Gunter's Chain and Land Measurement in America

It's All Trew: An evolution of land measurement units and land ownership practices.


Courtesy Richard Parrish.

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Surveying and measurement of land boundaries dates back at least 5,000 years to riverside communities in the Middle East and Egypt, where parcels of land irrigated during the annual flooding of the great rivers were identified.

Such boundaries did not represent ownership of the land; they established plots for which certain persons were responsible. Though individuals or generations of a family might occupy and exploit a parcel of land, it could not be owned nor treated as a personal asset for speculation in the way goods or domestic animals could. Actual land ownership was reserved for kings and rulers.

Prior to discovery and settlement of North America, personal ownership of land was inconceivable. The idea that land could be treated as personal property and speculated on like any other commodity required a monumental change in thinking. As that idea took root, and colonists and others came to realize that raw wilderness could be transformed into a personal asset, America became the destination for the landless of the world.

Though land in America was plentiful, colonists were limited to that allotted, via grants, by their respective king. Early measurement efforts only established the metes and bounds of those grants. Colony leaders parceled out home sites through a headright system.

Nearly every colonist had a sponsor who underwrote the expense of the journey to America. Repayment of that indebtedness was supposed to come from sharing the income generated by the new property. As a result, however, shared property was neglected while personal property prospered, leading to the demise of some colonies.

Religious freedom is often cited as the main reason for immigrating to America. Eventually, the desire to own land became the greatest motivation. No doubt the success of America can be attributed to personal land ownership. A secondary factor was adoption of a universal method of land measurement assuring the metes and bounds of property.

Establishment of this method was no easy task, as America was made up of many nationalities, each group using its old country's terminology of weights and measures. The tool that finally resolved those disputes was a simple linked chain. Designed and introduced in 1620 by English mathematician Edmund Gunter (1581-1626), it consisted of a handmade chain of 100 long wire lengths measuring exactly 22 yards, 66 feet, 4 rods or 1/80 of a mile.

In 1785, Congress adopted the Public Land Survey Ordinance requiring all government land measurements to be done with a Gunter's, or surveyor's, chain. Most historians trace that development to Sept. 30, 1785, when Thomas Hutchins, the first geographer of the U.S., drove the first stake starting the Line of the Seven Ranges (in what is today eastern Ohio), establishing the first official land grid laid out in America.

From this grid and others across the land, the lines of America grew, "10 chains by 10 chains, acre by acre in every direction, from border to border." It is a formula understood by all.

Land Measurement Glossary 

Metes and bounds refers to an ancient system of describing land. The system blends physical features of geography with compass directions and measured distances in text to describe a specific piece of real estate. "Metes" is defined as a boundary established by precise measurements and a direction; "bounds" gives a more general description based on a local physical feature, for instance, "along the river." The system remains in use in England, where it has been used for centuries.

Headrights, typically for 100-acre parcels of land, were legal grants of land to settlers in unsettled territory.

The original acre referred to an area of land suitable for plowing in a defined time. The rectangular space was one chain wide by one furlong (10 chains), forming a total of 10 square chains sometimes referred to as an "acre-breadth."

"According to Gunter" is an old figure of speech referring to measurement, traced to mathematician Edmund Gunter, who crafted the measurement system based on a chain with 100 links. FC 

Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; e-mail: