Adams Papers

[Report on Boundaries, 1773–1774]

[Report on Boundaries, 1773–1774]

In the Fall of the Year 1773, The General Court appointed Mr. Bowdoin and me to draw a State of the Claim of this Province to the Lands to the Westward of New York. Mr. Bowdoin left it wholly to me: and I spent all my Leisure time in the Fall, Winter and Spring in Collecting all the Evidence and Documents: I went to Mr. John Moffat, who had made a large Collection of Records, Pamphlets and Papers, and examined his Treasures: then to Dr. Samuel Mathers Library which descended to him from his Ancestors Dr. Increase Mather, and Dr. Cotton Mather who had been Agent of the Province: and then to the Balcony of Dr. Sewalls Church, where Mr. Prince had deposited the amplest Collection of Books, Pamphlets, Records and Manuscripts relative to this Country which I ever saw, and which as I presume ever was made, Mr. Prince having pursued thro his whole Life a plan which he began at Colledge. I spent much time in that elevated Situation, and found some things of Use in my Investigation, but I found a greater Gratification to my Curiosity, and cannot but lament that this invaluable Treasure was dispersed and ruined by the British Army, when they afterwards converted this venerable Temple into a Stable and a riding School. Having compleated my State of the Claim of the Province, and confuted the Pretensions of New York, I reported it to Mr. Bowdoin who after taking Time to read it, for it was very long, told me, that he approved it, and thought it wanted no Addition or correction. He Accordingly reported it to the Senate where it was read and sent down to the House, where it was read again. Mr. Samuel Adams was then Clerk of the House, and in the Confusion which soon afterwards happened at Salem, when the Governor dissolved the General Court for choosing Members to go to Congress, he lost it. But several Years afterwards it was found, and delivered to the Agents for Massachusetts, who attended the Settlement of the dispute with New York. Mr. King has repeatedly told me, that without that Statement, none of them would have understood any Thing of the Subject, and the Claim would have been lost.1 The Decision was much less favourable to Massachusetts than it ought to have been, and the State have very unoeconomically alienated all the Land since that time for a very inadequate sum of Money. I wish they had first given me a Township of the Land. It would have been much more prudently disposed of than any of the rest of it was, and more justly. I never had any thing for my half Years service, not even Credit nor Thanks.

1This is one of at least three accounts by JA of this interesting episode, all differing in details that are not easily reconcilable because the principal document in question has not been found.

The earliest account, in a letter from JA to Elbridge Gerry, Braintree, 17 Oct. 1779 (LbC, Adams Papers), is doubtless the most reliable. It states that “the General Court in 1774 appointed Mr. Bowdoin and me a Committee to state our Claim to those Lands” now called Vermont but then usually spoken of as the New Hampshire Grants, meaning the territory between the Connecticut River and the New York lakes north of a western projection of New Hampshire’s present southern boundary. The date of this appointment, 1 March 1774 (rather than the fall of 1773), is confirmed by copies of the votes of both houses of the General Court among JA’s papers relating to his work for this committee that are now in the Huntington Library (see below in this note). JA went on to say in his letter to Gerry that after spending “most of the Winter [i.e. spring] in rummaging” through books and documents, he “wrote a very lengthy, I cannot say a very accurate State of the Massachusetts Claim to those Lands, a particular Examination, and an Attempt at a Refutation of the Claim of New York, and a similar Discussion of that of New Hampshire.—Mr. Bowdoin revised it and reported it, a few days before Gen. Gage removed the General Court to Salem” in May 1774. At Salem (as told also in the Autobiography) the report was lost in the shuffle. “There is no other Copy that I know of—the first rough blotted Draught, was left in my Table drawer in my Office in Boston, when the Regulars shut up the Town. The Table, Papers and all were carried off, when they left the Town.”

Thus far JA in 1779. The statement in his Autobiography that his report of 1774 reappeared and proved useful a decade later when Massachusetts’ western claims were reasserted and eventually settled on the one hand by a cession to the United States and on the other by a compromise with New York, seems to be clearly confirmed by a letter from Tristram Dalton to JA, Newburyport, 6 April 1784 (Adams Papers). (The connection between Massachusetts’ claim to Vermont and its claim to lands “to the Westward of New York” was owing to the sea-to-sea grant in the 1629 Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company; see Paullin, Atlas description begins Charles O. Paullin and John K. Wright, eds., Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, Washington and New York, 1932. description ends , pl. 42, 47E, 97A–B, and p. 26, 36, 72–73.)

Only fragments of the once voluminous record of JA’s investigation of Massachusetts’ territorial claims have survived. These include some dozen folio pages of notes and drafts among his miscellaneous papers (M/JA/17, Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 191), one page captioned “An Examination of the Claim of New York,” a six-page draft entitled “A State of the Title of the Massachusetts-Bay, to Lands between Connecticutt & Hudsons Rivers, at the North West Corner of the Province,” and three pages of “Additions to be made to the Title of the Massachusetts.” These, at least, were not carried off by the British from JA’s Boston office. In the present century a further and very miscellaneous mass of papers assembled by JA during his work for the committee of 1774 came into the autograph market. They are listed and inaccurately described in The Library of Henry F. De Puy (Part One), Anderson Galleries, N.Y., Catalogue of Sale No. 1440, 17–18 Nov. 1919, lot 8 (now in CSmH). They consist of nearly 50 pages in various hands, including JA’s, but the principal paper, which is identified in the auction catalogue as JA’s “brief” for Massachusetts’ claims (to Vermont), is actually, according to both internal evidence and JA’s own endorsement there on, a copy by JA of “Charles Phelps’s State of this Case.” Phelps was “an Inhabitant of the [New Hampshire] Grants” who favored Massachusetts’ claims; see JA to Gerry, 17 Oct. 1779, cited above. Among the other papers in CSmH is a copy of James Bowdoin’s report to the Massachusetts Council on the petition of Charles Phelps, undated but followed immediately by copies of the votes of the Council and House, 25, 28 Feb., 1 March 1774, appointing Bowdoin and JA “to prepare a full and clear State of the Province’s Title” (JA’s endorsement)—the action that led to JA’s undertaking his laborious researches.

Whatever the fate of JA’s elaborate but apparently irrecoverable report may have been, his interest in Massachusetts’ northern and western territorial claims remained strong, and his early investigation of them later proved extremely useful in the struggle over the northeastern boundary of the United States in the preliminary peace negotiations at Paris; see his Diary entry of 10 Nov. 1782 and note 1 there; also his letters printed in the Boston Patriot, Oct.–Nov. 1811 (partly reprinted in JA, Works description begins The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, ed. Charles Francis Adams, Boston, 1850–1856; 10 vols. description ends , 1:667–668), in which he told once more the story of his defense of Massachusetts’ title to Vermont under the Charter of 1629.

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