The Jersey Land Disputes: How indifference, incompetence and greed led to the American Revolution


One could call the founding of the New Jersey colony a comedy of errors, except for the fact that there was little humor to accompany the many mistakes made in identifying who possessed titles to the land as well as who had the authority to govern the colony. European power struggles affected this relatively small piece of land and the settlers thereof.  These problems, which continued for well over a century, were cross-cultural and perpetuated by greed, indifference, and poor government. Lack of records, accurate surveys and most importantly legal recourse for colonists only magnified the problem and increased public discontent at almost every level of society.  The public believed that colonial government, parliament, and eventually even the Crown itself were self-serving in favoring political appointees at every turn.

As early as 1618 the Dutch (who controlled New York and New Jersey at the time) issued patents to settlers in North Jersey.  There were Dutch settlements along the Delaware in the Cape May area.  Additionally, groups of Swedes also settled in what became Salem and Gloucester.  All was relatively quiet and most of the colony remained in the hands of the Lenape Indians until war broke out between the British and the Dutch.  Many English had settled in New Amsterdam (New York). “English troopships arrived in New Amsterdam harbor and prepared for battle. (Dutch Governor Peter) Stuyvesant bellowed orders to the citizens to defend the colony, but could not motivate them. The New Netherland became New York without a shot fired.”  In 1664, King Charles granted New York and New Jersey to his younger brother the Duke of York.

The Duke of York appointed Richard Nicolls as Governor of New York.  Nicolls was unaware of the Duke’s plans for Jersey and assumed he had control of that area and issued land grants.  Known as Nicolls patents, these land grants were primarily in Elizabethtown and Monmouth.  In the meantime, unbeknownst to Nicolls, the Duke of York granted Jersey to two of royalist supporters during the English Civil War: Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret.

The Duke of York. . . Doth grant, bargain, sell, release and confirm unto the said John Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret, their heirs and assigns for ever, all that tract of land adjacent to New England, and lying and being to the westward of Long Island, and Manhitas Island and bounded on the east part by the main sea, and part by Hudson’s river, and hath upon the west Delaware bay or river, and extendeth southward to the main ocean as far as Cape May at the mouth of the Delaware bay; and to the northward as far as the northernmost branch of the said bay or river of Delaware, which is forty-one degrees and forty minutes of latitude, and crosseth over thence in a strait line to Hudson’s river in forty-one degrees of latitude; which said tract of land is hereafter to be called by the name or names of New Caeserea or New Jersey. . .

 Berkeley and Carteret appointed Captain Peter Carteret (Sir George’s cousin) as governor. Additionally, Berkeley and Carteret, assuming they had the right to govern the colony, issued “Concessions and Agreements in 1665 specifying . . .  principles under which the colony would be governed and land distributed.”

Nicolls, however, remained under the impression that the land grants did not come with right to govern and disputed Peter Carteret’s role in Jersey.  The land grant from the Duke did not mention government one way or the other. However, it is understandable why Berkeley and the Carterets would think they were to govern the region.  One can only speculate as to why Nicolls felt he was to govern both colonies or, perhaps he simply was not willing to relinquish control of the region to Philip Carteret.  Whatever the case by 1666, “Carteret recruited his own group of Puritans from Connecticut to settle the town of Newark . . . Now you had two sets of land grants from two different authorities.”

To make matters more confusing Governor Philip Carteret was very unpopular due to both his governance style and his insistence of payment of quitrents.  In 1672 Sir George’s son, James arrived in Elizabethtown.  Using James’ arrival as an excuse, the residents of the area staged a rebellion.  Governor Philip left for England to confirm with Sir George on how he was supposed to manage the area.  With directions to reign supreme in East Jersey, the Governor returned to the colony in 1674 and tensions were on hold until 1679.

Meanwhile, the Dutch and the English were at war again.  The Dutch briefly took control of New York and New Jersey from 1673-74.  The peace treaty brought the region back under British control.  According to English law, this nullified the King’s patent to the Duke of York and thus the Duke of York’s disbursements to Berkeley and Carteret. During the war, Governor Nicolls had died in battle.  The King issued a new patent for the Duke of York.

Berkeley believed he would lose title to the land and sold his portion.  (Alternatively, John E. Pomfret postulates that Berkeley sold out because he had no interest in colonizing.)  Berkeley sold ninety percent of his share to Edward Byllenge in March 1673.  Then sold the remaining ten percent to John Fenwick.  Byllenge turned his share over to a group of trustees to manage and utilize to pay his extensive debts.  This group divided the land into one hundred portions and sold some of it.  In the meantime, New York’s Governor Andros would not concede the right to govern in New Jersey and he forbade the trustees to proceed with the sale of lands.  William Penn appealed to the Duke of York.  In response, the Duke of York granted the lands to West Jersey Society in trust for Byllenge.

In 1674, the Duke of York reconfirmed Sir George Carteret’s land grant but decreased it to East Jersey.  Carteret and the West Jersey trustees agreed on East West Jersey land division in 1676.  “The boundary was supposed to be a line from the mouth of Little Egg Harbor north of Atlantic City to a point on the upper Delaware River” This was to be specifically 41° 40’ latitude on the upper Delaware River. Governor Andros of New York continued to maintain that he had the right, per the Duke of York to govern the East and West Jersey in addition to New York.  In 1678, he returned to England for clarification. The Duke upheld Andros’ claim.

Governor Philip Carteret wrote to Governor Andros that he would not relinquish his authority in East Jersey.  Shortly thereafter, a group of men arrested and severely beat Philip Carteret.  A trial held in New York resulted in Carteret’s acquittal.  Shortly thereafter, Sir George’s minor grandson, also George, inherited East Jersey following Sir George’s death in January of that year.  Sir George’s widow, Elizabeth, auctioned the land in 1682 to a group of twelve largely Quaker investors including William Penn.  In August, this group added another twelve making a total investment group of twenty-four.

