Land Record

Metes and Bounds Surveys

by Steve Broyles, Direct Line Software


Land in the original thirteen colonies, plus Maine, Vermont, Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas, West Virginia, and parts of Ohio were surveyed with the Metes and Bounds surveying system.

In this system, property descriptions contain several types of information:


The surveyor would note in his field book the point of beginning of the survey with a written description. In many cases this point would be a corner of someone else's survey, and would described as such, for example, "beginning at a pine and poplar, corner of Jeb Smith". Using a compass, he would then determine the direction to the next corner of the property, and measure the distance along that line with a standard pole or chain. Once at the corner he would enter the compass heading he used (e.g. "N23E"), the distance traveled (e.g. "100 poles"), and the description of the corner ("two beech saplings"). This process was repeated until he had made his way around the entire boundary of the parcel, returning to the beginning point.


There are two main ways surveyors described the directions (headings) of lines:

[Compass Compass Degree Headings. These are given by specifying a compass point (north, south, east, or west), a number of degrees, and then another compass point. For example, N23E is a heading.

This picture shows examples of various headings at ten degree intervals. Any of the lines leaving the center of the diagram has its heading shown at the end of the line. Surveyors use this system today, and it can be as precise as the surveyor wants.

[Compass Point Image]Compass Point Headings. In some parts of the country, the Compass Point system of headings was used. It used the 32 "points of the compass" shown in this compass rose diagram.

You've heard of North, and Northeast, and North-Northeast? Well, how about "North by East one quarter point North"? That, too, is a compass point. (In the diagram you'll see a small 'x' is used to represent the word 'by'.) In some areas the phrase "and by" was used to signify one half point, so, for example, "North and by East" meant "North one half point East"

DeedMapper can handle metes and bounds descriptions that use the degree system, the compass point system, or mixtures of both.


Distances were measured in a variety of units, the most popular of which were the chain, pole, perch, and rod. See the our discussion of Surveying Terms for more information, including a list of values.


Land that bordered on streams or rivers was often described with special language that included the word meander. If you come across this term in a deed, one of several things may be implied:

  1. The surveyor made no survey of the stream, and simply noted that the property had the meanderings of the stream as a boundary ("to an oak on the bank of said creek, thence up same with the meanders thereof to a double pine on the bank, corner of Adams, thence with Adams line..."). Note that no heading or distance is given. Basically, the surveyor is saying "go up the creek for a while".

    When you try to plot out the parcel this appears as a gap in the bounds of the property. (If there is only one meander line of this type, DeedMapper will automatically close the plot, filling in a dashed straight line segment for the meander line. You enter lines of this type with the lm code followed by two semicolons (denoting the missing direction and distance).

  2. The surveyor surveyed the stream and recorded its twists and turns (the meanders).

    If he recorded the meanders you'll see a series of lines with no intervening point descriptions: "N25W 16 rods, N32W 30 rods, N46W 24 rods to an elm on the bank." The three legs in this example are meander lines and should be entered in DeedMapper with the lm code.

    In the Plot View the lm lines are rendered in blue so you can identify them and match them with your stream maps.

  3. The surveyor simplified things by "reducing the meanders to a straight line."

    This saved a lot of work on the part of the surveyor. Rather than making, for example, six measurements along the bank, the surveyor would strike a straight line from point A to point B. This straight line might turn out to crisscross the stream, or the stream might be almost straight anyway, or the line might cut across a broad curve of the stream. In the first two cases the acreage that was surveyed would be more or less correct. In the latter case large portions of land might exist between the surveyed line and the stream.

One thing to be sure you keep track of with meander lines is whether they went up or down the stream. The direction of water flow was an important descriptor for surveyors. If they recorded something as "and thence down the river with the different meanders N25W 23 rods..." you can bet that the line went down the river rather than up. This can be very helpful in correctly placing your plots.


The term corner was used to describe any point on a survey. It corresponds to DeedMapper's pt record. Thus, when a point is described as "a corner of John Smith", don't take it to mean that it is anything like a square corner; a plot can have any number of corners.

Sometimes you'll see descriptions such as "two white oaks on a line of John Smith." This means that the trees are somewhere in the middle of a survey line of John Smith. In other words, the trees are not on a corner. If you're lucky, there will be language such as "with said Smith's line 240 perches passing Smith's corner at 165 perches" included. This will allow you to accurately place the plot with respect to Smith's plot.

Conditional lines, or conditions are lines that two parties mutually agreed to in the absence of formal surveys. Such lines should be entered with the lc code. In DeedMapper's Plot View they are shown as dashed lines.

As with meander lines, descriptions involving the words "up" and "down" can be very helpful to placing a deed. "Up" and "upper" were used to mean upstream or higher. "Down" and "lower" were used for downstream. For example, "Smith's lower tract of land" would be the more downstream of two tracts of land.

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