NYHIST-L Archives

August 2007


Options: Use Monospaced Font
Show HTML Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
David Allen <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
A LISTSERV list for discussions pertaining to New York State history." <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 30 Aug 2007 13:02:52 EDT
text/plain (3709 bytes) , text/html (4 kB)
I have changed the subject of this thread  (previously Townships of 
Frugality, Enterprise, etc.) to reflect the new turn  this discussion has taken.
    I checked some of the legislation authorizing the  surveying and sale of 
land in central and western New York during the  1780s.  I would direct your 
attention particularly to "An Act for the  Speedy Sale of the Unappropriated 
Lands within this State" (Ninth Session, Cap  LXVII, May 5, 1786) and "An Act to 
Appropriate the Lands Set Apart to the Use of  the Troops of the Line of this 
State Lately Serving in the Army of the United  States" (Twelfth Session, 
Chap. 44, Feb. 28, 1789).
    Both of these laws refer repeatedly to the creation  of "townships," not 
towns.  This confirms my impression that the term  "township" was widely used 
at the time to refer to the rectangular blocks of  land that were being 
surveyed.  It also suggest that there was more going  on here than the simple 
confusion of New York towns with New England  townships.
    Part of the story, I am sure, has to do with the  adoption of the 
rectangular survey system by the federal government during these  years.  The New 
York system bears many similarities to the federal system,  which can be traced 
back in large part to the theories of Thomas  Jefferson.  As early as 1779, 
Jefferson had presented to the Virginia  legislature a proposal to "lay off every 
county into hundreds of townships of 5.  or 6. miles square." (quoted by 
Andro Linklater, The Fabric of America,  47).  Jefferson was no admirer of New 
England, and thought he found a  precedent in "Saxon" practice.  Behind 
Jefferson's proposal there was the  widespread protest of farmers in many 
colonies/states about the inconvenience  and expense of having to travel to do business at 
the seats of the huge counties  which then existed.  This problem certainly 
would also have existed in  upstate New York, where there were only two or three 
    Individuals like George Clinton and Simeon De Witt,  who would have 
influenced the New York legislation, were very much aware of  the theories of 
Jefferson and of the federal rectangular survey system,  which would have been at 
least as important in their thinking as the New  England township system.
    What actually developed in New York seems to have  been the result of a 
complex mixture of factors.  In most cases, the  surveyed "townships" did not 
turn into governmental units of any kind (either  towns or townships).  In 
Jefferson's utopian vision, they would have, but  the situation in New York caused 
things to take a different turn.  Some  townships (such as Frugality and 
Enterprise) existed only on paper.  Some  surveyed townships indeed became the 
basis of towns.  The form that the new  towns took probably did owe something to 
the influence of New England  townships, as well as to New York's colonial 
system of town government.   Demographic and economic patterns frequently 
overrode the surveyed  township lines in the creation of new towns.  Finally, the 
creation of  smaller counties and improvements in transportation solved many of 
the problems  that underlay the original call for the creation of townships as 
functioning  units of government.
    At least that is roughly the way it looks to me at  the moment.  I am no 
expert on local government, and doubtless my  sketch can be improved.  But I 
am convinced that the evolution of towns and  townships in early New York is 
much more complicated and interesting than  previously thought.  More research 
needs to be done on this subject.
David Allen
Encinitas, CA

************************************** Get a sneak peek of the all-new AOL at