Department of Records - City of Philadelphia

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From the Newsletter of the Philadelphia City Archives, Number 30 (February 1977)


By J. Paul Dilg

To create a clear picture of who and where our first "adventurers", as Penn himself was pleased to call them, were given their newly purchased land has long been the aim of many historians. This was partially done from that earliest day by Thomas Holme the Surveyor general appointed by William Penn in 1682. His work has come down to us in the form of "Holme's Map of the Province of Pennsylvania, with the names of original purchasers from William Penn, 1681". This map has had successive printings and the form in which we know it probably dates from 1735. Although there are many things about Holme's plan which require careful study and some errors which must be dealt with, basically it becomes for all who delve into our beginnings a valuable source of primary information. For parts of the County of Philadelphia and with special reference to the City of Philadelphia, the Northern Liberties And old Blockley Township the map and data published by John Reed in 1774 also commands our study and respect. Reeds' Explanation of his map is very detached. It describes the metes and bounds of each purchaser's tract, the manner by which it was obtained from the Proprietors and the date it was surveyed. Its index usually gives personal information such as the place of origin of the takers up or their occupation. However, in some places Reed's work is suspect because he used it to challenge and question the work of the Provincial surveyors and implied that as agents of the Proprietor, they sought to protect the Penn interests against those of various purchasers. An original copy of Reed's map may be found in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and a copy of his Explanation of the Map of the City and Liberties of Philadelphia is in the custody of the Library Company. The Explanation . . . has also been published in the Third Series of the Pennsylvania Archives, volume III. The City Archives holds a manuscript volume, ca. 1782, of extracts "from John Reeds book" compiled by the surveyor Thomas Neville. Unfortunately, for the remainder of the County of Philadelphia, no complete work can be found to give us the detail needed to tell us who were the first purchasers of land from Penn and his heirs and where their tracts were located.

In contrast to Philadelphia County, Delaware County has been much more fortunate. In 1880 Benjamin H. Smith's Atlas of Delaware County was published. This atlas of nineteen maps exhibited early grants and patents and included a history of the land titles of that County. It showed on contemporary maps of each township the holders of land from William Penn and many successive early transfers of ownership. Smith's map also includes entries for Upper and Lower Merion Townships, part of Montgomery County, which provides a starting point for

the completion of such a project in Montgomery County as well. Smith's atlas is a superb work which provides an archetype and stimulus for the completion of similar work in the remaining areas of Philadelphia and Montgomery County.

The records needed to pursue such a project are readily available. The Bureau of Land Records of the Pennsylvania Department of Community Affairs holds all the original patents and warrant and survey records for the whole Commonwealth. This Bureau also holds records of deed of lease and release, records of the sale of Philadelphia City Lots (1781-1782) and records of the Commissioners of Property (1701-1709, 1916-1741).

On the county level the City Archives of Philadelphia is an important source for information. In its custody are the County's deed records from 1683 to 1863. The recitals and abstracts of title which are often found in these deeds are essential for tracing land ownership in Philadelphia County and those former parts of Philadelphia which were erected as Montgomery County in 1784. Related records include exemplifications of patents (1683 to 1718), mortgage books (1749-1779) and General Loan Office mortgage contracts (1736-1755). The City Archives also holds some microfilm copies of patents from the Bureau of Land Records and nine volumes of a 1759 copy of Provincial warrants and surveys for Philadelphia City and County, and Berks, Bucks, Chester, Cumberland, Lancaster, Kent And York Counties in Pennsylvania. These volumes have been indexed by name. An additional forty-two volumes of this 1759 copy are in the custody of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Land Records. Both the copies and the originals of the warrants and surveys are valuable because they carry the researcher back to the earliest public record pertaining to any tract of land. These records often name a warrantee who sold the tract to the warrantee mentioned in the warrant or survey, and thus carry the search back a step further. The warrants and surveys are often accompanied by draught or plot plans, and identify holders of adjacent plots.

Tax records and road records are a useful adjunct to the various types of real estate records. These records indicate what persons in a township were paying taxes or petitioning for the opening of roads and hence living there. The road petitions often are accompanied by draughts which show the location of properties through which the road is laid. Tax records can be used to locate the names of owners of adjacent properties and to discover names of previous owners. The City Archives holds tax lists for Philadelphia County from 1769 to 1854, including lists for townships that became part of Montgomery County for the years 1769, and 1779 to 1783. Also in its custody are Quarter Sessions Court road dockets and petitions from 1685 to 1953. Some earlier tax lists are held by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania which also holds a volume of Philadelphia City lots reports dated 1700 and a 1734 volume of Philadelphia Landholders which lists the inhabitants of Philadelphia County and the amount of land held by each person. Tax assessment ledgers for the years 1769 and 1774 are held by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and one for the year 1767 is deposited in the Van Pelt Library of the University of Pennsylvania. Montgomery County tax lists for post-1784 are in the custody of the Historical Society of Montgomery County. These, of course, include only that deposit of data which covers the immediate relation ~ to land and its ownership. Thus the task of constructing a historical atlas to complete the story of the area of the City of Philadelphia, and then to extend this coverage over all the townships which now comprise Montgomery County and for good measure, Berks County, is the field in which our work is being done.

There are many facets of interest in this story as one seeks to unfold it and develop the picture of each township as it was erected. It must be remembered that due to the system of land being held as Manors, by Wm. Penn as well as those set up by him for his family, much of our land remained in Proprietary ownership to later times. Squatters were prevalent and ultimately it became necessary for the Penn interests to grant such persons some of the land which had been improved by them, despite the reservation of such land to Penn and his heirs forever. Another area of interest is the life and work of Thomas Fairman, the Quaker surveyor and deputy to Thomas Holmes. A paper has been prepared about him and was read to the Old York Road Historical Society in Nov. 1976. His surveys cover large areas of Philadelphia County east of the Schuylkill River and northward to the present Berks County Line, taking in almost the entire area of Montgomery County with parts of Bucks County and also some parts of Chester County. Much of this paper was prepared from the materials found in the City Archives. Another man who calls for a similar treatment is the surveyor David Powell, a friend of Thomas Fairman and also a deputy to Holme.

Other fields of inquiry which need detailed work to be done on them as they relate so importantly to our early history are papers on the great early land owners and speculators William Allen, James Logan, Thomas Fairman, David Powell, Humphrey Morrey, John and Sara Budd and the Pennypacker Family, to name a few.

The operations of corporate interests as well as individuals should be studied. For example, we have no study in depth on the Pennsylvania Land Company in London, which had so much to do with large tracts of land in our entire area. The same holds true for the operations relating to land in which the Free Society of Traders were involved (although the Warrant and Survey Books furnish good documentation for a start). Another source of data that needs to be brought together is the history of the work of the General Land Office. The records of the latter never have been fully exploited. Beside those mentioned above, which are in the custody of the City Archives, there are also records of mortgages, loan subscribers, lists of payments due or discharged accounts, settlement, accounts of quota and interest money and related records for the 1750s and 1760s in the Norris Papers of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and appraisements, mortgage records and accounts for the years 1773 to 1800 in the custody of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. All of the above and much more form projects to be taken hold of and developed for the deepening of our knowledge of the early development and growth of the Colony. We are remaining close to the task of developing a contribution toward the completion of a historical atlas of the area. Perhaps this article will challenge others to take up some of the suggested subjects and thus bring new light on them in a detailed manner.

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