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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Understanding Real Property Legal Descriptions for Genealogy: Metes and Bounds

English: Broadwater Farm: detail of the 1619 map of the Parish of Tottenham, Middlesex (now in the London Borough of Haringey)
One of the keys to accurate and complete genealogical research is finding the exact location of some event associated with an ancestor. Real property rental or ownership is one very good way to determine an exact location associated with your ancestor's life. Some of the documents you may find that might contain a property description, often referred to as the legal description (or even the "legal"), include:
  • deeds
  • rental or lease agreements
  • probate documents
  • gifts or bequests
  • sales contracts
  • tax documents
  • mortgages
  • deeds of trust
  • land warrants
  • trust documents
  • wills
and many other documents. Historically, land has been described in three different ways:

  • Metes and Bounds
  • Rectangular Survey
  • Subdivision Lot and Block

Sometimes, the differences between these systems are blurred and a legal description may contain elements of two or all three of the methods. The important thing to understand is that the legal description is a method of representing the boundary of the property in words. These legal description methods are not confined to the United States, they are used around the world.

The original method of establishing the boundaries of piece of real property was by reference to physical objects such as trees, rivers, lakes, rocks, or other such objects. For example, a prominent tree or rock outcropping would be chosen as the starting point and then measuring the distance to other physical objects. This type of description is what is meant by the terms "metes and bounds." Here is the definition of the terms from Wikipedia:
  • Metes. The term "metes" refers to a boundary defined by the measurement of each straight run, specified by a distance between the terminal points, and an orientation or direction. A direction may be a simple compass bearing, or a precise orientation determined by accurate survey methods.
  • Bounds. The term "bounds" refers to a more general boundary description, such as along a certain watercourse, a stone wall, an adjoining public road way, or an existing building.
Here is a commonly referred to example of a metes and bounds description:
Commencing at a heap of stones about a stone’s throw from a certain small clump of alders, near a brook running down off from a rather high part of the ridge, thence by a straight line to a certain marked white birch tree about two or three times as far from a jog in the fence going around said ledge and the “Great Swamp” so called, then in a line of said lot in part and in part by another piece of fence which joins onto said line, and by an extension of the general run of said fence to a heap of stones near a surface rock, thence aforesaid to the “Horn” so called and passing around the same aforesaid, as far as possible, to the “Great Bend” so called, and from thence to a squarish sort of jog in another fence so on to a marked black oak tree with stones around it and thence by another straight line in about a contrary direction and somewhere about parallel with the line around by the “Great Swamp” to a stake and stone mounds not far off from an old Indian trail, thence by another straight line on a course diagonally parallel, or nearly so, with “Fox Hollow” run, so called, to a certain marked yellow oak tree on the off side of a knoll with flat stones laid against it, thence after turning around in another direction and by a sloping straight line to a certain heap of stones which is by pacing just 18 rods more from the stump of the big hemlock tree where Philo Blake killed the bear, thence to the corner begun at by two straight lines of about equal length which are to be run in by some skilled and competent surveyor so as to include the area and acreage as herein set forth.
Unfortunately, I cannot find where this particular description originated. It may be made up for illustration purposes, but it is often referred to by those talking about boundary descriptions. The main problem with such descriptions is that the physical objects chosen to describe the property often are destroyed or move over time. For genealogists, trying to locate property from such a description can be a nightmare. Current property boundaries that were historically based on metes and bounds descriptions may have been supplanted by another, more recent survey method. However, even today when the waypoints (Waypoints are sets of coordinates that identify a point in physical space) for a description may have been established by exact survey points, unless the survey is tied into a rectangular survey, the description may still be referred to as a metes and bounds description.

Early in the European settlement of America, land descriptions might refer to adjacent property owners. If the genealogical researcher expands the scope of his or her inquiry, sometimes the land descriptions can give the names of other members of a the extended family or even the maiden names of married women. 

In subsequent posts, I will talk more about legal descriptions and their impact on genealogical research. 


  1. Are you sure the illustrated map is a closeup of a 1619 plat, not a 19th-century redrawn version? The typography looks wrong for 1619.

    1. Interesting question. Here is a link with the whole map.

      See also

      Yes, apparently the map was made in 1619

  2. So that's what Metes and Bounds are! Thank you - and as a member of the Bruce family, I approve of the Bruce Castle map!