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Sunday, June 5, 2016

State Land Sales vs. Public Land Sales -- Part One, The Early Precedents

When the first European settlers came to America in the 1500s and 1600s, we often assume that there was a free-for-all rush to grab land claims. Nothing could be further from the truth. Upon its discovery, all of the land in the Americas was immediately appropriated by the claims of European Royalty. From the day the Columbus and his crew set foot in America until the present day, the land has been subject to "ownership" claims.

Because of these ownership claims by the European Royalty and their grantees, as genealogical researchers, we can use the records of land ownership and transfers to find our ancestors as they arrived in the Americas. We hear a lot about the religious and freedom seeking motivation of the immigrants to America, but as genealogists we also need to recognize that many people came to America based on the promise of private land ownership and exploitation. From my historical perspective, the real history of America is the history of the ownership of land.

As genealogists we can benefit from the records of these land ventures and acquisitions, from Spanish land grants in the Southwest and Florida to the English and French claims elsewhere and we can use land and property records to break through many difficult research situations.

One interesting aspect of land records is that they were not kept for genealogical or historical preservation motives. Land records survive for the benefit of the owners, buyers and sellers of real estate. Even though some of the records have ended up in genealogical and historical repositories, the core of the records are maintained for tax and sale issues that have little to do with the interests of the average genealogical researcher.

For this series, I am going to begin with and examination of the land grants to the English Colonies. I will also address French and Spanish land grants and their consequences in subsequent posts.

The original English claims to America were collectively referred to as "Virginia." This fact underlies an important principle. Land designations in all parts of the Americas were initially very vague and ill-defined. When the Mayflower arrived off the coast of what is now Massachusetts, they were under the impression that they were arriving in "Virginia." Likewise the history of the United States and all of the other countries in North and South America were subject to these vague land designations. We need to remember that the State of Texas is about three times larger than the entire United Kingdom. The United States has eleven states larger than the United Kingdom. See "How Big is the United Kingdom in Comparison to the United States, Germany and Japan?" See also, "11 U.S. States that are Larger than the U.K."

In 1606 the Virginia Company of London received a charter from King James I as a joint-stock company to establish an English Colony in North America. The Company was formed to colonize the East Coast between the 34th and 41st northern parallels. As a result of the charter, three ships with 144 men and boys set sail on May 13, 1607 and built a fort on Jamestown Island. See Historic Jamestowne, Part of Colonial National Historical Park, Virginia. The original settlers were, in essence, indentured servants to the Virginia Company of London and it was only after seven years of service would they be permitted to own land of their own. The Virginia Company of London had a difficult time making back the investment of its stockholders and eventually, in 1624, King James I, established Virginia as a Royal Colony and the company disappeared. The records of the Virginia Company of London have been published. Here is a list of the resources available.

Kingsbury, Susan M, and Library of Congress. An Introduction to the Records of the Virginia Company of London: With a Bibliographical List of the Extant Documents. Washington: G.P.O., 1905.

“The First Virginia Charter 1606 < 1600-1650 < Documents < American History From Revolution To Reconstruction and beyond.” Accessed June 5, 2016.

“The_Plymouth_Colony_Patent.pdf.” Accessed June 5, 2016.

“The Virginia Company of London - Historic Jamestowne Part of Colonial National Historical Park (U.S. National Park Service).” Accessed June 5, 2016.

“Virginia Company | Historic Jamestowne.” Accessed June 5, 2016.

Virginia Company of London, U. S. Library of Congress, and Susan Myra Kingsbury. The Records of the Virginia Company of London; Washington, Gov’t Prtg. Off., 1906.

These companies were a 16th Century innovation. After a series of developments, the crown granted certain companies a "royal patent" with the expectation of receiving import duties and other taxes from the commercial venture. The Virginia Company of London was only one of several of these companies that were formed about the same time. The companies included the Moscovy Company, the East India Company, the Bermuda Company and the Virginia Company of Plymouth.

The Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth had overlapping claims. The Plymouth company claim the land from southern New Jersey, north to Maine. The London company claimed the land from northern New Jersey south to North Carolina.

