A series of 250th Anniversary articles for the Tantramar Heritage Trust
by Paul Bogaard
Before launching into this final article in our 250th series, we owe it to William “Bill” Hamilton and his family to note his passing on November 5th 2012. Bill helped blaze a trail through local history, which the Tantramar Heritage Trust has striven to follow. We worked closely with him in bringing out At the Crossroads , and eagerly read each of his over six-dozen “Tantramar Flashback” columns. No one would have appreciated more this recent discovery and the story it tells of Sackville’s early settlement. It would likely have prompted a response, which now we will never hear.
The offer of free land was what motivated settlers to make their way to Sackville Township in the years surrounding 1762. To the prospective immigrants from the region of Providence, Rhode Island a promise was made by the British authorities in Halifax that if they settled in Sackville, and cultivated their land, clear title would be granted to them. Each family might expect to gain 500 acres, more or less, but they had to work for it.
Most families earned their land by building a first house, cultivating the land and raising stock. But the records suggest there were those who hoped to gain free land without doing the work themselves. There are clear indications that in some cases a family would develop their own share, plus that of a relative, or watch over the land a relative had begun to clear and cultivate. But there are also comments about relying upon “agents” or “tenants” and we have nothing to indicate how these arrangements might work. We can well imagine bringing in a tenant on land one already owned, but what arrangement would you make with someone to work up the land so that you could – through someone else’s sweat – gain title to it?
Neither Amy Fox nor I (nor any other local historians that we know of) were ever able to clarify these arrangements by the time we published The Struggle for Sackville last July – Sackvilleís 250th birthday. But recently, from the library of the Rhode Island Historical Society down in Providence, right at the heart of the area from which almost all of Sackville’s settlers were drawn, we have located a very distinctive contract.
It is distinctive for two reasons: First, it is an “indenture,” which in the 18th century meant a legal contract where the two parties expected to be separated. In such cases the details of the contract were written out twice, and then cut apart so as to create distinctive teeth or “dentures,” so that at a later time the two parties could bring their portions together and prove they formed a binding contract! See the ìteethî at the top of this photo.
Second, this Indenture is an actual contract to farm the land of one share in Sackville Township in 1762. The details laid out are fascinating and tell us a great deal about how such arrangements could be made, and the equipment and stock one might need to make a go of it, right here, 250 years ago.
One share (about 500 acres) in the Township of Sackville had apparently been reserved for Aaron Mason & Benjamin Shepard, together. This Indenture is between the two of them and Ezra Healy to whom they are agreeing to “let” this share of land. Alas, we do not find these folks in our earliest records, but there were several families of Masons all of whom came from Swansea, Mass. It turns out Swansea is actually quite close to Providence, R.I. and it makes sense that a legal document would turn up there, rather than in Boston. Many of the Mason families returned to their earlier homes, in time to participate in the Revolutionary War of the 1770s.
This Mason is listed as a “currier” (he finished newly tanned hides) and Shepard a ìblacksmith,” whereas Healy was a “cordwainer” (he made new shoes). These were all common colonial trades. They were likely farmers as well, or grew up on a farm, and each was looking to improve his lot.
We’re not even sure whether this Indenture was fulfilled. One record notes it was “unexecuted.” Even so, the details they worked out are very telling: Mason & Shepard offer to pay Healey’s way up to Sackville (then in Nova Scotia) along with his family, and to provide him with “Two Cows, One Yoke of Oxen, Ten Sheep & one Swine.” In addition, they will provide “One New Axe, Sithe & Tackling, and one Thousand & a half of Board Nails,” along with a set of plow irons, and a pair of cartwheels.
It seems that Healy is expected to fashion the wooden parts of a plow for himself, but they will provide the iron parts. Similarly, he’ll have to make up his own cart – to hook up to the oxen they provide – but wheels require skilled work, so they’ll provide the wheels “shod and boxed all New.” (That is, with an iron shoe around each wheel, and the hub already bored out ready for a wooden axle).
Since Healy is expected to leave by the end of September, too late to grow crops, they will provide 20 bushels of “good Indian corn,” a barrel of flour, a barrel of beef and a barrel of pork. The conditions are that he build his own cabin – using the 1500 nails provided – and “in good Husbandman like manner to fence, manure and Cultivate the land,” to “promote the Groth & the Encrease of the aforesaid Stock,” and to “promote every Act Incumbent on [Mason & Shepard] to Secure their Title” to these 500 acres. After all, the land was free, but the British authorities required the land to be worked and lived on for a few years, before they would grant clear title.
Healy is given seven years to fulfill these conditions, at the end of which he is bound to “Yield up the Quiet & Peaceable possession of two thirds Parts of the aforesaid Lands, and Stock with their Encrease.” That would provide 1/3 (about 160 acres) each for Mason and for Shepard. So, they each receive a portion of their free land, also free of any sweat equity!
But unlike “indentured servants” who were contracted to work for up to seven years and gained only their freedom at the end, Healy and his family would also gain substantially. Mason & Shepard are bound to deliver “a good bill of sale of one Third Part of the Stock and their Encrease” as well as “a good Deed for one Third Part of the aforesaid Land and House.”
Why would Healy agree to work off the conditions for someone else? The offer by Governor Lawrence was restricted to those who, down in Providence R. I., had joined an association for taking up his offer, and had their name on a subscribers list. If your name was not on the list, you were not eligible. All of Sackville Township had been reserved for those on the list. Healy’s only chance for some free land of his own was to do this deal with Mason & Shepard (who must have been subscribers).
We may never know whether the terms of this particular Indenture were fulfilled. But this primary source provides, for the first time, a detailed list of how many “Victuals” and how much “Stock and Utinsils” were deemed a minimum before setting out on the journey to Sackville Township 250 years ago. Whether these were provided by one’s self, or through an indenture, these worldly goods represented a serious investment, requiring a serious commitment by any planter and his family to hard work, careful planning and cooperation.