commons classes

The deed from the crown for the Kingston Patent was granted to all the inhabitants, in common, with a charter making it the Town of Kingston with twelve trustees elected each year as a government. This was totally unique in 1688 colonial America.

A hundred years later, after the Revolution, New York established its own forms of town government and the trustees of the Kingston Commons became something like the board of a cooperative, which was awkward because it owned almost all the land of the municipality.

In 1803 the trustees voted to survey the common lands into large divisions it called classes and then each class into numbered lots and sell these to long-standing citizens.

Today nearly every deed to the soil of this ancient land can be traced to a numbered lot in a division made on a survey that bears a description whose meaning has been largely forgotten over time.

This is an interpretive map for naming and locating the 25 class divisions of the Kingston Commons. It places their survey lines on the 1893 USGS map for locating the roads and residences in each class to show as close as possible what was on the lots when they were originally purchased.

A composition is below the PDF that explains the process of selling off the land of the Kingston Commons and disbanding the “Corporation of Kingston” 129 years after it was instituted.

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The Division of the Kingston Commons

That survey of 1803 was in two phases. The first mapped all the documented claims of the Corporation of Kingston to firm up the exact bounds of the Town of Kingston. Land had been added to the original patent description of 1687 over the preceding century. This survey was to place the northern border that had extended with these additions into what was then Albany County. Once this border was settled on, this line became the boundary between the towns of Kingston and Catskill. This also became the line dividing the new Greene County from the extended Ulster County. All of this newly defined Town of Kingston up to the new Greene county border was claimed by the Corporation of Kingston.

The second phase of the 1803 survey divided this total town of Kingston into a grid of mostly 30 & 45 acre lots. Locating these lots was made manageable by placing them in large divisions called "Classes".

A half dozen of these Classes were south of the Rondout Creek in the present town of Esopus. They were, by name: The South of Rondout Second Class East of Road; the South of Rondout Second Class South of Road: South of Rondout First Class; The Huzzy Hill lots; The Shappawanick Mountain lots; Kline Esopus lots.

Nine of these Classes were around the present day City of Kingston and Towns of Ulster and a much-decreased Town of Kingston. These were, by name: The Binnewater Class; The Pine Bush Class; The Flat Bush Class; The Clove Class; The Three Mile Class; Compensation Class East of Road; Compensation Class West of Road; and, the Suppies Hook lots. Parts of the Southwest and most of the First Class were also in these towns.

The rest were in Saugerties. 80% of present day Saugerties is on the footprint of part or all of 11 "Kingston Common Classes". These are, by name: most of the Southwest Class and the northernmost line of lots in the First Class; all of the Second, Third, Forth, Fifth, Sixth, Northwest, Seventh, Plantasie Bergh ; and, the West of the Esopus Kill lots.

There are also occupied farms within and adjacent to Class bounds that use numbered lot corners or lines as references for their locations.

In excess of 650 individual deeds to these lots are recorded in what are called the "Trustees Books" numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. The latter four of these books are made up of printed "boilerplate" deeds with hand written date, purchaser and trustees' name, lot description and reservation of trespass rights to common access. All of Books 5 and 6 and most of 7 are deeds recorded in 1804 with books 1, 2, 3, 4 and the rest of 7 and the J, K and L parts of book 8 recording deeds that range in time from 1687 to the last sale in 1816.

The Trustees books have an Index but this is by grantee name only. The original survey maps are missing and a map made in the 1890's by Edward Codwise that is much referenced but missing parts and very schematic in form, has been found to be incomplete and in many cases erroneous. Surveyors like Codwise have attempted to reconstruct the 1803 surveys for specific areas of interest but the only evidence of extensive research to locate exact positions of lot corners relative to a large collection of period surveys to be found is in the collected documents of Morris Rosenblum.

Rebuilding an accurate map of the original surveys is not a completely onerous task. Every deed is a building block rectangle and each references corners of others in its description. Nearly all descriptions use right angle directions of 66° SE or NW and 24° NE or SW. All the deed descriptions are written in measurements of “chains and links” and use specific numbered lots as corners as well.

The town of Saugerties provides the key to the precise locating of every Commons lot that has a location on the west side of the fields of Atharacton, the Churchland and Kaatsbaan. The locations east of of this and on the river and also south of the Roundout do not have this "key" advantage.

The originating 1811 documentation for the formation of Saugerties applies the 66 and 24-degree angles and uses "chains" as a measure in its boundary description. This description also uses a specific Kingston Commons lot as a corner.

This makes it possible to use any modern day map of the Saugerties to position the angles and measurements of the original commons lots. The town's west to south corner gives both the key angle and position of a starting point.

A scaling key is even made possible by dividing the length of the sides of this key southwest angle into the number of chains in the 1811 formation documentation. From there it is possible to correctly proportion and position a model lot rectangle size to the overall map since all the deeds use adjacent lots in their descriptions. Even the odd lot description with non-rectangular measurements can be drafted to fill a void by applying this 1803 base angle to plot a shape.

