HLS Private Law Workshop; Maureen Brady, From Rocks to Rods: The history and theory of metes and bounds demarcation

Post by B. Palle, Graduate Fellow and SJD Candidate at Harvard Law School

In the most recent Private Law Workshop, Professor Maureen Brady presented her fascinating historical study of the development of metes and bounds demarcation in property law in pre-Revolution New Haven.

New England colonies mandated land recording at least from the early decades of the Seventeenth Century. But these requirements did not specify that the recording be in any standardized form. And when landowners in colonial New Haven (in the 1690’s, say) transferred land or recorded deeds, they relied on a peculiar system to demarcate boundaries: the system of metes and bounds. Under this system, landowners would demarcate boundaries by referring to geographical features such as creeks, orchards, boulders, and trees, as well as neighbors who owned adjacent parcels of land. One might suppose that such a system would impose “astronomical” information costs: the effort required in interpreting and understanding such an idiosyncratic system would seem prohibitively high. Nevertheless, the system worked well for a time. There was very little litigation over property in New Haven before 1700: Brady says that her research revealed just three such disputes. But why did the residents of New Haven (and, indeed, in New England more generally) choose to adopt such an apparently costly mode of demarcating boundaries? And how and why did such a system function so smoothly. In analyzing these questions, Brady looks beyond paper records (such as land deeds) to the social context in which the system operated.

Until the 18th Century, the residents of New Haven constituted a “small,” “homogenous” and a “cohesive” group. Within this close-knit community, residents established a set of social practices that helped them identify the boundaries of their land holdings with reasonable certainty. Brady mentions two: perambulations and land distribution programs.

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