Metes and Bounds: The History Research Paper

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Source: Hockett 1940:264

This land surveying method proved to be highly accurate, a feature that was in sharp contrast to the methods that had been used in some American colonies such as Virginia that allowed the use of so-called "indiscriminate locations," a practice that caused an enormous amount of land boundary disputes (Hockett 1940). While the land surveying method used pursuant to the Land Survey Ordinance of 1785 was partially based on techniques that had evolved in New England, the origins of some of the features included in the legislation remain unclear (Hockett 1940). Notwithstanding this lack of historical precision concerning the origins of the features contained in the Land Survey Ordinance of 1785, the land surveying methods it set forth were so efficient and effective that the same techniques were applied to the rest of the country as westward expansion continued, eventually dividing all of the public lands in the United States (Hockett 1940). According to Allen, a West Point graduate by the name of First Lieutenant George Montague Wheeler is credited with much of this work. Based on his earlier land surveying activities in Nevada, Wheeler was inspired to apply the same methods to the rest of the American frontier. As Allen puts it, "When he submitted his report he suggested that the army extend its operations to embrace a general survey throughout the entire American West. The young army officer was called to Washington DC for consultation. The upshot was the creation of the Wheeler Survey in 1871" (1997:510). The official title of the Wheeler Survey was the "U.S. Geographical Surveys West of the One Hundredth Meridian" and was based in large part on the need of the American military to navigate these previously uncharted territories (Allen 1997).

Boundary Disputes

An adage has long advised that real estate is a good investment because "they are not making any more it," advice that held true during the time of the ancient Babylonians as well as today. Not surprisingly, then, disputes over the boundaries of land holdings have not been uncommon since land was first divided into definable segments. According to the definition provided by Black's Law Dictionary, land boundaries are "limits of land holdings described by linear measurements of the borders, or by points of the compass, or by stationary markers" (1991:878). By the 5th century CE, Cuomo reports that, "Land-surveyors could act as main arbitrators in boundary disputes," but there were also laws on the books that provided for severe sanctions against land surveyors who failed to perform their jobs properly (2001:215). Similarly, the modern role of the land surveyor also involves helping resolve boundary disputes. In this regard, Pacione notes that, "Boundary disputes can arise for technical reasons, sometimes because those involved in negotiations have insufficient training or have not consulted technical experts" (1999:364). Indeed, the survey lines created by land surveyors can be both the source of land boundary disputes but also the means of resolving them. As Smith points out:

It is in the nature of a survey line that it is at once both literal and symbolic. Literal, in that it can be at one, and only one, place on the surface of the earth. Symbolic (and civilized) in that, from the beginning of the history of surveying, its location will be set down in words and drawings on paper, thence securely deposited in a cadastre, or land-office, for perpetuity, there to be consulted by lawyers, judges, tenants, and landlords alike. (1976:304)

Furthermore, even the most sophisticated land surveying methods only provide an approximation of land boundaries. According to Ariel and Berger, "No measurement in surveying is correct. No matter how accurate the measuring instrument is, one can always strive for the next decimal place, or even whole numbers, depending on what is being measured. The only 'measurements' that can be correct are those such as counting the number of people in a room" (2006:77). Based on an analysis of boundary dispute resolutions during the second half of the 20th century, Pacione (1999) reports that about half of all boundary disputes are settled out of court, although some are referred for mediation or arbitration.

Ethics and Moral Responsibilities of the Land Surveyor

All states have their own specific guidelines concerning who
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is qualified to serve as a land surveyor and have professional societies that set forth the ethical standards that must be subscribed to by land surveyors. For example, in the State of Illinois, which conducted a Public Land Survey as early as 1834 (Mendelson 2002), these provisions are set forth by the Illinois Professional Land Surveyors Association which states, "A Professional Land Surveyor is a person who has qualified by education and experience, and who has passed an examination for registration required by the State of Illinois to practice Land Surveying in Illinois" (Securing the services of a land surveyor 2010:2). In addition, all land surveyors in Illinois who are members of the state's professional land surveying association have subscribed to a code of professional conduct (Securing the services of a land surveyor 2010).

In late 2009, the Illinois Professional Land Surveyors Act was signed into law (HB1384); however, based on the changes made to the land surveying laws for the state, revised administrative rules are still being drafted (Church 2010). Although the specific provisions of the ethical codes of standards for land surveyors vary from state to state, the Code of Ethics for the Indiana Society of Professional Land Surveyors provides some useful general guidance concerning the ethics and moral responsibilities of the profession. According to the Indiana Code of Ethics, "As Surveying Professionals, we recognize that our ethical responsibilities extend to the public, to our clients, and to our peers" (2010:3). In support of this position, the Indiana Society also recognizes that the following are essential elements in the practice of land surveying:

1. Supporting and participating in the continuing development of the surveying and mapping professions;

2. Serving with honesty, with forthrightness, and within their areas of skill;

3. Using their expertise for the enhancement of human welfare and for the stewardship of resources (Indiana Code of Ethics 2010:4).


The research showed that land surveying emerged in response to the early human need to divide land into recognizable and legally definable constituents. Because land surveying is inextricably related to mathematics, it is not surprising that the same ancient peoples who are credited with developing the latter were also responsible for introducing important refinements into the former. The research also showed that based on the earlier practices used in Babylon and Egypt, Greek and then Roman land surveyors applied more sophisticated and standardized methods, and traces of these methods can be found in the modern practice of land surveying. The research showed that because land as a resource is by definition scarce, one of the more important outcomes of this lengthy history of land surveying has been to provide a legal resource for landowners when boundaries disputes arise. Finally, the research showed that modern land surveyors who belong to professional societies generally subscribe to a code of ethics for their profession. In the final analysis, it is reasonable to conclude that even with the introduction of further technological innovations, future land surveyors will also rely on the same ancient methods to some extent and the day may well come when land surveyors are applying the same techniques to Mars and beyond.

Works Cited

Allen, John L. North American Exploration, Vol. 3. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press,


Ariel, Avraham and Nora Ariel Berger. Plotting the Globe: Stories of Meridians, Parallels, and the International Date Line. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006.

Black's Law Dictionary. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co., 1991.

Church, C. (2010). "HB1384 Becomes Public Act 96-0626 -- New IPLS ACT." Illinois

Professional Land Surveyors Association. [online] available: / topics/2009_Fall.html.

Cuomo, S. Ancient Mathematics. London: Routledge, 2001.

Dampier, William C. A History of Science and Its Relations with Philosophy and Religion.

Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1949.

Hockett, Homer C. Political and Social Growth of the American People, 1492-1865. New York:

Macmillan, 1940.

Indiana Code of Ethics for Professional Land Surveyors. (2010). Indiana Society of Professional

Land Surveyors. [online] available:

Lewis, M.J.T. Surveying Instruments of Greece and Rome. Cambridge, England: Cambridge

University Press, 2001.

Mendelson, Jon. (2002). "An Additional Source of Data on Northeastern Illinois Woodlands

around the Time of Settlement." The American Midland Naturalist 147(2): 279-280.

Opie, John. The Law of the Land: Two Hundred Years of American Farmland Policy. Lincoln,

NE: University…

Sources Used in Documents:

Works Cited

Allen, John L. North American Exploration, Vol. 3. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press,


Ariel, Avraham and Nora Ariel Berger. Plotting the Globe: Stories of Meridians, Parallels, and the International Date Line. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006.

Black's Law Dictionary. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co., 1991.

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