“the Most Improveablest Land…”


New Jersey, a self-assured state that is sometimes derided as being nothing more than an oversized industrial suburb, but that shrugs off the slight equably because it knows better, was originally two states—or, to be more exact, two provinces. They were the provinces of East New Jersey and West New Jersey, and they were separated by a boundary line running not literally north-south, but northwest-southeast: from the Atlantic coast a few miles north of the present Atlantic City to a point on the Delaware River somewhat north of the Delaware Water Gap. All land in “the Jerseys,” as the area was often called, unless and until it had been duly granted to someone else, was owned, in one case, by the General Board of Proprietors of the Eastern Division of New Jersey, and in the other, by the various individual proprietors of West New Jersey. For a short time in the very beginning, the proprietorships were supposed to have had the responsibility for the government of their respective provinces as well as the privilege of holding the land; this rather feudal arrangement came to an end in 1*02, when Queen Anne took over the government of all of New Jersey and it became a British colony. But the proprietors kept title to all previously unconveyed land. As a matter of fact, they still do, and it is entirely possible that the Board of Proprietors of East Jersey, which first convened in i()8s and is almost certainly the oldest profit-making corporation in the country, will distribute some of the proceeds of its recent land sales to its shareholders in the form of a cash dividend next year, as it last did in 1960.

For one reason or another, pieces of land that have never been granted to anyone, and are therefore the proprietors’ property, keep turning up; and odd as it may seem after three centuries, the rate at which they turn up seems to be accelerating as time goes on. An excitable securities analyst might even describe the proprietorships as “growth situations”—which was exactly the way their original promoters described them to the real-estate plungers in the coffeehouses of seventeenth-century London. The Jerseys, and New Jersey itself, came into being as handouts for speculalion to Restoration court favorites. In 1664, when the British took over New Netherland from the Dutch and changed its name to New York, the practically unsettled area now comprising New Jersey was part of the prize of conquest. That same year, King Charles II included the territory between the Delaware and Hudson rivers in a grant to his brother, then Duke of York and later James II.

Immediately after being granted the territory, James deeded it to two of his London cronies, Sir John Berkeley and Sir George Charteret, specifying in the deed that the place be called New Jersey after the Channel Island where Carierel had been born and had served a term as governor. (New Jersey counts lhe day of this deed—June 24, 1664—as its birth date, and celebrated its tercentenary this year.) The giveaway raised cries of outrage in various quarters, particularly in the brand-new British colony of New York, where the general belief was that the lands west of the Hudson ought to be part of its domain. One New York merchant, Samuel Maverick, wrote in 1668 to a London intimate of the Duke complaining that the Berkeley-Carieret grant had deprived New York, and the Crown itself, of “a vast tract of the most improveablest land within His Royall Highness his patent.” Berkeley and Carteret do not seem to have been especially worthy of such largesse. Neither of them ever came to New Jersey, perhaps because they had their hands full at home. Berkeley, who later became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, has left a record of generally poor behavior; and Carteret was expelled from the House of Commons for embezzling funds of the Royal Navy, of which he had been treasurer.

The East and West Jersey proprietorships emerged out of the grant to Berkeley and Carteret. These absentee landlords operated New Jersey for a decade as a joint proprietorship, encouraging settlement with a liberal charter that allowed religious freedom, and providing for an appointed council and an elected assembly. Clear title to plots granted to settlers was insured through at least token purchases by the proprietors from the Leni-Lenape, or Delaware, Indians, who were friendly. Despite these generally satisfactory terms, the promoters had little success with their speculation, except in the areas of Newark, Elizabeth, and what are now Middlesex and Monmouth counties, where numerous New England religious dissenters came to escape persecution. Even this migration brought little income to Berkeley and Carteret, since many of the dissenters bought their land titles from Governor Richard Nicolls of New York, who insisted that New Jersey was part of New York and acted on his conviction by freely granting deeds to land there.