To summarize, the status of landownership in East and West Jersey was as follows by the mid-1680s.  The Dutch had distributed land in Northern New Jersey along the Delaware River.  Although occupied for decades, this land ownership had not been recognized by the British.  Some settlers purchased land directly from the Lenape Indians.  The British did not recognize these purchases either.  Additionally, former Governor Nicolls of New York had distributed some land before the Cartarets arrived and the Cartarets did not recognize these distributions.  East Jersey was now under management of the East Jersey Society comprising twenty-four investors and let by William Penn.  In the other half of the colony, John Fenwick had owned ten percent of West Jersey; however, he had sold some portions of his land.  The West Jersey investors led by William Penn and held in trust for Byllenge managed ninety percent of West Jersey.

Byllenge died in 1687. At this point, his heirs sold his share of West Jersey to Dr. Daniel Coxe, who assumed the governorship. George Keith made the first attempt at a survey of the dividing line between East and West Jersey in 1687.  Due to complaints over inequitable land distribution, the survey was never completed.  From the late 1680s through 1695, “challenges and lawsuits occur in East Jersey of quitrents and land titles in the areas patented by Gov. Nicolls”. Then, in 1692, Dr. Daniel Coxe sells governance and certain land rights to the West Jersey Society.  In 1702, “East and West Jersey Proprietors surrender governance rights to Queen Ann.  New Jersey becomes a single royal colony.  Proprietors retain land rights.”  From 1702 through 1738, New Jersey and New York shared the same governor.  One would think that as a royal colony with a clear governorship and clear land companies established for each region land issues would begin to find resolution.  Unfortunately, for Britain, that is not what happened.

Another difficulty for landowners was unclear boundaries of the colony and internal division thereof.  The 1670s saw “border wars” in the northern part of the state due to conflicts over land division and sales.  In 1719, the Colonial Legislature passed an act to appoint commissioners to determine the true north point of the Colony; they were unable to come to a resolution.  In 1769, the Crown established a commission to determine the New York/New Jersey boundary.  This lack of clarity confused land ownership further.  Worse still were the issues about the East/West Jersey boundary.  The point that the Duke of York had mentioned in his original grant specifically the 41° 40’ latitude on the upper Delaware River simply did not exist.  Over the course of nearly two centuries, assorted boundary lines were researched, negotiated, surveyed and rejected.  The issue was not resolved until an 1855 ruling from the state Supreme Court.  The court was in agreement with the first east/west division designated in 1676.  For colonist, the problem lay in the fact that local surveys and land sales based on the ever-changing boundary between regions of the colony were not reliable and land along that area would frequently result in two owners.

Hart family case study:  In the Hopewell Valley, West Jersey many yeoman farmers also had issues with disputed land titles. Ownership of the land Edward Hart had inherited from his father, John, came under dispute. The community’s land tenure issues went back over fifty years when Dr. Daniel Coxe purchased large tracts of land from the original Edward Byllenge.  Coxe’s subsequent deals with the land management companies caused significant confusion.   In the 1730s, Coxe’s heirs asserted that Dr. Coxe had retracted his 1692 sale of land to the West Jersey Society.  This assertion challenged the ownership of most of the land in and around Hopewell including several of the farms purchased by the Hart family. There was little legal recourse due to poor surveys and the lack of written records. Courts did not support the freeholders.  “Violence loomed in Hunterdon County as early as 1731 when members of the Coxe family filed fifty ejectment suits in order to gain control of the lands.”  The settlers of the area had title to the land.  Many families had lived on and farmed their acreage for up to forty years.  In the end, little actual choice was available to these landowners: repurchase or vacate. Edward and his eldest son repurchased their land.  The original John Hart had paid five pounds for his fifty acres.  Edward with the help of his son, paid seventy-two pounds, seven shillings for the same piece of land.This was a very advantageous arrangement for the Coxe family.  Certainly, Edward and his son, John must have perceived the repurchase as supported by an unjust colonial government. Instead of bowing to popular violence during the land revolts of the 1730s and 1740s or abandoning the farm, he repurchased his father’s land for large sum of money.  John later signed the Declaration of Independence and was the first speaker of the lower house for the Commonwealth of New Jersey.

Similar problems occurred throughout the colony.  Colonists had no legal recourse.  Riots ensued in both East and West Jersey.  David Cohen shares the following:  In 1745, authorities arrested Samuel Baldwin for cutting wood on land he claimed he had bought from the Indians.  Unbeknownst to Baldwin, the land had a duel claim by the East Jersey land proprietors.  Arrested and sent to jail, Baldwin’s neighbors stormed the jail and freed him. Following the arrest of his neighbors, an even larger mob rose up.  Events such as this happened repeatedly throughout the colony.  Many rioters became supporters of the Revolution.  This included Abraham Clark who led a violent dispute in 1755.  Interestingly both Hart and Clark were heavily involved in colonial government prior to the Revolution.  Perhaps it was also their inability to change the system from within that led to their disenfranchisement from their mother country.

By the time the British instituted the Stamp Act, the colony had already been at a breaking point.  For over a century colonists had not been able to receive support from a series of fragmented and self-serving royal appointees.  Freeholders found little if any recourse.  The wealthy received favored treatment, even in cases lacking adequate supporting evidence.  There was a pattern of discontent that ran generations deep within the populace.  Colonists had rioted against their leadership repeatedly to no avail.  Individuals like John Hart and Abraham Clark also tried to change the system from within with little in the way of results.  Finally, in the spring of 1776, the New Jersey Congress dismissed the royally appointed Governor, recalled the loyalist delegates to the Continental Congress and sent representatives that would vote for American Independence.


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