Pennsylvania Lands: A guest post by project intern Dean Williams

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Pennsylvania Lands: A guest post by project intern Dean Williams

2009-07-30 09:22
Likely obvious to anyone who has read previous entries to this blog, the Chew Family Papers contain a great deal of information about the family’s land holdings. Primarily through the speculative efforts of Benjamin Chew and his son Benjamin Jr., the Chews owned thousands of acres of land throughout Pennsylvania, as well as substantial tracts in Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey. Their land acquisition, spread out over the course of nearly a century, created a huge volume of paperwork. Many months of this project were spent sorting through and organizing the land papers. Within the collection, five series, containing approximately 30 linear feet of maps, surveys, and manuscript material, are devoted exclusively to land matters. As we come to the conclusion of this project, it seems appropriate to “speculate” on the various ways in which papers from these land series might be used.

The first use that comes to mind, and probably the one that is most self-evident, is how the Chew family itself affected, and was affected by, their extensive land holdings. In this regard, perhaps the most striking impressions one obtains from the land series documents is a sense of the family’s increasing financial difficulties over time. The question might be asked; “Did the ownership of such a large landed estate serve them well, or was it in some sense a hindrance?” While their properties made up a sizeable portion of the family estate, as their financial fortunes dwindled, one can note the increasing urgency in correspondence about the need to find buyers willing to pay the asking price. The family’s pecuniary needs, combined with the ever-increasing cost of maintaining their lands, in the form of taxes and other administrative costs, contributed to a financial squeeze. By the mid-nineteenth century, family members in charge of administering the land were emphatic with their agents about the need to sell the land. Turning to the question of what effect the Chew’s ownership had on the land itself, one might look to the papers for evidence on land settlement and development. A study of this type could also be extended to examine how late eighteenth-century land speculation played out over time, at least for one family. In this scenario, documents within the collection could be mined to help make a case for whether the family’s extended tenure over such large tracts of land had positive or negative repercussions.

Additionally, the land papers also provide numerous insights into family dynamics, such as the discrepancy between Benjamin III and his siblings over the settling of their father’s estate or the relationship between Henry B. Chew and his son Benjamin. Thus, the land papers might be used to supplement other information in the collection concerning inter-family relations. For example, papers from the land series help to complete the picture of how Benjamin III was replaced as chief executor by his brothers, Henry B. and William White, in addition to James M. Mason. In the case of the relationship between Henry B. Chew and his son Benjamin, personal correspondence between father and son provide the image of a demanding taskmaster, never quite satisfied with Benjamin’s efforts or behavior.

One further use of the land papers as they relate directly to the Chews is the examination of their land speculation. Like most speculative ventures, Benjamin Chew and his son invested a great deal of money into purchasing property with the hopes of making still larger sums. Considering the context of the times, when a large part of the Pennsylvania lands were purchased in the 1790s, and the financial collapse that so many other land speculators of the times suffered, the land papers might be used to unearth how one family was not swallowed by the economic forces that bankrupted some and sent many others to jail.

Expanding the focus beyond simply the immediate family, the land papers also provide a great deal of insight into people the Chews had contact with. With this in mind, the manuscripts might be searched for evidence documenting how the family dealt with those they did business with. For instance, one might examine the relationships between a well-to-do land owning dynasty and the many agents who administered their lands over time. The documents also provide a fair amount of information about numerous major and minor players involved in land speculation over the course of nearly a century. Related to this, the plethora of surveys and lists of land owners and renters lend themselves to a study of the patterns of land ownership and land conveyance.

Brainstorming on a still broader scale, and going beyond the Chews, one could envision using the land papers from this collection to act as a case study for various elements of land owning--with subjects ranging from wider inquiries into land speculation, to generalized patterns of settlement and land use. Potentially fruitful topics of study that would benefit from an examination of these papers include the subjects of land use over time, spurs and detriments to backland migration during the nineteenth century, and localized settlement of particular counties. This last usage of the papers extends, in particular, to the settling of many counties in Western Pennsylvania that were formerly dubbed “Depreciation” or “Donation” lands. For those interested in how the land itself was changed over time, the papers include numerous references to clear-cutting tree growth, agricultural development, and mineral discoveries occurring on, or near, the Chew property holdings. Because there is also a great deal of documentation concerning the difficulty of resolving and obtaining clear land title, these circumstances suggest an evaluation of land transference procedures. As a further possible use, the extensive account records available with the collection could be used for quantitative studies of land prices and rents over time.

These are just a few of the myriad of possible uses of the land papers within the Chew Family Papers.

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