Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Not Too Early — But Not Too Late

Exploring the history of land grants in the British North American colony of Virginia has been an interesting side trip on my route to discover what prompted my Massachusetts ancestors to move to the wilderness surrounding the Holston River. I knew that my William Tilson had served in the French and Indian War before marrying his bride in 1762 and moving to southwestern Virginia. But it has taken a lot of digging to determine just how the land in the area might have gotten doled out to willing settlers.

One of the first land grants I found information on was issued in 1745. That year, of course, predates my Tilsons' arrival in the Virginia colony by a considerable amount. Still, to explore the mechanisms of how colonists obtained land in that era, I decided to follow the paper trail.

The 1745 grant was made by the Virginia governor and Council of State to a gentleman by the name of James Patton. His was not a modest receipt of property: the grant entailed a swath of land totaling one hundred thousand acres. The only stipulations, apparently, were that he could not select lands within the boundaries of claims of three other grantees: Lord Fairfax, Benjamin Borden and William Beverley.

In the ensuing years, there has been much interest in the land grants of that same James Patton. Records of a subsequent—1749—land grant he received are housed at the Library of Virginia. An interesting assessment of the longstanding—and possibly suspect—business dealings of James Patton and William Beverley has been offered in the bulletin of a local historical society.

James Patton was not the only one surveying large grants of land received from the Virginia government. Just a few years later, another explorer, Thomas Walker, joined with several others to form a company which received land grants, as well. That company was known as the Loyal Company, and among its founders were men with surnames which make up part of my own heritage: Gilmer, Harvie, Lewis and Meriwether.

Those land grants—of 1745 and 1748—were too early to include my Tilsons' arrival in southwestern Virginia, of course. But in looking at a meandering report I've mentioned previously, an online reprint from a 1937 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, I noticed author Ralph M. Brown observed,
From the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1764, until 1768, nothing of importance occurred in Southwest Virginia beyond the visits of the Long Hunters and the surveyors for the land companies, few settlements being made.
The great influx of settlers into Southwestern Virginia and Kentucky did not begin until after 1794.

While 1745 was too early a process to include my Tilson settlers in the area, that date of 1794 for a "great influx" of settlers was definitely too late. I needed to find something in the middle to help me understand just what it was that inspired a newlywed William Tilson to opt to leave home and extended family to set up housekeeping with his bride in the wilderness of southwest Virginia.

Fortunately, other "current events" of the time period pointed me to some possibilities. Part of the business woes of the Loyal Company involved fallout from the politics of the era. Once source mentioned "the crown rejected further extension of the grant" held by the Loyal Company as part of a ban on western settlement in 1763.

For those astute history buffs among us, that date of 1763 may have rung a bell—but not for me, unfortunately, as I had to slog through pages and pages before I even realized that date sounded familiar.

And it should have sounded familiar to me, if for nothing else than that William Tilson—who had served with the British in the French and Indian War—was by that year free to marry, to travel, and to relocate his residence, simply on account of the end of his military duties during war time. In other words, with the war now over, the obligatory treaty had to be drawn up. To the victors went the land of the defeated, so Britain now held claim to lands once under French control.

In addition to that, other agreements fell into place. Among them was the provision in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 forbidding all settlement west of a line drawn along the Appalachians. Bottom line: that suddenly rendered void any land grants which had been given by the British government to those American colonists who had fought in the war.

This opens up two additional points to pursue. One: that there were land grants issued by the Crown to colonists for military service before 1763. Second, if that were so, and if that was what instigated the Tilsons' move to Virginia, how was it that he remained there on that now-not-legally-granted property? For William and Mary Tilson remained in southwest Virginia at least through the dates of birth of the seven children I've been able to locate—a stretch of time from 1763 through 1776, and possibly much longer.

Every time I've pried open the answer to one question, all that pops out is yet another question.     


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