The legal description or land description is an important part of a land survey and other instruments conveying the title of real property. Without it, there would be no way to confirm the exact boundaries of the property being bought and sold.
Two major systems of measuring and describing land emerged in North America by settlers, but one has proven to be more successful than the other.
The origins of the legal description
For centuries, landowners have been creating legal descriptions based on visual markers, long before using more exacting techniques like GPS surveying that provided more accurate coordinates. This method is known as metes and bounds. While some of the demarcations listed, like a tree or a stone, may have adequately served to describe the land as it once was, such impermanent objects subvert their authority and reliability. This system was commonly employed in the original thirteen colonies, as well as Kentucky and Tennessee.
Elsewhere in North America and especially on federal lands, the rectangular system was used to divide parcels into square-mile sections.
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The Deed Rock of Worcester
In Biblical times, to mete meant to measure. For one 19th century Massachusetts man, he transferred the deed to his property to God and inscribed the 200-word legal description on a rock. Solomon Parsons Junior was the grandson of a reverend, a pacifist, and a vegetarian. In preparation for the second coming of Christ, he purchased the ten acres from William G. Hall for $125 in 1840.
In addition to the public inscription of the deed, a lawyer executed and recorded the holy deed. Parson also built a temple for worship while awaiting the second coming, predicted to happen sometime between 1831 and 1844. Anticipation of the Advent by religious congregants known as Millerites eventually turned into disappointment as the years passed and became known in American history as “The Great Disappointment.”
You can still find the rock with the engraving in the woods on Rattlesnake Hill. It mentions a stake of stones, a neighbor, and a chestnut tree no longer there as part of the legal description.
Growing populations and land disputes
As populations and demand for land ownership grew, so did the trouble with unreliable legal descriptions. Today, boundary issues are some of the most common reasons for title defects and claims. In the 17th century, as the population soared and the land became more scarce, new and old residents became litigious over property claims, and confirming boundaries became imperative.
In areas dominated by the metes and bounds systems, the U.S. Census recorded a disproportionate number of lawyers compared to regions using the rectangular system.
Towns like New Haven struggled with settling the disputes and appointed surveyors to confirm the metes and bounds of lands. In one court case in 1717, two sons and a surveyor failed to locate the boundaries of the land their father supposedly left them. Apparently, the boundaries were forgotten by both owners and neighbors.
As the communities became more transient, land more limited, and residents spent less time participating in “boundary walking,” the social fabric that gave legitimacy to metes and bounds descriptions quickly faded. Towns responded with new laws to create more stability in land transactions and curtail litigation.
New methods of writing metes and bound
By the 19th century, more deeds began to refer to specific perimeters and distances or monuments along the property’s borders instead of relying on nearby neighbors or other unfixed physical features. There were no significant technical advances in the field of surveying to explain the change. The same tools used for measuring distances like the compass and Gunter’s chain, a device with metal links, were still in use. An increase in the number of qualified surveyors doesn’t explain the change either, as surveyors’ training remained essentially unchanged too. Instead, the better precision is more likely a reflection of the social and legal turmoiled experienced in its absence.
The names of previous owners also made their way into the metes and bound descriptions. Paired with the land records, this served as a reference point to find other parcel documentation. As land was developed and new infrastructure shaped pathways into named streets, surveyors and recorders had a more stable collection of references to add to legal descriptions.
The squaring of land
In the 18th century, a numbered grid system was developed in the United States by Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and other found fathers to create more confidence in legal descriptions.
British surveyors in Canada devised a similar method to identify properties by townships, lots, and concessions, often represented by elongated rectangles. In Quebec, the townships are called cantons and are divided into irregular shapes like squares, triangles, and rectangles.
Regardless of the final shapes, this method clearly defined the lots of a community for legal purposes prior to the settlement and sale of land.
Hamilton and other proponents of squaring the land had to fight for the costly project, requiring thousands of surveyors over the next 100 years to survey all federal lands into rectangles of 640-acre plots along with 320-acre half sections and 160-acre quarter sections. They believed that while it would be a vast and expensive endeavor, it would promote healthy land markets and increase land values.
As noted economists like Hernando de Soto and Gary Libecap argue, securing property rights creates value and wealth. Just as the land record system provided economic stability in naming the owner of land assets, the rectangular system equally stabilized the measuring of that land.
How the rectangular system creates more wealth
Unlike the metes and bounds system, the rectangular system required no local knowledge of the land to determine its size and assess its value. According to Libecap, this “dramatically expanded the scope of the land market to include investors and settlers remote to the location, and that alone drove up land values and encouraged investment.”
Additionally, defining the land by squares instead of haphazardly drawing boundaries based on shifting geographic characteristics as done with metes and bounds made property rights more secure. The indelible squares reduced boundary disputes that were rampant in the Northeast.
To prove how much the rectangular system impacted the value of lands, Gary Libecap and Dean Lueck examined land in south-central Ohio call the Virginia Military District (VMD) and adjacent counties.
They chose this area because Virginia originally surveyed the land by metes and bounds. In contrast, federal land surrounding it was surveyed by the rectangular system as defined by the 1785 Land Law supported by Hamilton and others in the Continental Congress. The topography and land quality were otherwise identical.
The pair first gathered statistics on the land from the 1850 and 1860 censuses and then from 1850 through 1950. Controlling for land and owner characteristics, the data showed that land values were around 25% higher under the rectangular system than under the metes and bounds in 1850 and 1860. Even after 100 years, the data showed that these differences in land values continued.
Ohio court records revealed that parcels in the VMD had 18 times more land boundary disputes than the rest of Ohio combined! The disputes drove away investors and buyers as land market activity in the mid-1800s showed about 75% more transactions in counties adjacent to the VMD than within it.
With the higher land value came more migration, higher population growth, more urbanization, and investment in industry. The VMD lands failed to attract new people and new economic activity. The instability of the metes and bounds system had a domino effect that started with weakening property rights and ended with crippling the area’s potential for economic growth.
Once again, uniformity systems act as the bedrock of a thriving society. While in some cases conforming to standardization means a loss of local customs, what is gained is an expanding trust in the exchange of goods and the reduction of conflict and uncertainty.