Land Inheritance (Colonial U. S.)

From the beginning of Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony, the "separatist" settlers expressed their independence from old England by changing the traditional method of land inheritance and tenure. First the early colonists changed the definition of primogeniture from the common English practice of leaving all land to the the oldest son, to most often leaving a double-portion to that son -- but equal treatment of all sons was also practiced by colonists.

Another change was to redefine the method of land ownership (tenure), avoiding traditional ties to royalty or nobility. Although the Massachusetts Bay Company charter of 1629 decreed that colony land would be "held of the King, as of the Manor of East Greenwich in county Kent, in free and common socage, and not in capite or by Knights Service." Although this comes close to fee simple tenure, it still reserved to the King a one-fifth portion of all gold and silver found on the land. Records of any such findings and payments to the throne are unknown, and the actual practice of colonial land tenure was fee simple with no rents, services, or other commitments to the King.

The traditional English common law practices in land tenure influenced the wording of wills, some of which contained phrases like this 1759 Plymouth Colony example:

In the Name of God. Amen. I [the father, leave a large tract of land to my four sons, who] shall have & hold ye same Tract of Land in to & among them all in Equal Parts viz One Quarter Each for Quantity & Quality to them & Each of them & their Heirs & Assigns forever, in Manner [sic, manor] of East Greenwich in ye County of Kent in ye Realm of England.

This nicely illustrates a blending of the traditional and contemporary practices of colonists, showing equal inheritance among all sons but retaining the archaic statement of tenure. In this particular case, the wording so confused a well-known abstractor of colonial deeds that he opined the father had left his sons "lands in county Kent, England"!

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