Trepassing: An Inquiry into the Private Ownership of Landby John Hanson Mitchell
In this richly entertaining story that reaches back to the beginning of British common law and up to the most recent Supreme Court "takings" decisions, one of the country's finest nature writers reveals how Americans came to accept a system of private ownership.
Read an Excerpt
There was an estate at the top of a hill in the town in which I grew up owned by a man we used to call Old King Cole. The house was a vast brownstone structure with spired turrets and a mean-looking iron fence surrounding it, the type of fence with spear-pointed tips. The grounds, which purportedly had been laid out by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, were extensive and unmanaged, with two immense copper beech trees framing a briar-strewn entrance, a small orchard just west of the house, a ruined sunken garden with a frog pond, and many species of exotic trees, including, I was later told, a rare Franklinia.
None of these refinements held any sway for my friends and me. There was once money in the community, but in my time, many of the old houses had fallen into disrepair and the older families had become reclusive and eccentric -- I remember the story of one old patriarch who was discovered in his carriage house one night declaiming Spenserian stanzas to his brace of donkeys. In this environment, a tradition of rambling freely over property lines had somehow developed, a custom that would be viewed as trespassing in any other community, but which for us seemed a normal way of life. We would set out sometime in the morning, small bands of us, and roam freely through the town, returning to our camps at dusk, like the great heroes of our childhood -- Cochise, Sitting Bull, Rain in the Face, and Crazy Horse.
Of all the properties in the community, of all the woodlots, overgrown backyards, gardens, and frog-haunted swimming pools, King Cole's place held the greatest attraction. For one thing there was a deserted carriage house at the back of the grounds to which we had gained access and used as a hideout. But the larger attraction was that, unlike other landholders in the community, Old King Cole did not seem to appreciate trespassers. Periodically he would emerge from the dark interior of his house to reprimand us -- a tottering old man with a cane and a palsied hand. One afternoon he surprised two of us and drove us into a walled corner of his sunken garden. Once he had us trapped, he approached, shuffling, his cane raised ominously above his head, and there, amidst the wild briars and ivies, he delivered a resounding lecture on the nature of title. "My property," he intoned. "My holdings. My kingdom. My nation." Then, advancing a few steps, he pointed southward with his cane. "Your property, your nation. Return to your country. Respect lines of demarcation."
It was a good lecture, but it had the wrong effect. Up to that time, I had no concept of the nature of trespass. Forbidden passage consisted of Old King Cole's land and an even more ominous place in the south of the town, called the Baron's, that was surrounded with a high stucco wall and reportedly guarded by Great Danes. With King Cole's proclamation, the lure of new lands swelled within my heart, offering fresh prospects for adventure and travel. But the one thing that stood out from Cole's diatribe was that the world, which up to that time had seemed to me a wide collective space that invited exploration, was in fact divided and quartered, and guarded, and had evolved into a commodity that could be bought and sold and held. Old King Cole had offered us, in effect, the experience that must have confronted the New England Indians -- among others -- when first faced with the land tenure system of the Western world back in 1620, the overbearing, all-powerful concept of private ownership of land that overwhelmed the whole American continent and successfully evicted the native use of common land. Why was it that even in his last, clouded years Mr. Cole remembered so clearly the laws of title? More to the point, how did it come to pass that King Cole and his stock could legally surround a patch of wild earth with a spiked fence and drive out intruders? The answer to that question, as with many such grand quests, I found in my own territory.
Years later I ended up living in a town that also had a hilltop estate dominated by an old curmudgeon. This nation was different, and far more rural than that of my childhood, and the lord of the manor was a great raging bull who was more inclined to carry a shotgun than a silver-tipped cane. But the effect of the place -- and the draw, I should add -- was still strong, and the lure of trespass was still deeply seated in my soul.
This same hilltop was the probable site of a seventeenth-century village of Christian Indians. These people, probably members of the Pawtucket tribe, having spotted, they believed, the arrival of a new and powerful deity in their land, converted to Christianity and as a result were granted some sixteen square miles at a place called Nashobah, about thirty-five miles west of Boston. Under the direction of John Eliot, the so-called Apostle to the Indians, the Christian Indians set up a village of pole-framed wooden houses and traditional wigwams, planted apple trees, cleared fields for agriculture, cut their hair, ceased dancing, and settled in to live like Englishmen.
According to the legislative powers of the General Court in Boston, the land, known as Nashobah Plantation, was granted to them outright (never mind the deep irony of the fact that it was their land in the first place). Within the boundaries of the tract, the Indians owned their own houses and property and, with permission of the General Court, were allowed to buy or sell plots of land. But twenty-five years later, during King Philip's War, in what amounted to a prelude to the treatment of the Nisei at the outset of World War II, the inhabitants of Nashobah were rounded up and sent to Deer Island in Boston Harbor, where, over the succeeding winter, many of them succumbed.
After the war, a few of the survivors of this ordeal struggled back to the Nashobah area to live out their time. The last survivor, and the main player in this story, was a powerful woman the English called Sarah Doublet, who died, feeble and blind, in 1736, under the care of two merchants from Concord named Ephraim and Elnathan Jones. By way of payment for her care, Sarah Doublet granted the Joneses the rights to the five hundred acres that she had held, the last remnant of the sixteen-square-mile Nashobah Plantation.
That transfer marked the end of Indian land tenure in this part of the world and the beginning of a new era in land-use history. Sarah and her people would have held their land in common and would have made decisions as to its use communally, by consensus. But in little more than fifty years, this system of holding land in common would be subsumed by the concept of private property. Within another hundred years, this new system would oversweep the entire American continent and replace the idea of the common. It was a uniquely American phenomenon, new even to the conquering English and French.
I knew the general outline of the tract that had been granted to the Christian Indians, but until 1985, when an archaeological student working with old maps and original documents managed to make a good guess, no one was certain where the actual village center was located. Unfortunately, the probable site happened to be owned by the old curmudgeon at the top of the hill, who would not so much as allow archaeologists and curious amateurs to walk on his property, let alone dig the area. The student abandoned her project, state archaeologists lost interest, and research languished. But the more I learned about this area, the more I walked the walls and pored over the scant historical records, the more I became convinced that inscribed there in the old stone rows and wooded slopes was the story of land ownership in the Americas.
That history, no doubt, could be told by examining in detail any plot of land. But at Nashobah, where the English and the Indians -- for a while at least -- dwelt in a certain harmony, I discovered a splendid mix of sacred lands and profane laws.
By 1736, Sarah's tract was all in private hands, and it remained so until 1988. Then, by 1990, through a curious series of events and coincidences, the tract began a slow, legal evolution back into common land. Two elderly women donated some ninety acres of the original village tract to a local land trust, thus opening up one section of the village site to the public. Then in the mid-1990s another section just to the west came up for development and inspired a small group of people to rise up to save the land as open space. Finally, the core of the place, the sacred geography of Sarah Doublet's final five-hundred-acre tract held by the old curmudgeon, came up for sale.
For several years it was my custom to trespass on the inner sanctum of this piece of private property. But in the autumn of 1995, as a result of new evidence of the spiritual importance of this tract, I began to take my explorations more seriously. Armed with a seventeenth-century map outlining the holdings of the Christian Indians, I set out to walk the boundaries of the ancient property to see what I could see and learn what I could learn.
In the end it turned out to be my most adventurous trespass.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >