Most real estate in the original 13 US colonies, and in several of the other early states was surveyed with the Metes and Bounds *c surveying system. This system is still in use today, although the tools used by surveyors have changed dramatically. Technological improvements have led to greatly increased accuracy.
In the Metes and Bounds system, property descriptions can contain several types of information. The type and quality of information has changed over the years, as a reflection of the changes in surveyors' tools and capabilities. Historians, genealogists, and others*d will be interested in the early development of the Metes and Bounds system, but we will concentrate on more contemporary uses of the system. In essence, the Metes and Bounds system is a method for describing the lines which bound a parcel of real estate.
Property lines or survey lines are identified with a direction (bearing or heading) and a distance. An example is "N13oW 100 feet". This example uses the Compass Degree system of angle measurement.
Illustration from Direct Line Software
Compass Degree bearings are given by specifying a compass point (north or south), a number of degrees, and then another compass point (east or west). For example, N13oW is a bearing.
The illustration shows examples of various bearings (or headings) at ten degree intervals. Each of the lines leaving the center of the diagram has its bearing shown at the end of the line. This system permits great precision, since each bearing can be specified in degrees, minutes, and seconds of angle. One minute is 1/60th of a degree, and one second is 1/60th of a minute. Each degree is, therefore divided into 3,600 seconds, and a full circle is 360 degrees, or 1,296,000 seconds (nearly 1.3 million seconds!).
Distances can be measured in a variety of units, but many US surveyors continue to use the foot as the basic unit of measurement. For most general-purpose surveys, the foot is divided into 1/100ths. In building design and construction, it is convenient to note that 1/100th of a foot is very close to 1/8th of an inch.
Here's an example of a survey plan demonstrating the Metes and Bounds survey system (left click opens a new window).
625x875, 22.4K, Illustration by GJDG
Here's an example of the legal description of an actual parcel of real estate, based on a Metes and Bounds survey, as recorded in Superior Township, Washtenaw County, MI. The Parcel # is the tax identification number. Notice how compactly this information can be written, through the use of some readily-identifiable abbreviations. Below the description are a MapQuest image and a GlobeXplorer aerial photo, showing the parcel described.
Here's the Metes and Bounds Description for our Music Park Subdivision project (left click opens a new window).
463x690, 10.9K, Illustration by GJDG