There are two different surveying systems that have been used in the United States. We refer to them as “metes and bounds,” which is used in State Land States, and the “rectangular survey” which is used in Federal Land or Public Domain States.
Prior to the Revolution, land was distributed by the states (State Lands States) and these states surveyed the land using the metes and bounds system. An initial point was stated and then a direction and distance was given to the next point. This continued until the resolution to the starting point. In the process, neighbors are identified and possibly some landmark, such as a river or creek which might allow you to locate the land on a contemporary map.
After the Revolution, the federal government owed all the open land (the Public Domain) previously claimed by England. Because the Continental Congress ran out of money during the War, they promised to compensate servicemen by providing land in lieu of cash. After the War, because they had land, but little money, the government sold land to raise cash (Federal Lands States). Since land was to be auctioned off, it needed to be surveyed and a new system was devised called the Rectangular Survey.
A metes and bounds land description might read as follows:
being in the Town of Stafford in the west part of said township containing twenty acres and is butted and bounded as follows to begin at the Northwest corner of said land at a stake and stone standing by the road then to run east ten degrees north twenty nine rods to a white ash tree marked then to south nineteen degrees east ninety six rods to said Foots own land then to run west as said Foots own land runs fifty two rods to the highway then to run northerly as the road runs to the first mentioned bounds sd land bounds north and east on my own land south on sd Foots own land west on the road or highway..
Since this deed dates to the late 1700s I rather doubt that the white ash tree or the stake and stones are still identifiable. If we can determine the name of the road or highway, we may be able to place it on a map but we would have to obtain a map from the timeframe. From this description, however, we can draw a picture or plat this piece of land using a ruler, protractor and graph paper. We might get some hints from the names of the neighbors and it’s important to go back and find where the Grantor (the person selling the land) originally obtained it.
Although it would be easy to say that the thirteen original colonies were the State Land States and the rest of the country was Federal Land States, it’s not that easy. Even to assume that states created out of the thirteen colonies are the only State Land States would be misleading...Texas and Hawaii for example are State Land States. When you begin your research you should refer to a reference book such as Ancestry’s Red Book or The Source to determine whether your state is a State Land or Federal Land (Public Domain) state. Next, understand where and how the records are kept by that particular state. If you are researching in a state other than where you live, check the Family History Catalog (LDS) for the location of the land records. Many of these records have been microfilmed.
Next week I’ll look at Federal or Public Domain States.
Eichholz, Alice (Ed.), Ancestry’s Red Book, 3rd Edition American State, Country & Town Sources, Ancestry, Salt Lake City, 2004.
Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Luebking, Sandra Hargreaves, (Ed.), The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, Revised Edition, Ancestry, Salt Lake City, 2006. (Chapter 10)
Hone, E. Wade, Land & Property Research in the United States, Ancestry, Salt Lake City, 1997.
These books can be found in the U.S. Research Section on my Book List.