Since the settling of the American colonies, property boundaries have been described by the “metes and bounds” method, which is a highly customized system dependent on localized knowledge of movable stones, impermanent trees, and transient neighbors. The metes and bounds system has long been the subject of ridicule, and a recent wave of law-and-economics scholarship has argued that land must be easily standardized to facilitate market transactions and yield economic development. However, historians have not yet explored the social and legal context surrounding the metes and bounds system—obscuring the important role that highly customized property played 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 system transmitted valuable information to 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.