The Massachusetts Pre-emption

The Massachusetts Pre-Emption:
printed in the Yates County Chronicle
27 January 1870

The Dundee Record of last week gave an interesting and valuable sketch of Chubb Hollow, and speaking incidentally of the Pre-emption line states that the land west of that line was sold by New York to Massachusetts. This is an error. New York and Massachusetts had conflicting claims to this land, by virtue of their original charters from English Kings, the kind of authority that was supposed to sanction a land title at one period.—Connecticut also had a like show of title.

After the war of the Revolution, these clashing claims were settled by a convention of Commissioners from the respective states. New York retained the right of jurisdiction and Massachusetts was left the preemptive right to purchase of the Indians all the land within the boundaries of New York west of the eighty-second mile-stone on the northern line of Pennsylvania, counting from the north east corner of that state, or from the Delaware River.

The meridian line across New York from this eighty-second mile-stone, was the Pre-emption Line.—The first, run in 1788, called the Old Pre-emption Line, was found to be inaccurate, and a new one was run by Benjamin Ellicott in 1793 (probably), called the New Pre-emption Line, which deflects eastward from the old line in Yates County from one to two miles. The space between the two lines is known as the Gore; although all eastward of the Old Pre-emption Line has usually been spoken of under that designation.

The Old Line constitutes the town line between Starkey and Barrington, passes through Milo a little eastward of Joy’s Oil Mill along the road northward past the residence of Caleb J. Legg, and about two hundred rods east of Bellona, striking what is called the Pre-emption Road north of Cromwell’s Hollow.

Massachusetts sold her Pre-emption to Phelps & Gorham, who bought of the Indians and surveyed 2,600,000 acres of the land into townships six miles square. After selling a portion of this by townships, they sold all that remained to Robert Morris of revolutionary fame, and by him it was sold to a London Association, afterwards merged in what was known as the Pulteney Estate.


uring and after the Revolution, the new state of New York included the city of New York, Long Island, the Hudson valley, part of the Delaware valley and the Mohawk valley.

The British had limited white settlement generally throughout their 13 colonies to avoid constant war with the Indians; and in New York the native people were the formidable and well-organized Iroquois Confederacy. The Revolution itself had essentially depopulated this country, wrecking the confederacy (some of the tribes fought with the Americans, some with the British, some tried to stay neutral).

With the writing and ratification of the federal Constitution, it was finally agreed that the various western land claims of the states had to be rationalized, and some kind of orderly accommodation had to be reached with the natives. In the year 1787 New York and Massachusetts finally settled their disagreement over whose claims would prevail. The so-called Treaty of Hartford of that year called for New York to have sovereignty, and for Massachusetts to have in compensation the pre-emption right, which meant in practical terms the right to buy out the Senecas.

The state of Massachusetts sold the pre-emption right to a syndicate of land speculators headed by Oliver Phelps of Connecticut and Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts. They undertook to survey the eastern boundary of their new empire, and to sign a treaty with the Indians. Certainly the latter objective, and possibly the former, were tangled by the ambitions of yet another group of land speculators known as the New York-Genesee Land Company. They allied with a group of Canadian-based former British sympathizers called the Niagara-Genesee Land Company and forced Phelps (who was the active member of the syndicate and did all the work) to cede to them several townships in the eastern part of the purchase.

The boundary was run, but somehow wound up somewhat farther west than it should have been, leaving another large piece of territory up for grabs. The survey of Phelps and Gorham’s purchase was made using this faulty line, and only some years later – after the New Englanders had sold out to Philadelphia financier Robert Morris and he to a British syndicate headed by Sir William Pulteney – was the eastern boundary (known as the Pre-emption Line) redrawn. All this intrigue severely tangled the lives of the settlers who had swarmed into the area in the meantime, of course, and very much complicated the act of securing good title to the land they had settled.