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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Notions of Property and Citizenship in New Haven Colony, 1639

I spent the morning reading through the Records of The New Haven Colony and Plantation from 1638 to 1649, as copied and published in 1857.  Really interesting stuff touching on early colonial notions of land and ownership.

For example, a General Court on the 4th of January, 1639 wrote [note, I modernized the spelling for ease of reading]:

"It is agreed by the towne and accordingly ordered by the court that the Neck shall be planted or sown for the term of seven years, and that John Brockett shall go about laying it out forthwith, and all differences between party and party about ground formerly broke up and planted by English then shall be arbitrated by indifferent men which shall be chosen to that end."  [page 26]

further...

"It is ordered that no planter or planters shall make purchase of any lands or plantation from the Indians or others for their own private use or advantage, but in the name and for the use of the whole plantation." [page 27]

I'm interested about how long this idea of community property lasted and how widespread it was among the colonies.  I note that elsewhere in the Records it is made clear that not all planters are equal.  Some were given vast holdings of land and others were given an acre and a half.  The "owners" were clearly more akin to renters, with the court solemnizing transfers between family members and third parties.  More on the colonial history of land ownership later, if readers are interested.

Although not really property-related, I wanted to share the "Free Man's Charge" from 1639 because I was struck by how consistent it is with modern concepts of citizenship [note: I did not modernize the spelling to give you the flavor of the book]:

"Yow shall neither plott, practice nor consent to any evill or hurt against this Jurisdiction, or any pte of it, or against the civill gouerment here established.  And if you shall know any pson, or psons with intend, plott, or conspire any thing wch tends to the hurt or prejudice of the same, yow shall timely discouer the same to lawfull authority here established, and yow shall assist and bee helpfull in all the affaires of the Jurisdiction, and by all meanes shall promove the publique wellfare of the same, according to yor place, ability, and opptunity, yow shall give due honnor to the lawfull magistrats, and shall be obedient and subject to all the wholesome laws and orderes, allready made, or wch shall be hereafter made, by lawfull authority afforesaid.  And that both in yor pson and estate: and when yow shall be duely called to give yor vote or suffrage in any election, or touching any other matter, wch concerneth this common wealth, yow shall give it as in yor conscience yow shall judg may conduce to the best good of the same."  [page 19]

"You . . . by all means shall promote the public welfare ... according to your place, ability, and opportunity."  The expectations of American civil society, circa 1639.  Good stuff.

Tanya Marsh

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