Alternate Systems of Legal Subdivision and Description of rural land in North America

6 June 2016

Land surveying is the technique of determining position of points on the earth and using them to define boundaries and draw maps. It divides the land into parcels by providing correct descriptions, which is then assigned for ownership and other purposes.

The original charter group from England brought the “Metes and Bounds” system of describing land or real estate to U.S. where it had been used for many centuries. It was used in the original thirteen colonies that became the United States based on the English common law.

Alternate Systems of Legal Subdivision and Description of rural land in North America Essay Example

This system defined the boundaries of a parcel of land by using physical features of the local geography along with directions and distances. The boundaries are described in running prose style, working around the parcel in sequence from a beginning point and returning back to the same point. Features like rivers, tress, unusual rocks, stone walls, roads, etc. were used to describe the boundary.

One important landscape that resulted from this system is the topographic road patterns where routes are often controlled by the contours of the land rather than the regularity of a geometric survey.

However, there were lots of problems in describing a land through this method. For example, the trees may die or new tress may be planted and the rivers or streams may meander. When natural markers were absent, artificial stone markers were used and these could be moved on purpose to alter the boundary. There were lots of court cases to settle boundary disputes based on this system.

Due to these problems, after independence the United States replaced this system in central and western states with the Land Ordinance of 1785 and started using Public Land Survey System (PLSS) also called Rectangular survey system. This was used to survey the public domain land in rural and undeveloped areas before assigning ownership. This established survey lines along the cardinal directions and divided the land into townships 6 miles square, which were further subdivided into sections 1 mile on a side.

This land survey method established a checker-board pattern of towns, fields, country roads and the gridiron street system in towns and cities.

Both the “metes and bounds” and rectangular survey system created dispersed pattern of isolated farmsteads that can be seen in rural United States. The homesteads created by block patterns, each with large 160 acres lots, and regular pattern of rural roads created this dispersed pattern.

The French and Spanish, the other two primary charter groups, brought their own land description and allotment. The French introduce the “long-lot” system, originally in the St. Lawrence Valley, and subsequently in other places like Mississippi Valley, Detroit, Louisiana and other places. This system created elongated land divisions where the length was typically 10 times the width. It started from a narrow river frontage and stretched far back to a road. This system provided each settler equal access to the river and a fair distribution of both fertile land and lower quality back areas along the valley slopes.

This system created dwellings in the front of the holding allowing neighbors to be close together is an arrangement called the “cote”.

The Spanish also introduced similar long-lot system in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico and Texas.

There were other variations of land grants and surveys in various other regions:

In New England, the English tradition of agricultural village was adopted. This contained land grants for “towns” that were 6 miles square. It had a central village with meeting house and its common areas surrounded by fields subdivided into strips for allocating to the community members.

In Manitoba, the Mennonites from Germany were granted lands not as individuals but as communities. They also established agricultural villages surrounded by communal fields where they farmed together as a community.

There were other agricultural villages based on religious communities like Mormons, Oneida, Rappites’s Harmony, etc.

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