Overview of Colonial English Research
Genealogists who have pushed one or more lines of ancestry back to the time of the Revolutionary War, and who have not previously worked with the records of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, will find in this period more variety in the records than they have previously experienced. There are several reasons for this, all of which make the research process highly challenging.
First, the colonists, especially in the seventeenth century, had to solve a problem for which they were not prepared. Planting their settlements in territory previously unoccupied by Europeans, they were unable or unwilling to transfer to the New World the full range of laws and customs of record keeping with which they were familiar. In many colonies, there were not enough men experienced in running the courts and the other similar institutions. The settlers in New England, protesting as they did against many features of the Church of England, would not reproduce the ecclesiastical courts. (In England at the time of migration, probate and many other matters were handled in ecclesiastical rather than civil courts.)
Second, the process of building new institutions had a certain trial-and-error element to it. As a result, almost without exception, the earliest record books, whether generated by town, county, or colony, were an amalgamation of many different types of records entered together in the same volume, sometimes in no particular order. Researchers accustomed to records neatly separated into different books by record type need to be prepared to look for records in unlikely places. At the same time, they also need to be alert to the possibility that records originally entered in one volume will, in modern times, be split out and published in more than one place.
Third, the colonists faced a special problem with regard to the transfer of real property. Almost no one in England in the seventeenth century had experience in the original transfer of land from the government to individuals since, with the exception of land recovered from the drained fens, virtually all the land in England had been granted at the time of William the Conqueror (and earlier). Also, most of England was still in the throes of throwing off the old feudal system of land tenure. Consequently, many of the colonists were familiar only with manorial landholding, and, with a few notable exceptions, the immigrants to the New World were not interested in replicating this system.
As a result of this concentrated variability, researchers coming to colonial records for the first time will encounter a number of problems they will not have seen while working in the relative regularity of record keeping in the public land states west of the Appalachians or even in the eastern seaboard states after the Revolution. Even more than when researching other times and places, researchers will need to be constantly alert to the different mix of records that must be brought into play in order to solve a genealogical problem. This mix of records will be different for each of the colonies and, within some of the colonies, will be different at different times within the colonial era.
The principal goal in this chapter is to focus on those aspects of colonial record keeping that may be unfamiliar to genealogists already familiar with courthouse research in the newer states. This chapter concentrates on records created before the formation of counties in the colonies and on records maintained in ways and in places not seen in later times. For example, in some instances records that pertain to one colony ended up, for one reason or another, in another colony. This chapter also examines the process by which the colonies moved from an early amorphous mode of record keeping to the more regular and rational system of later years.
For each of the thirteen colonies, this chapter presents three types of information. First, it sets forth a condensed jurisdictional history of the colony, with emphasis on the period prior to establishment of counties, a process that proceeded at a different pace from colony to colony. Second, the section for each colony examines a small selection of records, focusing on one or two record types that were originally recorded in an unusual manner. (There is no attempt to survey all the records available for the colonial period.) Third, each section points out one or two case studies, which are specific articles that demonstrate the way in which these early records may be exploited to solve a difficult genealogical problem. Additionally, where appropriate, the chapter appends to the accounts of some of the colonies information on other colonies that were absorbed by a neighbor colony, and also includes information on portions of colonies that were at least partially settled by 1776 but were later set off as separate states.
In using this chapter, researchers should not limit themselves to the colony that may be of direct interest. Principles of record creation and publication that are described under only one or two colonies may be more widely applicable to other colonies. For example, the description of the system of land distribution found in the Virginia section has relevance for almost all of the colonies outside of New England.
Researching in the colonial period can challenge the researcher in unusual ways, but the rewards may also be great, when the critical clue, or constellation of clues, is found in an unexpected place.
Proprietors and the Granting of Land
The word proprietor may be seen as a description of some part of the landgranting process in each of the thirteen colonies. Despite the widespread application of this term, the meaning is not the same in all of the colonies. In brief, the four New England colonies had a form of proprietary landgranting that was quite distinct from the form used in the seven colonies from Pennsylvania south to Georgia. New York and New Jersey formed a transitional region, which blended the procedures used to the north and south.
In the four New England colonies (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut), the granting of land took place in two steps. First, the colony legislature granted a substantial plot of undivided land to a group of families that agreed to settle that land within a stated period of time. Second, that group of families chose for themselves the manner in which they subdivided the land, usually based on some combination of wealth and family size. Some towns chose to grant all of their land within a short period of time, while others initially granted only a portion of the land available to them, reserving the remainder for later needs.
This system had also been used in New Haven and Plymouth colonies before their respective mergers with Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay colonies and would also be used in those regions which eventually grew into the states of Vermont and Maine. No quitrents were collected under the New England system. The town was responsible for collecting taxes for the support of the colony, but the assessment of this tax was not based solely on land.
More information on the New England system may be found in Roy Hidemichi Akagi’s The Town Proprietors of the New England Colonies and John Frederick Martin’s Profits in the Wilderness.
New York, especially in the English period, had a wider range of landgranting practices than any other colony. In some limited areas, groups of purchasers, mostly from New England, obtained from the colony patents to large portions of land, which they then allocated amongst themselves, just as the New England town proprietors did.
An arrangement unique to New York among the English mainland colonies was the establishment of extensive manors along the Hudson between Manhattan and Albany. These manors were granted to a few individuals at the very top of the social ladder, and these men, in turn, retained ownership of the land and farmed it out to tenants. Because so much of the land in these manors did not change hands in the colonial period, no deeds were generated; this is one of the reasons that research in this area is so difficult.
Finally, New York granted land to individuals by the system of petition, warrant, survey, and patent, as did all the colonies to the south. Thus, New York granted some land in the New England way, some land in the southern way, and other land in a manner of its own.
As noted in the New Jersey section, New Jersey also granted some land in the style of the New England proprietors. The remainder of the land was allocated by the East Jersey and West Jersey Proprietors, again through the sequence of petition, warrant, survey, and patent.
The remainder of the colonies, from Pennsylvania to Georgia, operated one version or another of the system of petition, warrant, survey, and patent by which the first transfer of land was directly from the colony to the individual, without any intermediary, as in the New England way of granting land. A somewhat more detailed explanation of the system of patents may be found in the Virginia section. The proprietors in each of these colonies were a small group of men proceeding under authority of the Crown, except where the grants were made even more directly under aegis of a royal governor.
The precise terminology of the four steps of the landgranting process might differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For example, the first step in the process might be termed petition, entry, or application. Regardless of the terminology, the process was essentially the same.
- Roy Hidemichi Akagi, The Town Proprietors of the New England Colonies (Gloucester, Mass., 1963); John Frederick Martin, Profits in the Wilderness (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1991).
- Jessica Kross, The Evolution of an American Town: Newtown, New York, 1642–1775 (Philadelphia, 1983).
- Sung Bok Kim, Landlord and Tenant in Colonial New York: Manorial Society, 1664–1775 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1978).
- E. B. O’Callaghan, comp., Calendar of N.Y. Colonial Manuscripts: Indorsed Land Papers; in the Office of the Secretary of State of New York, 1643–1803 (Albany, 1864; Harrison, N.Y., 1987).
- John E. Pomfret, The New Jersey Proprietors and Their Lands (Princeton, N.J., 1964).