Quoting from the Pilgrim Hall Museum publication, "The Plymouth Colony Patent: setting the stage," by Peggy M. Baker, Director and Librarian of the Pilgrim society and Pilgrim Hall Museum, 2007.
The Virginia Company of London had authorized the settlement at Jamestown. Jamestown was the official arm in North America of the Virginia Company of London and a participant in the Virginia Company’s royal charter. The Virginia Company identified the settlers, outfitted them, sent them over and supported them. The process was slow, however. The settlement was neither cohesive nor well managed, and the colony – and the company - suffered financial difficulties. 
So, in 1617, the Virginia Company of London came up with a new idea to help Jamestown out of its financial difficulties: “particular plantations.” Particular plantations were like franchises. Particular plantations were under the jurisdiction of the official governing body (in this case, Jamestown) but had some independent rights. Since particular plantations were not official arms of the Virginia Company, they were not regarded as having a royal patent. The Virginia Company was not responsible for the financial well being of the particular plantations; the particular plantations were responsible for themselves and, in fact, would pay taxes to Jamestown.
 Back in 1620, the Virginia Company of Plymouth went out of business and its affairs were taken over by the Council for New England. See “The Charter of New England : 1620.” Text, December 18, 1998. from the Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School. The Council for New England was given the power by King James I, to:
...make several Plantations in the Parts of America, between the Degrees of thirty-ffoure and ffourty-five; We according to our princely Inclination, favouring much their worthy Disposition, in Hope thereby to advance the in Largement of Christian Religion, to the Glory of God Almighty, as also by that Meanes to streatch out the Bounds of our Dominions, and to replenish those Deserts with People governed by Lawes and Magistrates, for the peaceable Commerce of all, that in time to come shall have occasion to traffique into those Territoryes, granted unto Sir Thomas Gates, Sir George Somers, Knights, Thomas Hanson, and Raleigh Gilbert, Esquires, and of their Associates, for the more speedy Accomplishment thereof, by our Letters-Pattent, bearing Date the Tenth Day of Aprill, in the Fourth Year of our Reign of England, France and Ireland, and of Scotland the ffourtieth, free Liberty to divide themselves into two several Collonyes; the one called the first Collonye, to be undertaken and advanced by certain Knights, Gentlemen, and Merchants, in and about our Cyty of London; the other called the Second Collonye, to be undertaken and advanced by certaine Knights, Gentlemen, and Merchants, and their associates, in and about our Citties of Bristol, Exon, and our Towne of Plymouth, and other Places, as in and by our said Letters-Pattents, amongst other Things more att large it doth and may appears.
The Pilgrims (as they are collectively known) obtained a patent for a particular plantation from the Virginia Company of London for permission for a settlement in Jamestown (the larger area of the Eastern Seaboard). However, the Pilgrims landed outside the jurisdiction of the London company and in the jurisdiction of the newly formed Council for New England. The Mayflower Compact was an interim agreement because of the lack of any formal permission to land where they did.  See Plimoth Plantation, "Mayflower and Mayflower Compact."

The passengers of the Mayflower were not all Puritan Separatists. Many of the passengers came for the land and were members of the Church of England. The Mayflower Compact was intended to, in part, resolve these differences and establish an order considering the fact that the colony did not have official permission to exist.

Permission for a second patent was requested when the Mayflower sailed back to England in 1621. Quoting again from the Pilgrim Hall Museum publication, "The Plymouth Colony Patent: setting the stage," by Peggy M. Baker, Director and Librarian of the Pilgrim society and Pilgrim Hall Museum, 2007:
Like the first patent, the Second Peirce Patent gave the Pilgrims permission to attempt a settlement. This “permission to take a chance” was good for seven years. If, at the end of seven years, the settlement were successful then a new “permanent” patent would be issued; if the settlement was NOT successful then all rights reverted back to the Council for New England. The Second Peirce Patent said that the settlement (corporately, not individually) would receive 100 acres for every person who moved to the settlement who managed to stay in the settlement for three out of the seven years, or who died in the attempt. The settlers were responsible for developing their own infrastructure and maintaining magistrates and local government; they had the authority to make laws and govern themselves (limited according to English custom and usage) and, once the seven years were up, could apply for the permanent charter specifying the colony’s actual physical boundaries.
Land titles in New England can date back to these original grants or patents. Stay tuned for the next installment.

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