October 1990

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The Pre-Emption Line


Alfred G. Hilbert

Part II, Part III

Part I

Its Historical Background of Conflicting Charters

After some superficial exploration of the eastern coastline of North America by daring mariners of the time, several European monarchs made simultaneous overlapping claims to the new lands. They made generous land grants to favored individuals or merchant groups for the settlement and development of these territories. Their grants were always specifically defined as to north and south boundaries but very vague when it came to western limits. Let us bear in mind we today live just north of the 42nd parallel, which happens to be the present New York -Pennsylvania border.

Spain, of course, claimed all of North America. But in 1604 Henry of Navarre, King of France, granted to a favorite all the lands north of the 40th parallel (approximately Philadelphia), and called it New France. Two years later, James I of England granted to the Plymouth Company this same area which he called North Virginia. At this point we should note that during this period all of our eastern seaboard, The New World, was known to the English as Virginia, and, later, even claimed by the Colony of Virginia.

Thus, our locality was already claimed by Spain, France, and England. In 1621 the Dutch entered the picture by settling along the Connecticut and Hudson rivers, also vaguely claiming the lands to the west. Later Charles I divided North Virginia by granting the territory north of the 42nd parallel to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the area between the 41st and 42nd parallels to the Duke of Warwick, both grants extending westward to the "South Seas." Actually, in spite of all the various grants, northern and western New York remained under the control of New France until 1760 when it was surrendered to the English and became part of Upper Canada.

In 1662 Charles II created the Connecticut Colony which took in the Warwick Grant, but extended westward for only 3000 miles. Then he really "muddied the waters" by granting to his brother, the Duke of York, all the land between the Connecticut and Delaware Rivers and westward, completely ignoring the fact that this area was already included in the Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut grants, and had been settled by the Dutch many years before. The Dutch claims, we know, were liquidated by war and treaty, but the other claims remained unsettled in spite of vigorous protests by Massachusetts and Connecticut.

In 1681 our respected ancestor, William Penn, was granted a specific tract of land west of the Delaware River for five degrees longitude but extending northward to where the headwaters of the Delaware reached the 43rd parallel. The Delaware ends in the vicinity of Stamford. The 43rd parallel passes just south of Syracuse, north of Geneva, through Victor and on to Tonawanda placing our part of of the state in Perm's tract. This grant infringed again, not only on the claims of Massachusetts and Connecticut, but on those of New York. With all these facts in mind, I might suggest that the area be called the State of Confusion.

This conflict existed for over 90 years until in 1774 Pennsylvania withdrew its claim to this northern line and accepted the 42nd parallel as its northern boundary. Virginia gave up its claim to the Pennsylvania and New York area and left Massachusetts and New York as the principal contenders. All this made little difference until 1779, for until then our disputed area was under the control of its rightful owners, the Iroquois.

As a result of the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, 1783, the Constitution of New York State forbade the sale of Indian lands to individuals. This was to protect the Indians from being cheated. A sale could be made only through the state that held the pre-emptive right.

After the war, in 1786, a special convention to settle the claims between Massachusetts and New York was held in Hartford, Connnecticut Massachusetts needed money badly, probably to pay off bonus promises to their Revolutionary War soldiers. New York needed clear title to one and one half million acres it had promised for military bonuses.

At Hartford, in return for the establishment of the eastern boundary of New York where it is now rather than at the Connecticut River, Massachusetts gave up all territorial claims to lands west of this new boundary. Massachusetts was given, in addition, the pre-emptive right to approximately six million acres of land in western New York and the patent rights to the ten-township area of 230,000 acres near Binghamton that Massachusetts had already granted to families in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. This settlement meant that New York would eventually have the political jurisdiction and sovereignty over this area, but Massachusetts was to have the right to the first purchase of the land from the Indians. In other words, the Indians would hold the land as long as they pleased, but could sell it only to Massachusetts or to people designated by Massachusetts. As soon as Massachusetts either bought and resold the land or sold their right of purchase, the land became a part of New York.

The line on the east, marking off this area, became known as the Pre-emption Line. This line was to run due north to Lake Ontario from a point 82 miles west of the Delaware River on the New York-Pennsylvania border. This line approximates the present line between Chemung and Steuben counties. The western line was to be one mile east of the Niagara River.

Pre-emption means, "the act or right of first purchase." Hence, the east and west pre-emption lines mark the boundaries of the area where Massachusetts had the right of first purchase from the Indians.

Having established this theoretical line, Massachusetts sold its pre-emption rights to a company formed by two merchants, Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham, for 300,000 pounds (about one million dollars), payable in Massachusetts securities in three equal yearly installments. These securities at the time were worth about 20 cents on the dollar.

Phelps and Gorham then purchased from the Indians 2,600,000 acres west of the Pre-emption Line for $5000 and $500 each year forever. It was a sum equivalent to about one half cent an acre. They then prepared to resell it to individuals.

The original Pre-emption Line was surveyed in 1788 and 1789, and the land speculation began.

However, before the three payments of the Phelps and Gorham contract came due, the Continental Congress guaranteed, at full face value, the Massachusetts securities. This meant that Phelps and Gorham could not buy at the previous price the securities they needed to pay their obligations. They were forced to sell about one half of their land for twelve and one half cents an acre, and also to relinquish their pre-emption rights to the unpurchased lands in the western part of the tract. This area later became known as the Holland Purchase.

My story might have ended here except that, there were two pre-emption lines in this central part of the state.

Phelps and Gorham sold out to Robert Morris, who had been one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and he almost immediately resold his interest to a group of London investors. In the course of this sale it was suspected that the original Pre-emption Line was in error, so a resurvey was started in 1792.

This second survey revealed that the first line was deflected about two degrees west of north, creating a controversial portion of land enclosing an area of approximately 140 square miles. This became known as the "Gore." The original line had placed the entire present city of Geneva and the village of Dundee in New York rather than the Massachusetts tract. The discrepancy caused by the two lines set off many conflicting land claims and led to many legal battles.

The Hartford settlement had established a clear title for New York in public lands east of the new line, and New York State allocated a large area east of the line, the Military Tract, in which grants were made as bonus payments to soldiers of the Revolution. Incidentally, New York was the only colony that paid its Revolutionary War soldiers in something that had real value. The other colonies paid in paper money, "Continentals," which were at that time almost worthless.

Conflicting Charters or Land Grants Involving Western New York

North - South References:

Philadelphia is about on the 40 parallel; New York City is about on the 41 parallel; the New York-Pennsylvania boundary follows the 42 parallel; Syracuse is just north of the 43 parallel; the north boundary of New York is on the 45 parallel.

1604 Henry of Navarre (France) to Sieur DeMents all lands between the 40 and 46 parallels and westward.

1606 James I (England) granted to the London Company, South Virginia, between 34 and 41 parallels westward to "South Seas" and to the Plymouth Company, North Virgina, between 38 to 45 parallels westward to "South Seas." (The overlap of 3 was to be settled by either company but settlements must be 100 miles apart.)

1609 James I (England) Original charter amended: to the London Company, South Virginia, between 34 and 40 parallels and westward and to the Plymouth Company—North Virginia between 40 and 45 parallels and westward. James I (England) to Plymouth Company between 40 and 48 parallels and westward.

Netherlands (Dutch) claimed Connecticut and Hudson River valleys and westward.

1628 Charles I (England) to the Earl of Warwick land between 41 and 42 parallels and westward.

1662 CharlesII (England) to Connecticut Colony (same as Warwick Tract) westward approximately 3000 miles.

1664 Charles II (England) to New York westward from west side of Connecticut River, Long Island and eastside of Delaware Bay.

1674 Dutch relinquished claims (Treaty of France), but English guaranteed existing Dutch land holdings.

© 1990, Alfred G. Hilbert
Part II, Part III
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