The Forgotten History of Metes and Bounds

82 Pages Posted: 23 Apr 2018 Last revised: 2 Mar 2019

Date Written: April 19, 2018


Since long before the settling of the American colonies, property boundaries were described by the “metes and bounds” method, a system of demarcation dependent on localized knowledge of movable stones, impermanent trees, and transient neighbors. Metes and bounds systems have long been the subject of ridicule among scholars, and a recent wave of law-and-economics scholarship has argued that land boundaries must be easily standardized to facilitate market transactions and yield economic development. However, historians have not yet explored the social and legal context surrounding earlier metes and bounds systems—obscuring the important role that nonstandardized property can play in stimulating growth.
Using new archival research from the American colonial period, this Article reconstructs the forgotten history of metes and bounds within recording practice. Importantly, the benefits of metes and bounds were greater—and the associated costs lower—than ahistorical examination of these records would indicate. The rich descriptions of the metes and bounds of colonial properties were customized to the preferences of American settlers and could be tailored to different types of property interests, permitting simple compliance with recording laws. While standardization is critical for enabling property to be understood by a larger and more distant set of buyers and creditors, customized property practices built upon localized knowledge serve other important social functions that likewise encourage development.

Keywords: property, land recording, land use, development, dispute resolution, metes and bounds, property theory, social norms, perambulation

Suggested Citation

Brady, Maureen E., The Forgotten History of Metes and Bounds (April 19, 2018). Yale Law Journal, Vol. 128, p. 872, Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2018-26, Available at SSRN:

Maureen E. Brady (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

Griswold 301
1525 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States


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