Holland Land Company Records: Land Research in Western New York State
Editor’s note: The following post from our archives, written by author Karen E. Livsey, provides insight into the information contained in her two volume work, Western New York Land Transactions: Extracted from the Archives of the Holland Land Company. Ms. Livsey is the Library/Archivist at the Fenton History Center in Jamestown (Chautauqua Co.), New York, and she serves as the Ellicott (N.Y.) Town Historian. She has previously appeared as a member of the Genealogical Publishing Company booth staff at national genealogical conferences.
It has been over 200 years since Joseph Ellicott completed a two and one-half year survey of the Holland Land Company’s holdings and the main land office opened in Batavia, New York. My two-volume Western New York Land Transactions: Extracted from the Archives of the Holland Land Company (Volume 1 and Volume 2) provides detailed information that can solve land research problems in western New York State. An understanding of these records and their contents, however, is a must for their successful use.
Individual settlers accounted for the majority of the sales of land in western New York State by the Holland Land Company during its thirty-plus years of operation. In the 1790s, the Dutch banking houses that created the Holland Land Company had purchased large tracts of land from Robert Morris totaling 3.3 million acres. Today that land is all of Niagara, Erie, Chautauqua, and Cattaraugus counties, most of Orleans, Genesee, and Wyoming Counties, and the western part of Allegany County. Many of the early settlers coming into that area of New York State were from New England and eastern and central New York, in addition to some from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. They were followed by immigrants from Europe.
The land was surveyed into townships and ranges by the end of 1800 when sales began. Initially, most settlers did not pay the full selling price and receive a deed in return. Instead, they paid a small amount down and signed an Article of Agreement. The usual terms of the Article included payment in eight years with compound interest, and an agreement to clear land and build a house. The families that occupied the various plots did not receive their deeds until the amount was fully paid. In fact, many settlers never paid and never received a deed, and therefore do not appear in New York county land records. These same settlers do appear in the Holland Land Company Records, which accounts for their great importance. The records of financial transactions between the settler and the Company were recorded in the Land Tables covering the years 1804 to 1835. These records give the detailed financial accountings for each transaction. Information recorded includes the name, date, location of the land (township, range, section, and lot); the type of transaction; the number of acres; amount paid (principal and interest), balance owed, and whether a deed had been issued.
Genealogical researchers should recognize that the Holland Land Company records identify each original settler, particulars on the land the family occupied, all payments, and any changes in ownership that occurred over time. If no payments were made over a given period, and no other contact was made, the land reverted to the Company and could be sold again. Settlers could sell their Article and any improvements they had made and leave their parcel. The new owner of the Article did not appear in the Company records until he made a payment or renegotiated the Article. Renegotiation was common because the early compounding of interest and a history of lapsed payments often resulted in a balance owed that exceeded the value of land. To encourage settlers to remain on the land and make their payments, the Company offered to renegotiate the Article, often at a higher than the original price, but with an interest rate that did not compound. The bookkeeping for this transaction required an entry to have the land revert to the Company, and then a new transaction was recorded to the settler, whether it was the same person or someone new articling the land. This entry enables a researcher to learn what happened at a later date to land articled earlier by someone else.
To get a fuller picture of the contents of the Land Tables, along with references to the rolls of microfilm on which they appear, I recommend readers consult the Introductions to the two volumes of Western New York Land Transactions (volume 1 and volume 2). In addition to the information extracted in these two volumes, the original record also include the number of acres, the part of the lot in which the acres were located, the amount paid, balance due, and whether paid in full and a deed issued. It is important to look at this additional information. The original records are in the custody of the Municipal Archives of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The entire archives of the Holland Land Company have been microfilmed on 202 rolls and are available through the Family History Library and on interlibrary loan from Reed Library, State University of New York, College at Fredonia. Other large libraries may have some or all of the microfilm, which researchers can learn via FirstSearch at a nearby library. Selected Holland Land Company resources can also be found at Western New York Heritage.
Image credit: By Holland Land Company (Buffalo and Erie County Public Library) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.