Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A surprise meeting in Gloucester City

I visited the Gloucester City waterfront specifically to check out the old immigration station, but as it turned out, the adjacent park had its own surprises, including a stone marker sectioned off with a substantial metal chain.

Was someone notable buried here? Had this been the site of a historic landing, or of someone's death? I checked out the plaque to find the following:

Since April 1688
The Proprietors of the Gloucester Tenth
have met annually on this spot
to elect members to represent them
in the Council of 
the General Proprietors of 
the Western Division of New Jersey

I'd stumbled upon the most treasured of all Hidden New Jersey treasures: a footnote to a historical footnote.

Who are these Proprietors and what responsibility do they have within West Jersey? The answer is rooted in the late 1600s, when much if not all of the land of the Jersey colonies (East and West) was granted to English and Scottish individuals who likely never set foot in the new world. Known as proprietors, they hired local representatives to ensure their land here was managed appropriately. Thus, the General Board of Proprietors of the Western Division of New Jersey was created in 1688, consisting of representatives of the proprietors themselves. It's arguably the oldest continuously operating corporation in the country, having taken the crown by the four-years-older East Jersey Board of Proprietors when that group disbanded in 1998. Each Board met in their respective Surveyor General’s Office (West in Burlington City, East in Perth Amboy) to discuss landholding matters and determine ownership of any land created within their jurisdictions (by buildup of silt, etc.).

As you can guess, the whole shebang became a bit of an anachronism over time, given that virtually all the land in the state is deeded to someone by now. In fact, well over 100 years ago, newspapers including The New York Times were writing about the ongoing meetings as a curiosity of the past. The former East Jersey seems to have done just fine over the past 15 years without the Proprietors to settle land disputes, but the West Jersey Proprietors continue to meet at the small Surveyor General's office on West Broad Street in Burlington City.

Why, then, is there a meeting place in Gloucester? In the late 17th century, the 21 mile distance to Burlington was deemed to be too far for the area's proprietors to travel for an election. Now it's just a matter of keeping up a 325-year old tradition, maybe mixed with a desire to avoid rush-hour traffic on Route 130. Admittedly, there's not much going on with the proprietors these days -- the job is largely symbolic -- so the Gloucester bunch are basically getting together to vote on who would have to make the schlep if, indeed, there were any business to be done in Burlington. There's not much prestige to being a proprietor, except, I guess, among history enthusiasts, but the ones in Gloucester at least have a park named for them.

1 comment:

  1. Do the proprietors have a website or any important documents?


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