“the Most Improveablest Land…”


In 1674, Berkeley decided to cash in his share of New Jersey. To make the sale possible, a dividing line—the first of many—was marked out; whereupon Berkeley, who got West Jersey, immediately sold it to two Quakers who formed a Quaker colony there but went bankrupt in the process. Then, in 1683, a stock company was formed and enough shares were sold to get West Jersey out of bankruptcy. Members of a board of proprietors, made up of those who had bought the shares, were installed as owners. Carteret held onto the East Jersey land, except for what little he sold off and what was improperly disposed of by Governor Nicolls, until his death in 1680. Two years later, his heirs sold East Jersey as a whole to a group of twelve men, who became its first board of proprietors. Thus within twenty years of the Duke’s grant, both Jerseys were established under stock-company ownership.

The proprietary system—whereby unclaimed lands belonged to a board of proprietors rather than to the Crown—was, of course, employed in developing some of the other original states, including Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and the Carolinas, the proprietors in the last case including the ubiquitous Berkeley and Carteret. But in all oi those cases, the proprietors lost their rights to both government and land ownership during the eighteenth century—before, during, or soon after the American Revolution. Not in New Jersey; there, and there alone, the proprietors successfully weathered all crises occasioned by the march of democracy and other causes. Even the Revolution, for all its land reforms, produced not a whisper of a proposal to disturb the New Jersey proprietorships. The explanation for this extraordinary silence seems to lie in the fact that while the proprietary rights in other states were concentrated in a few hands—in the Penn family in Pennsylvania and Delaware, for example, and the Calvert family in Maryland—East and West Jersey were the domain of companies whose ownership was by that time divided among hundreds of unrelated individuals, most of them also voters. The moral is clear enough: a land company, when a revolution comes along, does well to have a lot of stockholders.

Free of British rule and still secure in their property rights, the East and West Jersey proprietors went right on indulging in a practice that had long since become almost a reflex with them—squabbling with each other about land. In fact, over a period of more than two centuries they carried on intermittently one of the most durable property-line rows in the history of unneighborliness. The first important dividing line, laid out in 1687 by George Keith, a theologian and surveyor—he was perhaps better as the former than as the latter—ran northwest from Little Egg Harbor and was supposed to terminate at the Delaware River at a point near the Delaware Water Gap, but for some reason Keith never finished it; he got no further than a point on the south branch of the Raritan River. Even apart from being incomplete, the Keith line was unacceptable to West Jersey. Nevertheless, despite almost continuous bickering, it remained the nearest thing to an agreed-upon province line until 1743, when John Lawrence, a surveyor with more stamina than Keith, laid out a new line that went from Little Egg Harbor more northerly than Keith’s line, and extended to the Delaware, which it touched at a point just south of Dingmans Ferry. The Lawrence line, however, did not put the controversy to rest. It was revived in 1775, in the 1830’s, and again in 1887, when the West Jersey proprietors maintained, a mere century and a half after the event, that Lawrence had cheated them—and that, furthermore, “he did not do it ignorantly.” But the Lawrence line survived all attacks, and has continued to be accepted, grudgingly, since then—perhaps because practically all land in the disputed area has long since been appropriated, and what remains to be squabbled over is a bare bone. I recently asked Richard P. McCormick of Rutgers, an authority on New Jersey history and a West Jersey proprietor, whether he thought the boundary dispute was over. “I wouldn’t say that,” he replied. “I’d merely say it’s quiescent.” At any rate, the proprietors of the two Jerseys held a joint meeting in Elizabeth this May—their first such meeting in 283 years, incidentally—and their discussion of the border question is said to have been amicable.

How are the two proprietorships making out otherwise? Because I wanted to find this out, and because I generally welcome an excuse for a day’s ramble through New Jersey, I set out one morning not long ago to visit the East Jersey proprietors, in Perth Amboy, and then to go to Burlington and drop in on the West Jersey proprietors there. In the case of East Jersey, my plan involved making a rendezvous, because the surveyor general’s office on High Street in Perth Amboy, which serves as the proprietors’ headquarters and where their records are kept, is customarily unmanned. Nobody so much as has a key to it except a janitor and a certain George J. Miller, who serves as the East Jersey Board of Proprietors’ registrar and general factotum. I got in touch with Miller, and we arranged to meet at the surveyor general’s office.