- Historic Sites
“the Most Improveablest Land…”
Somehow the royal land grants in New Jersey are still operating, and every now and then they pay off
October 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 6
Finally, and most importantly, unlike the East Jersey Board, which claims all unappropriated lands, the West Jersey proprietors as a body claim no land, own none, and never have owned any. Under their system, rights in the land belong not to the organization but directly to the people who hold shares in it, and the nine dividends that have been handed out to those people have been not in the form of deeds to actual land. Rather, they have been warrants to authorize the claiming of stated quantities of land. For example, a man who owned one share of West Jersey in 1911 would have received warrants entitling him to claim up to one thousand acres, provided he could find some West Jersey acres not owned by somebody else. If he could not, or if he did not want to acquire land, he was free to sell his warrants in the open market, to one of his fellow proprietors or, if he chose, to a non-proprietor. In any case, to get title to a piece of unappropriated West Jersey land, a man must obtain a survey proving that it is unappropriated, and then present this, along with the necessary warrants, to the Council for approval. Not even the fees paid to the Council for its trouble in examining the documents and approving the claims go into the West Jersey proprietors’ treasury; instead, they go to the Council members as individuals. “West Jersey—I mean the proprietorship—has virtually no money or possessions,” Senator Haines told me. “Nothing like George Miller. The proprietorship doesn’t even own the land on which the surveyor general’s office stands—it rents that from the Burlington Quaker Meeting. As for what we individual proprietors get out of our shareholdings, we have lower land values around here than George Miller has, and so the sums are comparatively modest.”
Marvelling that a twentieth-century northern Democrat could be one of the two major owners of such a wildly individualistic, anti-bureaucratic enterprise as perhaps only seventeenth-century England could have produced, I asked Senator Haines whether the West Jersey proprietors, individually, had benefited from any modest windfalls lately. After thumbing through some records, he replied that after a long dry spell lasting from 1930 to 1941, during which the West Jersey Council approved no claims at all, in the last two decades it has approved sixteen grants totalling 4,282.09 acres of land, in blocks of many sizes. The blocks, like those claimed by the East Jersey proprietors, appeared usually to be the result of mistakes in earlier surveys, particularly in connection with a hundred-thousandacre, irregularly shaped piece of south-central Jersey land called the Wharton Tract, which was purchased by New Jersey in the mid-fifties for a public recreation area, and which, in connection with this sale, had to be resurveyed; but in West Jersey there were also numerous tracts of salt marsh near the seashore that had previously been scorned as worthless but are now valued as duck-shooting preserves or for resort use along the shores of the Inland Waterway. Since most of the remaining proprietary shares and most of the acreage warrants belong to the Haineses, the Senator pointed out, it is obvious that most of the 4,282.09 acres were claimed either by the Haineses or by people who had bought their warrants from them. How, then, I wanted to know, did the Haineses come to be the virtual suzerains of unappropriated West Jersey lands? “Well, we got a little of it—about a share and a half—by inheritance from our grandfather, who was West Jersey surveyor general for many years,” Senator Haines replied. “But we got the bulk of it by purchase. In 1955, following the death of Benjamin B. Cooper—he was a member of the Cooper family that originally owned most of the land where Camden now stands—some of the assets in his estate were put on sale by his executor, the Camden Trust Company. Among the assets were a fraction under sixteen shares in the West Jersey proprietorship, with accompanying acreage warrants. My brother and I bought them. It wasn’t so much a dollars-and-cents thing for us as a matter of keeping control of the Council in responsible hands. The shares might have been sold off in small portions to speculators, or they might have been sold to someone who would want to change the whole nature of the setup. We wanted to protect West Jersey against raiders.”
At this moment, the Senator and I were joined by his brother and fellow suzerain, Snowden Haines, and by another man—a dapper, jaunty fellow whom the Senator introduced as Dr. Henry H. Bisbee, a Burlington oculist and a member of the Council of Proprietors. The two new arrivals suggested that I might want to have a look at the office of the surveyor general of the West Jersey proprietors.