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Why New Hampshire Towns Are Supposed To Walk Their Boundaries, Even In The GPS Age

Michael Rosenstein
Flickr/CC -

  There’s an interesting provision in New Hampshire state law. Title III, Chapter 51 requires that once, every seven years, members of a town's selectboard or their designees must physically walk and inspect the borders of each town or city, and see that they're well maintained. 

Reporter Ben Leubsdorf recently walked the line between the New Hampshire towns of Albany and Madison. His story on this custom of "beating the bounds," as it's called, appears in today’s edition of the Wall Street Journal. He joined Weekend Edition with a walk through what he found. 

What is the term for this tradition, and how far back does it go? 

The name is perambulation, which is one of those great words. This is a very old custom - there are hints of it in the Bible, talking about not moving your neighbor's boundary marker. But really it became a legal instrument in England, perhaps around the Wessex king Alfred. It appears in a number of medieval texts as a legal instrument by which people would walk the boundaries of property and towns to make sure they were clearly marked and that people would know exactly where the lines were. 

It came to New England with the colonists, and it became part of the law in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and in New Hampshire it stuck around in the law books long after everyone else has stopped making towns do this. 

There are no penalties for not conducting perambulation, so not every town does this. But clearly there are at least a few towns that still walk the boundaries - the question is, are they clearly marked? 

It's an open question how many towns are actually doing this. Most of the people I talked to think that most towns aren't doing this. But in a survey done in 2010 by the Municipal Association, something like two-thirds of towns said that they walk at least some of their lines - not all of them, but some of them. But the markings are difficult. These lines were set forth, many of them by kings named George II and George III. Those original charters referred to proceeding at a 14 degree angle from a red oak tree - those trees aren't there anymore. Over time, granite markers have been put down, surrounded by stones. But it can be a little challenging to find those over time.

Is there ever disagreement over those boundaries if they're not clearly marked? 

There are indeed disagreements. There are historical disagreements; there was a case in the 1870s where one town apparently tried to take over part of another town through a misleading perambulation. And there are controversies today. There's a man up in Middleton, or perhaps he's in Wakefield - there's a dispute over where exactly his house is. He's actually filed a lawsuit against the town seeking perambulation because he says there's a boundary marker that's missing and they messed up when they did the perambulation, and they put him in the wrong town. He would like to be put back where he thinks he belongs. So this isn't a dead issue. 

As you mentioned, other states have done away with this. We're in the era of GPS and Google Maps. And yet New Hampshire has hung onto this tradition.

New Hampshire has actively decided to keep this on the books. There were repeal bills in 2005 and early this year, and the legislature in both cases decided to kill those bills and keep the law on the books. There are very passionate defenders of this practice, who say that GPS is a tool but it's just a tool. It can tell you generally where things are, but you want to be precise about this. 

I went out and perambulated a line with a surveyor, and he says he's done quite a few of these and he's twice found houses that were in the wrong town and put them back. If you think about it, that's tax revenue for towns, and that can make a big difference, especially if you don't have much of a tax base in the town. 

The state law says this is to be done every seven years forever. Have you got it on your calendar to check in again in 2022? 

Well, certainly I'd love to go back to the Albany-Madison line, which is the one I walked earlier this month. But, you know, 234 towns and cities - that's quite a few lines to do. Maybe I can make the tour over time. 

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