“the Most Improveablest Land…”

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The drive from the Holland Tunnel to Perth Amboy, across the southern part of the Jersey Meadows and then through the overpoweringly industrial outskirts of Newark, Elizabeth, Linden, and Rahway, is enough to make one weep for the fresh, green, promising East Jersey that is gone; looking at the muddy mouth of the Raritan and its smokestack-studded shores, one needs an imaginative eye indeed to conceive the Perth Amboy and Piscataway that arose here in the seventeenth century. It was a relief to get to the center of Perth Amboy, which is made oddly charming by the effect, characteristically New Jerseyan, produced by a few well-preserved old buildings scattered apparently at random among a great many contemporary ones, giving the modern city a kind of historic leitmotiv. Arriving at High Street, I found the surveyor general’s office—a small rectangular brick building dating from 1868, painted white, with a single door and a plain peaked roof without dormers—standing directly beside City Hall at the edge of a circular park. Mr. Miller I found to be a heavy-set, jowly man who looked to be in his sixties. After we had exchanged greetings, he unlocked the door of the surveyor general’s office with his exclusive key, and in we went.

The interior, consisting of an entrance alcove and a single large room, greeted us with a blast of cold, damp air that carried the unmistakable and stimulating smell of old papers. In the main room, one wall of which was decorated with a large portrait of Washington, were a battered long table, eight or ten battered chairs ranged around it, a potbellied stove, and a large box containing wood and coal; one corner of the room, comprising perhaps a quarter of the whole area, was walled off to form a large vault entered through a door with a combination lock. As Mr. Miller put some wood into the stove and lit it, I asked him about the absence of modern heating facilities or electricity in the building. “Unnecessary expense to the Board, and a potential fire hazard to its priceless records,” he replied briefly, clapping his hands against his sides for warmth. Then he worked the combination lock and led the way into the vault, in which the fragrant papers were arranged in rows of filing cabinets and on tiers of shelves, all apparently in apple-pie order. “These are the records,” Mr. Miller announced. “They include twenty-four volumes of land survey—ssome seventy thousand, in all—eleven volumes of warrants of survey, sixteen volumes of early deeds, about four hundred maps, and an uncounted number of caveats, certificates of mislocation, pieces of correspondence, and miscellaneous papers. They are chiefly useful to individuals and title companies in the searching of land titles. Outsiders are entitled to use our records, with the Board’s permission, on payment of a small fee, but in practice I usually come here myself and get people the information they want—also for a small fee, payable to the Board. Yesterday, for example, I got a request from a lawyer in Sea Girt for a copy of a deed to one hundred and sixty acres granted to John Stuart, dated December 20, 1700, and if you’ll pardon me, I’ll dig that one out right now.”

As Miller spoke, it occurred to me that there was a self-satisfied, almost cat-that-swallowed-the-canary quality about his manner. But I thought it the part of Jersey prudence, if not Jersey manners, not to mention my impression, and in any case, Mr. Miller went on talking as he hunted for the Stuart deed. “Since the original twelve proprietors bought East Jersey in 1682,” he said, “the original twelve shares have been divided into ninety-six shares. The stock has been split eight for one, you might say. Of those ninety-six, ninety-one and a half are extant—the other four and a half have disappeared, over the years. Our executive body, the General Board of Proprietors, normally meets twice a year, on the third Tuesdays of May and October, either here or in Newark. Membership on the Board is open to anyone who holds at least one full share, and who has been certified as a fit member by the rest of the Board. At our last meeting, thirty-five proprietors were present. Ten of them were Howells. The Howell family have been East Jersey proprietors for about four generations. In fact, most of our Board members get their entitlement by inheritance through several generations—the Keans, the Rutherfords, the Brinleys, the Cobbs, and the Collinses, for example. But we also have members who have acquired shares by their own purchase. I’m one of them. My wife is another.