New England Towns

The land systems in the South and in New England were similar. However, New England towns utilized a system whereby land grants were given to town proprietors (groups of men). When the proprietors took possession of land, they had to survey it and divide it up into tracts. Some tracts were to be used as field strips or home sites. Once the land was divided, it was up to the proprietors to distribute it. The only land that was not given to private owners was to be used by the government or for the town commons. That meant that New England consisted of multiple villages, while ares in the South were mainly scattered farms and rural areas.

New England towns started out when the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth settlements were formed. The Puritans and the Pilgrims set out to create congregation-based communities that combined civil government and church. The idea was to create God’s commonwealth. As the population grew, it became necessary for people to branch out into other colonies. At that time, people petitioned the government to start new towns and prayed that they would be granted the town proprietorship. Each town extended a certain distance beyond the main village limits and was marked according to certain neighboring town boundaries. Although most later towns were laid out in squares that measured 6 miles across, the earlier towns didn’t have standard shapes. Although Puritanism eventually went out of favor, most New England towns maintained the congregation-community setting, along with portions of New Jersey and New York. However, lands were often bought and sold in an effort to expand New England farm land and allow people to be closer to their crop fields, rather than to the town centers.

One of the issues faced by genealogists doing research on new England residents is that they must determine which records are kept by the towns and which records are kept by the counties. For example, towns in Massachusetts Bay started out keeping deed records. However, that duty passed to the counties when counties were actually created, which was in 1643. Also, up until the time of the New York proprietary requirement started by the Duke of York, the eastern Long Island towns kept their own deed records as well. Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Vermont all still record deeds on a town level, even in the present day. Early town proprietor minutes for certain towns may also be extant and be useful to researchers. Essentially, for research purposes, New England towns need to be treated as if they are simply tiny counties. However, it is important to research records at town, county, and state levels.

New England Land System Technical Information

Commoners and Non-Commoners – Commoners and proprietors are essentially the same thing. However, the term "proprietor" was used later, while the term "commoner" was used earlier in New England’s history. The legislature, or General Court, would grant pieces of common land to groups of people, who were known as commoners. Although the commoners were granted the land, they didn’t always have complete control of it. In most cases, makeshift corporations of sorts were formed. Township privileges might be given to certain inhabitants. However, if a commoner gained land rights through an inheritance or sale, they may not be given those privileges, such as the ability to vote at town meetings. The opposite was also true in that those men with town meeting votes did not automatically have control of any town lands. The politics and the land ownership in each town were kept completely separate, in most cases. The proprietors had the ability to grant land to the town and the town had the ability to enter into any necessary transactions of that sort with the proprietors whenever it was necessary. When a plantation was made up entirely of commoners, there were no specific proprietors and, therefore, no proprietors’ records. One example of that is a town called Groton in Massachusetts. Although the town was founded in 1655, proprietors’ records for it do not exist prior to 1713. Commoners’ rights became more of an issue, as each town’s population grew. Hampton, which is now part of New Hampshire, had the following rules enacted:

  • 1641-Persons who were not freemen could be present at town meetings.
  • 1662-Men had to have "one share at least of commonage, according to the first division" in order to act in town affairs.
  • 1700-No one could vote to dispose of lands unless he was a commoner and no one could vote at all unless they were a freeholder.

Towns like Hampton often had separate records for proprietors. Those could be in their own books, or they could be part of the original record book for the town in question.

Whenever non-commoners made claims, there were two possible ways to handle the situation. The first way was to raise the number of commoners in the town. The second way was to give land to new people without commonage rights. In that case, the land could be given to all members of a certain group. For example, the town of Barnstable gave each widow 4 acres of land. However, land could also be granted to specific individuals.

Division of Common Lands – The division of common lands was generally done based on tax lists that listed each man’s land holdings. This was true of many of the Long Island Sound and Connecticut River towns, including Dedham, Ipswich, Hartford, and Haverhill.

Restrictions Upon Alienation – Community character preservation and control were highly prized in early colonies, which is why restrictions were placed upon alienation. For example, in 1659 Connecticut passed a law stating that nobody could sell lands or homes without getting approval from their town. In Guilford, Connecticut, the Town Book also states that nobody can buy land without the town’s consent. The 1638 Watertown, Massachusetts law stated that nobody could sell town lots to "forrainers."

Common Field – Of course, several common fields existed in New England towns. Laws in both Massachusetts and Connecticut gave authority over common fields to selectmen or townsmen. In cases where neither existed, a certain group of freemen were given authority over those pieces of land.

Common fields came about for any one of a number of reasons. They might be created for the sake of convenience, because of fencing problems, or because of a lack of ability to fence the lands at all.

Home Lots, Acre Rights, Pitches – Lots for houses varied greatly in size in New England. For example, lots could be anywhere from 5 to 22 acres in Haverhill, but could only be 6 to 12 acres in Barnstable. Groton, meanwhile, allowed lots to be between 10 and 20 acres. Lots were often distributed according to the possessor’s "quality and estate."

A single person’s ownership of part of common lands is denoted by lot or according to acre rights. However, those lots are not at all the same as house or home lots. In fact, the values and sizes of acre rights lots varied quite a bit. For example, the town of Billerica equated 12 acres in a meadow with 113 upland acres and both were equal to 10 acres of common land. Meanwhile, the town of Groton gave out different sized acre rights lots, such as 60 or 20. 755 acre rights were given total. The owner of a 60 acre right was actually given 3242 acres of common land rights.

Some owners were allowed to choose a lot of land anywhere on the commons for a town. Those written rights were called pitches.