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Perambulation, or Beating the Bounds

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A very old and some might say unusual tradition persists in parts of New England. Known quaintly as “perambulation,” it started in ancient times in England and Wales, crossed the Atlantic to New England and stopped right there.

Perambulation, still required by law in some states, involves walking around the entire boundary of a municipality or a state. Perambulators check to make sure the markers – a cairn, maybe, or a stone monument – stand where they’re supposed to stand.

Some states, like Connecticut, have discontinued the practice for towns’ boundaries but not the state’s. New Hampshire still requires it for towns. Maine, Vermont. Rhode Island, always the outlier. Massachusetts.

History

The early English and Welsh perambulated the edge of their parishes. They called it “beating the bounds.” That’s because they swatted the boundary markers with a willow branch. They did it to create a shared mental map of the boundaries – one that might have to stand up in court.

Beating the bounds of the parish of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford.

Perambulation took place every seven years just before the Feast of the Ascension. Old and young joined in, singing songs and waving flags as they traipsed around the edge of the parish. The old people taught the young people to remember the markers, according to Amelia Soth in JStor Daily.

Sometimes they employed painful techniques to impress the boundary locations on the young people. They might direct children to jump over a ditch so they’d slip and fall, or dunk a child’s head into a stream. When the perambulators came to a marker they might grab a child, turn him upside down and knock his head against the stone.

Sometimes they used the proverbial carrot as a mnemonic, giving the kids a snack or a beer at a marker.

Beating the bounds and abusing the children did help settle boundary disputes. Wrote Soth,

In one case, for instance, a 75-year-old man testified that he knew exactly where the eastern boundary of the parish lay, because he had been thrown into a heap of nettles there sixty years ago, when he was a boy. Simply asserting that he remembered the boundary would not have stood up in court; it was the vivid, visceral nature of this memory, its connection to a dramatic experience, that helped his parish win the case.

New England Perambulation

Beating the bounds had evolved into a symbolic ritual by the time English settlers came to New England. The newcomers adapted the old practice to their new need to claim land in an unmarked wilderness. They assigned the task of perambulating town boundaries to the local boards of selectmen, enshrining it in law in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Connecticut. They left out the child abuse part, though.

Massachusetts and New Hampshire still require regular perambulation, though enforcement has fallen short in recent years.

Maine now only requires perambulation if a dispute over a boundary arises between two towns.

Perambulating Back in the Day

The City of Boston Archives has a collection of photos taken during the 1896 perambulation. Three aldermen, the city clerk and city engineer took a photograph of every monument marking the boundary between Everett, Revere, Somerville, Newton, Brookline, Dedham and Hyde Park.

In 1981 the Boston City Council assigned a Committee on Perambulation of the Bounds. It consisted of the town clerk, two city engineers and two city councilors — John W. Sears and Rosemary Sansone, names still familiar to older Bostonians. During their traipse around the city, they met with their counterparts in the cities and towns bordering Boston.

They discovered a street that Boston plowed was actually in Everett, an inlet dividing the city from Revere had filled in and the boundary markers between Boston and Somerville were unsatisfactory.

Sears, who wrote the report, noted the city engineers were knowledgeable and urged them to pass their experience along to younger people in the department. He did not mention any head banging against stone markers.

Perambulating New England

Massachusetts law now requires town officials to update their markers by painting the town’s initials and the date on them. The Worcester Telegram and Gazette reported in 2021 that few towns still do it. Some that do just go to the boundary markers rather than hike through woods and swamps.

Updated Hubbardston marker

A 40-slide power point presentations underscores how seriously Hubbardston, Mass., takes its perambulating responsibilities, at least in 2018. The presentation included interactive maps, a list of the latitude and longitude to the second in NAF83 Datum, a report on the condition of the monuments, references, and photographs of the new paint jobs.  They couldn’t update one marker sunk in a swamp.

Well done, Hubbardston!

New Hampshire

In 2005 and 2015, New Hampshire lawmakers proposed bills to eliminate the requirement that selectmen perambulate every seven years. But New Hampshire changes with great reluctance. It was the last New England state to eliminate Fast Day and the last to designate Martin Luther King’s birthday a state holiday. It still doesn’t have a seat belt law for people over 18. So the effort to repeal the ancient perambulation law unsurprisingly went down to defeat.

In 2010, selectmen in New Boston, N.H., perambulated the town’s border with Weare. They trimmed brush or tall grass obscuring the posts, blackened the town initials chiseled into them and obtained their coordinates with a GPS receiver. They also took pictures of the post, just as the boston selectmen had done 114 years earlier.

Marker down in New Boston

Otisfield, Maine:

Maine law until recently required towns to perambulate every 10 years.

A Mainer named G. Howard Dyer in 1946 participated in a perambulation of the 34-mile boundary of Otisfield. After 56 years, he knew no one had done it in a long. long time. So in 2002 at the age of 95 he did it himself. He didn’t tell anybody, because he wasn’t sure he could.

He walked the boundary in bits and pieces over time. It took months. Then he told town officials, surprised because they hadn’t been able to get anyone to do it.

He died at the age of 103, but a hiking trail has been named after him.

New Hampshire and Vermont

Ever since Europeans took over New Hampshire, the state has fought with its neighbors over boundaries.

One dispute arose in 1909 when New Hampshire tried to tax the International Paper Company’s power plant in Bellows Falls, Vt. New Hampshire argued the plant drew water from New Hampshire’s part of the Connecticut River.

The U.S. Supreme Court finally settled the boundary in 1937. By then, International Paper had abandoned the plant.

Vermont and New Hampshire then passed laws requiring the state attorney general to perambulate the border between the two states. In a modern spin on the practice of hitting boundary markers with small children, two attorneys general turned it into a public relations stunt in 2023.

Connecticut River perambulation

Charity Clark of Vermont and John Formella of New Hampshire on October 6 met each other and the news media on the bridge between Norwich, Vt., and Hanover, N.H. They engaged in fun boasting about craft beer, maple syrup, ski areas, and ocean beaches, and they enjoyed a boat ride. The work of making sure boundary markers were properly renewed and maintained fell to surveyors in the states’ transportation departments.

It was the 12th perambulation of the New Hampshire-Vermont border.

Connecticut

Connecticut at first required town boundaries walked every year. Then every three years, then, by the 19th century, every five years. Finally, Connecticut gave up and no longer requires the towns to perambulate. However, it tasks the Department of Transportation to perambulate the state’s borders with Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York.

Images: Boston Monument 14: City of Boston Archives via Flickr CC by 2.0. Boston Monument 20 City of Boston Archives via Flickr CC by 2.0. Boston Monument 26: City of Boston Monument via Flickr CC by 2.0. John Sears By City of Boston Archives from West Roxbury, United States – State Representative John Sears (center) with unidentified man, woman, and veterans at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 144 in the North End, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94167387. Monument 120L City of Boston Archives  via Flickr CC by 2.0./ Beating the bounds in Oxford, England By Andrew Gray – Flickr: p1160306, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13964334.

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