Turf and Twig: Land Conveyance in Colonial America

Statue of William Penn holding the instruments of the twig and turf ceremony.

Statue of William Penn holding the instruments of the twig and turf ceremony.

Outside my house this morning I heard the gleeful song of a male cardinal. Despite the heaps and mounds of snow everywhere, his song held the promise that we’ll be seeing bare ground someday soon. Well, maybe not soon, but certainly some day.

As we yearn for that currently rarest of sights to make its springtime appearance, I hope you will enjoy reading the following short article about “livery of seizin”  – an English Feudal era method of conveying land from one person to another that followed the English colonists to America. Its use arose because at the time few people could read or write, and a memorable (albeit small) ceremony with witnesses was required to seal the deal in the minds and memories of those present.

Livery in this sense means “delivery,” and seizin means possession. To complete a livery of seizin conveyance, a physical piece of the land was delivered, in the presence of witnesses, from grantor to grantee in a turf and twig ceremony.

While its use in British America was limited, the most famous instance of this ceremony on American soil occurred in 1682 when the inhabitants of New Castle (Delaware) presented William Penn with a twig stuck into a piece of turf and a ‘porringer’ of river water and soil, signaling Penn’s official possession of his lands in America.

Long before Penn stepped ashore, the ceremony was used in Hampton. In the early 1640s George Barlow conveyed to John Barrett a tract of upland near the Hampton-Exeter town line. As witnesses Henry Roby and Thomas Crawley looked on, John Barrett performed his part of the ceremony by cutting a piece of turf from the land he was about to buy and placing his purchase money in the resulting hole. Barlow, the seller, then took the turf, stuck a twig into it, and spoke to Barrett words to the effect, “This turf and twig I give to thee, and I hope a loving brother thou wilt be.” Barlow got his money, and Barrett replaced the turf into the hole. Even without a written, recorded deed, this land transaction was legal.

In 1652, the Massachusetts General Court decided that while livery of seizin could still be used to transfer land from one party to another, such transfers also had to be in writing (Hampton, of course, was under Massachusetts authority and subject to that colony’s laws until 1680).

In 1677, Hampton men were involved in another instance of this outmoded method of land conveyance. Edward Colcord of Hampton, acting as attorney for Thomas Woodbridge of Newbury, delivered by turf and twig eight acres of land in Haverhill which his client had sold to Hampton’s minister Seaborn Cotton.

As a Harvard-trained minister, Cotton was proficient not only in English, but in Latin and Greek as well. Woodbridge was likely of the family of Reverend John Woodbridge, the brother-in-law and publisher of Anne Dudley Bradstreet’s first book of poetry in 1650. Anne Bradstreet was the mother-in-law of Seaborn Cotton. Given that the people on both sides of the transaction were likely quite literate, their use of livery of seizin and its quaint ceremony is curious.

As literacy spread and reliance on written (and recorded) deeds grew, the turf and twig ceremony became unnecessary.

© 2015 cheryl lassiter lassitergang.com

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