Metes, Bounds & Meanders

Platting the Land of Your Ancestors

Compass and historical map
Christian Baitg / Getty

In the original thirteen colonies, plus Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Texas, Tennessee, Vermont, West Virginia, and parts of Ohio (the state land states), land boundaries are identified according to the indiscriminate survey system, more commonly referred to as metes and bounds.

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.

A metes and bounds land description always begins with a corner (e.g. Beginning at a white oak in Michael King's line) and then alternates lines and corners until returning to the starting point (e.g. to the first station).

Next Page > Land Platting Made Easy

One of the best ways to study local history in general, and your family in particular, is to create a map of your ancestor's land(s) and its relationship to the surrounding community. Making a plat from a land description may sound complicated, but it is actually very simple once you learn how.

Land Platting Supplies & Tools

To plat a tract of land in metes and bounds bearings -- i.e. draw the land on paper the way the surveyor originally did -- you need only a few simple tools:

  • Protractor or Surveyor's Compass - Remember that half-circle protractor that you used in high school trigonometry? This basic tool, found in most office and school supply stores, is an easy-to-obtain tool for land platting on the fly. If you plan to do a lot of land platting, then you may want to purchase a round surveyor's compass (also known as a land measure compass), available from specialty supply stores.
  • Ruler - Again, easily found in office supply stores. The only requirement is that it is marked in millimeters.
  • Graph Paper - Used only to keep your compass aligned perfectly north-south, the size and type of graph paper is really not important. Patricia Law Hatcher, an expert in land platting, recommends "engineering paper," with four to five equally-weighted lines per inch.
  • Pencil & Eraser - Wood pencil, or mechanical pencil - it's your choice. Just make sure it's sharp!
  • Calculator - Doesn't need to be fancy. Just simple multiplication and division. Pencil and paper will work too - just takes longer.

    As you can see, the basic tools required for land platting can all be found at a local office supply store or discount mass merchandiser. So, next time you're on the road and run across a new deed, you don't have to wait until you get home to plat it out on paper.

    Land Platting Step-by-Step

    1. Transcribe or make a copy of the deed, including the full legal land description.
    1. Highlight the calls - lines and corners. Land platting experts Patricia Law Hatcher and Mary McCampbell Bell suggest to their students that they underline the lines (including distance, direction, and adjoining owners), circle the corners (including neighbors), and use a wavy line for meanders.
    2. Create a chart or list of the calls for easy reference as you play, including only the pertinent information or facts. Check off each line or corner on the photocopy as you work to help prevent errors.
    3. If you plan to overlay your plat onto a modern day USGS quadrangle map, then convert all distances to USGS scale and include them on your chart. If your deed description uses poles, rods, or perches, then divide each distance by 4.8 for an easy conversion.
    4. Draw a solid dot on your graph paper to indicate your starting point. Next to it write down the description of the corner (e.g. Beginning at a white oak in Michael King's line). This will help you remember that this was your starting point, as well as including the markers which will help you possibly match it up with adjoining plats.
    5. Place the center of your protractor on top of the dot, making sure that it is aligned with the grid on your graph paper and that north is on top. If you're using a semi-circular protractor, orient it so that the circular side faces toward the east or west direction of the call (e.g. for the line S32E - align your protractor with the circular side facing east).