Dividing the Land: Book Review

Dividing the Land: Early American Beginnings of Our Private Property Mosaic by Edward T. Price is an oldie, but goodie published in 1995 by The University of Chicago as Geography Research Paper No. 238.

The second portion of the title – Early American Beginnings of Our Private Property Mosaic – is what drew me in as a genealogist who has dug up family roots in many of today’s states.

Take a look at the Table of Contents and see if you, too, might not also be drawn to want to know more about how colonial land was parceled out and how it has transitioned to modern needs.

I. Introduction
1. Framework of the Land
II. The New England Region: Dividing Land by Townships
2. Beginnings: Communal Land Division
3. Diffusion of Townships
4. Tradition Recedes: Commercially Founded Towns
III. The South Atlantic Region: Land Division by Individual Choice
5. Colonial Beginnings
6. Control and Disposition of Land
7. Seventeenth-Century Land Division
8. Eighteenth-Century Colonial Land Division
9. Farms and Plantations in the Colonial South
10. The National Period
IV. The Middle Atlantic Region
11. New York: the Dutch Period, 1624-64
12. New York’s English and American Periods: Lordly Estates and Land Developers’ Tracts
13. Land Division in New Jersey, and on the West Bank of the Delaware River up to 1682
14. Pennsylvania and Delaware: The Penn Proprietorship
V. Louisiana and Texas: Land Division Initiated under France & Spain
15. Louisiana Land Division Patterns
16. The Many Templates of Texas Land Division
VI. Perspective
17. Summary, Conclusion, Aftermath

These six sections are followed by four Appendices, the Glossary, Table of Measures, a 24-page (!!) Bibliography and the index. There are also numerous maps and tables throughout the book, illustrating the many shapes (long and skinny, square, meandering borders, etc.) our land lots took.

As the author points out in the first chapter, the availability of land was the bait that drew settlers to the colonies in the early days and it was land that encouraged our westward expansion. Land was the common denominator that offered the promise of economic opportunity.

However, each of the regions – New England, South Atlantic, Middle Atlantic and Louisiana-Texas – parceled out everything from small lots to huge land grants in very different ways.

Dividing the Land is not one’s typical genealogy book. It is scholarly to the extent that it is filled with footnotes and bibliographic citations, but it is not “dry” reading.

A fascinating look is provided as to how companies ran the business of selling land, how local control soon became the norm, the cultural influences of the English, Dutch, French and Spanish ways of land distribution and the why and how our towns were laid out and settled.

Dividing the Land: Early American Beginnings of Our Private Property Mosaic serves as a mini-encyclopedia to understanding the development of American land ownership.

This book is probably not everyone’s cup of tea because of its limited topic. However, land distribution is an important link to understanding the social, cultural and economic  history of an area, which, in turn, had a strong effect on the lives of each of our ancestors. For that reason, I’d recommend at least reading this book. You will have a much stronger understanding of the grip that land ownership had on our ancestors.

Used copies are available online starting in the $40 range, so it isn’t cheap. Many college libraries have this title in their collections, so check WorldCat for a copy near you that you can browse or read before deciding whether or not to add this book to your reference collection.



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