Museum Purchases Original 1734 Lease for Fishers Island

The Henry L. Ferguson Museum recently purchased an original lease for Fishers Island that was signed on March 25, 1734 by Ann Winthrop, acting as agent and attorney for her husband John Winthrop, the Lessor and owner of all of Fishers Island.

The Lessees were Mary and George Havens, of Fishers Island. This particular John Winthrop (1681-1747) was generally known as “John Winthrop, F.R.S.” to distinguish him from his famous forebears of the same name. He was the great grandson of John Winthrop, Sr., founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the grandson of John Winthrop, Jr., the founder of Fishers Island and New London. His father was Fitz-John Winthrop. At the time this lease was signed, 280 years ago, he was living apart from his wife and family in London, England.

This fascinating one-year lease provides insight into how the Winthrop family managed their Fishers Island property as absentee owners and features a mixture of rights and restrictions. For the sum of 600 pounds per annum, Mary and George Havens received the use of “all the Houses, Buildings, Edifices, Barns, Stables, Workhouses, Fences of wood or Stone & all meadowland fresh or Salt, with, the Coaves Creeks & Ponds, & all Priviledges…& also such Stock of Neat [domesticated] Cattle, Sheep, Swine & Horse kind.” The lease documents that 81 oxen and cattle resided on Fishers Island at the time of signing, including a pair of oxen, 42 cows and a mixture of young steers, bulls and heifers. There were eight breeding mares and 20 swine, as well as 1,350 sheep “with their Fleeces & their Lambs.” The Havens family, as Lessees, had the right to farm the island and profit from crops, dairy products, wool, and livestock, returning to the Lessor at the end of the lease period the livestock of the same number and value as had been received at the beginning.

Along with the Lessees’ rights and privileges were a variety of restrictions that guaranteed the Lessor and his assignees ongoing access to parts of the Island and provided them several routes to potential additional income. These restrictions included the Lessor’s claim to “all Wrecks of the Sea, & Great Fish, Whales or Others, which may at any time come on Shoar.” The Lessor also reserved “the liberty to sett up any Mills, Dams, or Waterworks, & Digg any Earth, Clay or Stone, & Cull Wood or Timber on any part sd. Land; also the priviledges, Proffitts, Rights, Commoditys, whatsoever of Hunting, Fishing, & Fowling &c with free Egress & Regress to what is Reserved & Excepted.” The lessees were forbidden to “Cutt, or Suffer to be Cutt, Stripp, Peal, or Destroy any Vines, Pines, Spruce, Cedar, Walnutt, Chesnutt, Birch, Beach, Maple, Sassafrass, Ash, or Elm, or any Cherry Trees, tame or wild.” Mary and George Havens could only cut trees for firewood to be used on island and for repairing fences, buildings “& Utensills of the Husbandry.” The lease made quite clear that poaching was off limits, stating that “all the Deer, Partridges, Peacocks, Quails, Rabbitts, or any other sort of wild Creatures with their increase are to Run at liberty, & remain there for the use of the Lessor.” As for a place to stay while visiting, “the lessor doth reserve the liberty of One Chamber in the best House for his own use only” keeping also “Ten Acres of Land on the North Hill, with Liberty of setting up Fences, Warehouses, Stables, & Outhouses…” A small number of horses and cattle were to be kept in this North Hill enclave for use by the Lessor and assignees.

The Museum’s spring newsletter will provide more details of this important historical document. The purchase price was $560.00. The seller was a rare document and paper dealer who auctions items on eBay. Many, many thanks to Sarah Malinowski for painstakingly transcribing this entire document.