The majority of Morris Rosenblum's work on Kingston Commons lots is concerned with Saugerties but his collection of survey references covers the entire Kingston Patent. His own personal studies use graph paper and overlays of vellum to draw lots and link them together to reproduce Classes. This is done over a number of years as clues appear in surveys and title abstracts. His Classes sketches at first were scaled to accurately place the Commons Lots in registry on aerial survey photographs and then after 1978, when tax lot maps registered to the USGS topographical map of the town were made, the scale of these became his base.

A completely accurate Commons Lot registry would follow a process that filled vertical and horizontal columns and rows stretching from the bottom of the town to the top and from the west bounds eastward beginning at the southwest key point. Proportionally drawing each and placing each in position next to the other as building blocks creates a precise historical "base map".

The first thing this base map would accomplish is to verify that the proportions of the individual Commons lots match the overall scale of the town map of Saugerties. Once this is shown to be reasonably accurate a similar building process to locate the rest of the Commons Lots in the Classes to the south would have these fall in place.

An historical Commons map aligned with the USGS map would match the earth. Its alignment to tax lots to match their originating documentation is another story. The overall tax map of the town is not considered to be precise.

Aligning property boundaries to an historical base was something of a challenge to Morris Rosenblum as an attorney who dealt with forensic evidence to resolve controversy. It is obvious when the proportion of the historical base of the Commons is overlaid that adjacent lots and internal divisions have to be adjusted proportionately to match. Alignment to topographical features such as stream banks and roadsides in property descriptions and property surveys based on such landmarks have resulted in inaccuracies compared to the historical precision the original Commons surveys allow.

In essence there are two property maps. One is the 1803 survey that is the historical base. When this is matched to USGS topographical features its lines can accurately be found today using GIS location. The other is the tax lot map of current property divisions based on surveys that have deviated in one form or the other from what is historically accurate.

A typical surveyed land has no larger scale orientation for placing it, save a road or waterway. The whole of the Kingston Commons is a template that should make finding any early or present day property's location dead accurate. To historians, lawyers and surveyors this template is the ultimate benefit of mapping the Commons.

There are many other benefits of knowing about the Commons that are not as controversial as the location of property lines.

Most early deeds use the names of those owning adjacent property as their bounds. The names are also included on survey drawings. A quick look at a real estate or tax lean notice in a late 19th century newspaper shows that both the Commons lot and class and the bounds ownership methods were used to describe and locate a property. The Commons are not used for such descriptions into the beginning of the twentieth century and essentially disappear from drawings by the 1980's. This language in those ancient deeds and leases today offers many insights into the composition of the community of the day.

The fact that Kingston Commons lots were sold based on a graduated scale depending on the length of residency in the Corporation of Kingston is of great historical value. There is a genealogical importance to these lot sales because they can be traced to individuals and their post and pre-Revolution residences. This adds a method for tracing lineage into this early period for individuals that may not have fallen into the normal records.

These original trustees deeds are treasure trove of geographical information also. The place names and descriptions of physical and historical features that work their way into the descriptions written into the originating Kingston Commons deeds are of great interest. Even the variations of spelling of the same familiar word, described by a Dutch speaker as opposed to a decidedly English surname gives an idea of the genesis of the current words in use today.

The fact that so many of these descriptions were written in the short period of five weeks between January and March in 1804 implies that many inhabitants concurred on place names and their locations. For instance, when present day Wilhelm Road is consistently described as Blue Mountain Road in every deed that uses it as a boundary that is not only what everyone called it in 1804 but it indicates that was the main road used to get to Blue Mountain for those that lived there. And, when a schoolhouse and a spring are excluded from a deed which is simply described as "under the blue mountain" and adjoining both the 4th and 5th classes the only place on the map this can be is at the old Blue Mountain school on what we now call Blue Mountain Road. Logically then, Willhelm Road to High Falls Road to Fawn Road and on to this schoolhouse location along either present day Blue Mountain Road or VanVlierden Road was a thoroughfare in 1804.

Being able to go to a book from its reference on this map of the Commons and find there the earliest written account of land features and even houses, schools and mills has obvious advantages. But, aside from the discovery of names and features, the Commons shed light on the movement of property lines throughout history. When tax maps were first made available there were plenty of holes left between surveyed properties. Long before this town-wide reference the lore among professionals was that surveying from the south needed different points of origin than from the north. The same east from west. Overlaps and gaps were often resolved at a convenient middle ground. This is what would be evidenced in the mismatches between a map of the Commons and the comparatively imprecise tax map that is compiled from recorded surveys. If a grid based on the ancient lines of the Commons division was available to those generating the first tax maps they would have been more accurate and less of a problem to surveyors.

It is amazing that the Kingston Commons division scheme of 1803 was not used as the root for every subsequent transfer after 1816. This is one of the few places in the United States where this can be done and bragging rights about the preciseness of the division of its land could have been as much a part of its heritage as any other part of its history.

The Great Knot, April 27, 2011

Michael Sullivan Smith, 2015
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