Metes and Bounds is derived from the original system of land description employed by the English government in the pre-colonial era. The system traveled to the continental United States by way of the original colonies, and was the basis of the earliest land survey conducted stateside.
The foundation of the system lies in the geography and topography of the locality being surveyed. Much like the PLSS used in the United States today, the surveying process has a point of origin where the land description begins and ends. The surveyor begins at the point of origin and conducts straight runs to the boundaries of the property, forming a running description of the property based on the natural boundaries and monuments.
Common natural boundaries include rivers, cliffs, rock formations, etc. In addition to these boundaries, surveyors would take note of natural “monuments” in the area, which would help denote the boundary line between the surveyed property and the adjacent land. In the event that no such natural monuments were observed, man-made structures such as posts and flags were used to demarcate boundary lines. Such is the origin of the term “metes and bounds”. Metes refers to the measure and direction of the straight runs taken from the point of origin. Likewise Bounds refers to the natural topography of the region which borders and sections the property. Its unlikely that would one own land on both sides of a river or at the top and bottom of a steep cliff.
The system of Metes and Bounds was widely used in England and in the colonies for many centuries, but was eventually relinquished by the United States government in favor of the Rectangular survey, which does not face the same restrictions of natural obstacles. Besides those restrictions, other weaknesses of the Metes and Bounds survey system were consistency and maintenance. In early times, unpaved roads and trails (both of which were used as man made monuments for demarcation) often changed location and direction without public registry.
This was especially true on large parcels of private land. A change in the description of a boundary threw off the entire survey description. This was because Metes and Bounds surveys were summarized in prose, taking an “as-you-go” approach to the land description. One out-of-place boundary could create drastic irregularities when it came time to create a plat or visual representation of the land.
Petty disputes between neighbors also arose from the placement of man-made monuments on boundary lines. Many neighbors in Elizabeth I’s court accused one another of moving the markers to alter the size of the property, or to claim more favorable topography. As the surveys were written with directions centered around the monuments, this made it very difficult to settle these disputes in court or provide a verdict.
The weaknesses of this system led the United States government to pass the Land Ordinance of 1785, which began conducting new surveys and revising older ones under the guidelines of the rectangular system of land descriptions.