Gunter's Chain and Land Measurement in America

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


| August 2008



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Courtesy Richard Parrish.

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.