How Were State Borders Formed Before GPS?


Today, the Global Positioning System allows anyone with a receiver to determine his position to within a few meters, but navigation was not always so easy. Surveyors laid down the borders of the states in the United States long before such advanced tools were available, marking out territorial boundaries that would last for hundreds of years. The methods they used to lay down these boundaries varied from state to state, and some inaccuracies in the system caused headaches more than a century later.


  • One common method of determining state boundaries, especially in the eastern half of the country, was to use rivers. The Mississippi and Ohio Rivers separate a number of states along the full length of their boundaries, and many smaller waterways serve as partial borders, such as the Perdido River separating the Florida panhandle from southern Alabama. Where the actual dividing line between the states exists depends on local treaties and laws. Some states split the jurisdiction of a dividing river down the middle, while other states maintain full control over the waterway until it no longer touches the state’s border. In some cases, legal claims over who actually controls the waterway may still be unsettled hundreds of years after the border’s establishment.

Metes and Bounds

  • In the eastern half of the country, surveyors designated many state borders using a system called “Metes and Bounds.” This system involves starting from a known landmark, following a road, natural feature, or compass heading to the next landmark, and adjusting course from there. This system led to a number of disputes over the years, as the landmarks in question would decay or compass headings would prove faulty, altering the course of the borders.

Township and Range

  • In the western half of the United States, an improvement in the survey system led to straighter borders with fewer irregularities. The “Township and Range” system involves laying land out in a grid, setting north-south and east-west baselines, and measuring parcels of land from these known points. Part of the reason this system flourished was because the United States handed out many of these parcels to would-be settlers in order to encourage migration to the West, and when the country carved new states out of the territories, they simply divided them along these clean, established grid lines.


  • Inaccuracies in laying out state boundaries, especially in the eastern half of the United States, have led to legal battles and tension lasting for centuries. Many states have disputed areas on their borders, claiming that errors in early surveys led to territory wrongly marked as a neighboring state. Tennessee and Georgia have had a long-standing dispute over part of the Tennessee River watershed, and in 2012, a GPS-enhanced re-surveying of the line between North and South Carolina switched 93 properties from one state to the other.

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