Mining the Land Records for Scandal

When I mention to my colleagues that much of my summer has been spent looking at colonial land records, I generally receive sympathetic looks. While I usually don’t deny it, and even play up their mundanity, the truth is that buried within these endless documents are stories both fascinating and illuminating. In my time scouring land records held at New England state archives, I have found stories of murder, beatings, brawls between townspeople, wrongful incarceration, clever insults, and lewd jokes. Boundary disputes between towns and farms, sometimes only an acre here and there, were the flash point for all of these conflicts. The disputants also generated a great volume of maps ranging from the crude to the detailed. In this post I am going to show one example, perhaps one of the more dramatic, that distills all of this controversy and violence into one bizarre disagreement.

Sometime around 1651, the Connecticut government gave five soldiers, who had served under John Mason in the Pequot War, land near Niantic for their service. Both Lyme and New London later claimed this land in 1671, even though a 1668 agreement specified that the bounds between the two towns were to be a tree that “Groweth upon the soldiers land at the head of niantick Bay,” marked with an S and an R. Despite this, tension rapidly intensified over who claimed Black Point, and one day in the fall colonists from Lyme decided to perambulate the land they believed to be rightfully theirs. In what may have been a planned “coincidence” that would not be out of place in West Side Story, colonists from New London had the same idea at the same time. Participants disputed what happened next when brought before the Connecticut Court, but they agreed each side challenged the other to show what authority they came under, and after a warrant was served by a constable from Lyme, the situation went sour.

A map affiliated with the land disputes, Connecticut State Archives, Towns & Lands, Ser. 1, Vol 1, document #112

One testimonial from a participant claimed that a man from New London shouted at the constable, “I charge you to keep the kings peace,” and then struck the nearest person from Lyme. Other accounts claimed that the patriarch of the influential Griswold family struck the first blow. A particularly detailed account described the men from New London responding to the constable’s warrant by saying “we care not a fart for your paper you may keep it to wipe your breech,” and then began to aggressively mow the grass near the Lyme men. It was at this time that the constable threw a punch. From here, a Lyme man, James Baldwin, pulled out a cudgel to hit people with, and another man seized “ a great pitchfork” and “struck down Richard Smith for dead.” At this point the brawl ended, but the conflict continued in courts.

This story, certainly exciting, raises a few interesting issues. Most obviously, it highlights the lengths to which English colonists were willing to go for small amounts of land that they hoped to acquire in future divisions. It also is an interesting case study in how historians should approach the confused and fraught account of a chaotic moment. For me, the chaos itself is what is so intriguing, but there are other conclusions to be drawn from this story. In investigating the brawl, the Connecticut General Court collected previous acts, agreements between the two towns, maps, testimony about running of bounds, and more. The conflict and its paper-trail provide a story of the workings of colonial government, the diplomacy needed for towns to coexist, and the nature of the colonial archive. It is also worth noting that the disputes between the two towns took place on land adjacent to indigenous Niantic settlements and a Niantic “fort.” Despite this third party in the conflict over the land, most of the records lie silent about the source of the original deed. The land records, while certainly dry at times, are not without merit or gems.

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