. Here is a made-up example of how a metes and bounds description might begin-

Beginning at the west end of the old stone wall just north of where the bridge crosses Mill Creek. Proceed N 17 degrees E 67 rods to a pair of white oaks. From there follow a line N 74 degrees E 103 rods to a stand of pine saplings and from there follow the line of Jonathan Browning’s land S 15 degrees W 87 rods to where it reaches Mill Creek. Next follow Mill Creek upstream to a large stone commonly known as Watkins Rock, thence…

There is, admittedly, a lot not to love here. When the handwriting is bad, this is not always easy information to figure out from context. There is no obvious specification of where the land is. (Earlier in the record there should have been a statement of the jurisdiction in which the land is found but that isn’t even part of the metes and bounds.) There is no clear way to convert any part of this description to a point of latitude and longitude. “Rods” as units of distance will cause some head scratching (a rod is, of course, 1/40th of a furlong, 1/4th of a chain, 5.5 yards or 16 feet 6 inches). The trees will have died of old age. The stone might still be in place but is it still known as Watkins Rock? Has the stream shifted? Has another name taken over from “Mill Creek?” Where were the bridge and the wall? There are certainly more problems that one could worry about but that should suffice. You don’t get a guaranteed easy time extracting a location.

On Second Thought…

Let’s think about what you do get. Things that you would not get from a more mathematically precise description. There was a bridge, which implies that there was a road running through the area and that the stream was deep enough or that the area was developed enough that everyone simply fording the stream was not a god idea. The land was host to both white oaks and pines (and perhaps a full metes and bounds description would have told you even more about the trees growing there or even the crops being raised.) You know that the land had access to a stream that drove a mill and the mill was close enough to provide the local name for the stream. Having grown up in a part of the Midwest where the only stones to be seen are ones bought at a garden supply store, even the fact that there was a large rock in the area is interesting to me. It just might indicate that the soil was rocky and certainly adds to your mental picture of the place.

You may get some people as well. In this case, you have the name of a neighbor, Jonathan Browning, and the names of neighbors can come in handy. He may have been a relative or he may show up elsewhere later and help you track down your ancestor in that new place. You may not know why Watkins Rock was given that name but someone named Watkins was certainly associated with that place and even if that means nothing to you now, it may come to be important. Or, perhaps you’ve gotten a few vague clues already that the name Watkins is to be found a little further back in this part of your pedigree.

In short you get a description of what the locale was like decades and decades ago—before photography, without finding a diary or a newspaper story, without a mention in a county history—just a description of a boundary in a form many people shy away from. Every metes and bounds description gives you a chance to walk an ancestor’s property. The walk may be at dusk in a heavy fog but you will still be able to make out a few details. You probably can figure out a few things that lie behind those details and if you are lucky you might even get to meet a neighbor or two.

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Topics: Genealogy, Methods | 1 Comment »

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One Response to “Knowing by Metes and Bounds”

  1. Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith Says:
    July 27th, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    Well stated. I’ve seen my share. I’ve also read them over and over and over searching for clues, as you have well demonstrated. Thanks for sharing!

    Bill 😉
    Author of “Back to the Homeplace”
    and “13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories”