Who were the East and West Jersey Proprietors?

By Joseph R. Klett, Executive Director, New Jersey State Archives

The manuscript below is the original deed to New Jersey. More precisely, it is the 24 June 1664 release of James, Duke of York, to Sir George Carteret and Lord John Berkeley for the territory between the Hudson and Delaware rivers in America. This parchment, bearing the Duke’s original signature, was the centerpiece of New Jersey’s year-long 350th anniversary celebration in 2014 and it was exhibited in the New Jersey State House. It served as a historical icon for thousands of residents who visited the State Capitol and for those who attended our “New Jersey Day” ceremonies and festival in Trenton in June of that year.

The document is remarkable in many ways. Of course it is a beautiful, exquisite artifact. It has profound symbolic value, containing the very naming of the province in honor of Carteret’s homeland, the Isle of Jersey. As a title document it is the foundation for all subsequent land conveyances in the colony and state. And it is the cornerstone upon which New Jersey’s charters, proprietorships, and public recordkeeping were established.

But the “Duke’s Grant” is remarkable for another reason. For most of its 352-year history this grant—the original deed for the State of New Jersey—was not readily accessible to the public.

The release of James, Duke of York, to John Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret, original proprietors of the Colony of New Jersey, 24 June 1664. (Collection of the West Jersey Proprietors, New Jersey State Archives.)

Who were the Proprietors?

In 1664, two individuals, Sir George Carteret and Lord John Berkeley, were given the right to make land grants for the territory between the Hudson and Delaware rivers—the colony of New Jersey.

New Jersey’s original grantees, Carteret and Berkeley, were endowed by the Crown with both land and governance rights. After several years of European settlement of the province under their 1665 Concession and Agreements, the first proprietors (in Carteret’s case, his estate) released their interests to investors. The successor corporations came to be known as the East and West Jersey Proprietors. They ruled the province until 1703, when Queen Anne compelled their surrender of governance. At that time, the royal government required the proprietors to turn over certain “publick records” containing commissions and legal documents to the new Provincial Secretary. These books formed the core of the royal colony’s archive, with its clerks continuing the volumes to record land conveyances.

The proprietors’ land rights, however, were not disrupted by the installation of royal government. They survived the Revolutionary War and in fact continue today. For well over three centuries, on both sides of the ancient Province Line, the proprietors appropriated acreage to their shareholders and local settlers. They meticulously recorded these transactions in their own books, also retaining original “returns of surveys” with contemporary sketches of tracts as they were delineated. (In the case of West Jersey, these and other “loose papers” date back to the 1670s.)

Where are the Proprietors, and their records, today?

In 1998, East Jersey’s proprietors sold their vestigial land rights to the State and disbanded. Their vast archive, housed for over three centuries in the East Jersey capital of Perth Amboy, was transported across the Province Line to the New Jersey State Archives (NJSA) in Trenton. Then in 2005, State Archivist Joseph R. Klett negotiated the terms of a long-term deposit of the West Jersey Proprietors’ record holdings, held in the ancient West Jersey capital of Burlington, with the State.

Since the acquisition/curation of the proprietary records, NJSA has been unpacking boxes of records dating back to the 1600s. The State has invested over $250,000 to date in projects to process, conserve, and index its holdings of early land papers (which now amount to over 80,000 colonial and proprietary records). Yet there is still much to be done.

As New Jerseyans are fiercely proud of their heritage, it is not surprising that this year a diverse set of user groups came together to facilitate and expedite the needed work. NJSA outlined the “New Jersey Early Land Records Project” consisting of eight interrelated subprojects designed to reach the goal of ready access to all of the early real-property documents. They include: archival processing of West Jersey Proprietors’ records; data entry from multiple collections to expand the State’s existing “Early Land Records” online database; conservation; and digitization.

When completed, the Project will radically alter the landscape for colonial New Jersey research.

Joseph R. Klett, Executive Director of the New Jersey State Archives, speaking about the records of the East and West Jersey Proprietors at the Documents Association of New Jersey’s 2014 Annual Conference in Princeton, New Jersey. (Courtesy of the Documents Association of New Jersey.)

Why are these records important?

New Jersey’s early property records are of national significance for several reasons.

Millions of American families descend from the immigrant settlers of colonial New Jersey—and who may not appear in other official records.

Land records often record the names and relationships between grantors and grantees, and may also include names of close relatives, neighbors, witnesses, and others. And, in New Jersey colonial landowners could include women, people of color, and persons of any religion. The collections at the New Jersey State Archives also include some of the earliest land records documenting agreements between Native Americans and Europeans.

They tell the story of settlement patterns and the land-distribution and legal systems in one of the original colonies as well as document interactions and relationships between New Jersey’s Indian sachems and European immigrants of varying ethnic and religious backgrounds.

These records are also unique in comparison to those of the other colonies in that roughly two-thirds of them were held privately for more than twelve generations—and the collections survive because of this continuity.

Resources and Further Information

We invite you to learn more about this fascinating time period, the history of New Jersey, and how these records are helping historians and family researchers solve mysteries.

New Jersey State Archives website

New Jersey Early Land Records, 1650–1900s Searchable Database [New Jersey State Archives]

Learn more about New Jersey Day and New Jersey’s “birth certificate”

Klett, Joseph R. (2014). Using the Records of the East and West Jersey Proprietors

Snyder, John F. (1968). The Story of New Jersey’s Civil Boundaries, 1606–1968. [New Jersey State Library]