The following is a blog post from Michele S. Byers, Executive Director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation…
Once a year, America’s oldest continuously operating corporation meets in a tiny building in Burlington City, N.J. Instead of business suits, shareholders dress in Quaker costumes.
There’s not much business to conduct, because the Council of West Jersey Proprietors is from another era. Established in 1688 as a land grant corporation, the council no longer has vast lands to sell, but still owns some property and settles minor boundary issues.
With New Jersey celebrating 350 years, it’s worth remembering the critical role once held by this historic corporation and its defunct twin, the East Jersey Board of Proprietors.
The two land grant corporations stem from a royal gift from a British monarch. In 1664, King Charles II granted his brother James, the Duke of York, extensive territory in the New World, including the lands that would become New Jersey.
The Duke gifted the land to two loyal friends, Lord John Berkeley and Sir George Carteret, marking the official beginning of New Jersey. The state was carved in half diagonally, beginning at a point along the Atlantic Ocean in Little Egg Harbor and extending in a northwesterly direction to the Delaware River. Berkeley got the west side and Carteret got the east.
Berkeley quickly sold his interests to a group of Quakers, including William Penn, and Carteret’s family also sold his share after his death. Berkeley and Carteret’s legal successors were investors whose main business was to sell acreage to settlers and collect annual rents; they formed the East and West Jersey boards of proprietors.
“If someone in the colony wanted to buy land, they would have to go to one of the proprietors,” explained Maxine Lurie, a retired professor of history at Seton Hall University and the author of an upcoming book on New Jersey history.
The East Jersey Board of Proprietors was established in 1682 in Perth Amboy. But it dissolved in 1998, largely because shareholders feared potential legal liability for environmental problems on land the corporation held. Its real estate, including the rights to any remaining lands, was sold to the state for $300,000.
But the Council of West Jersey Proprietors survives and has been running for 336 years … although with a largely ceremonial role in the past century.
“Technically, if there’s a piece of land in West Jersey that nobody has ever purchased in 300-plus years, it would belong to the corporation,” said Lurie. “But it’s a default. If you do a title search and there’s no clear title that you can trace, the presumption is that the proprietors still own it.”
Given New Jersey’s status as the nation’s most densely populated state, discovering lands without title is rare and exciting. More common are thin overlaps or gaps between titled properties, and it falls to the West Jersey Proprietors to resolve these “gores.”
Perhaps the greatest modern-day contribution of the East and West Jersey Proprietors is their historical records. When the East Jersey Proprietors dissolved, their extensive collection of colonial era maps and land records went to the State Archives in Trenton.
In 2005, the West Jersey Proprietors deposited its records with the State Archives, consolidating all of New Jersey’s colonial land records under the same roof for the first time – a huge benefit for historians, genealogists and those interested in land.
While you’re celebrating our state’s 350th anniversary, raise a glass to the Proprietors, who launched these centuries of land subdivision in this state we’re in!
To learn more about our state’s history and how it’s being celebrated this year, go to http://officialnj350.com/. For a full Council of West Jersey Proprietors history, go to http://westjersey.org/wjh_copowj.htm.
And to learn more about preserving land and natural resources in New Jersey, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.