EARLY WARREN LANDOWNER CALLED
SWINDLER AND SCOUNDREL

[From Warren History, Volume One, No. 4, Fall 1990]

Most of our readers would be cheerfully content to own two or three acres of undeveloped land in Warren. But what if you owned 3000 acres, nearly 25% of the township's total land mass? At a conservative $100,000 per acre, that's a plot worth $300 million, give or take a million.

What is a dream today was reality 300 years ago. On May 20, l690, the East Jersey Proprietors "Surveyed and Laid out for William Dockwra a Tract of Land lying on the East Side of Pasaick River" that encompassed the entire northeast corner of the township, including what is now Union Village, Smalleytown, Plainfield Gardens and all points in between. The 1690 deed decribed the tract in surveyor's terms: "Beginning at the Mouth of the small Run on the said River which is the Corner Bound[ary] of Land formerly conveyed to [Dockwra] on the North West Side of the said River and from thence Runing over the River South l54 Chains thence West South West 247 Chains thence North 166 Chains more or less to the River opposite to the upper Corner of Robert Barclay's Land on the said River and thence as the River runs down to where it began containing after Allowance for Barrens etc. three thousand acres, bounded North by Passaick River and round the other Sides by Land unsurveyed."

Dockwra's 3000 acres on today's map is bounded north by the Passaic River, east by the Warren-Berkeley Heights Township border, south by a line along the crest of the Second Mountain and west by a line parallel and about 3/4 mile west of Old Stirling Road. Dockwra's 3000-acre tract in what would become Warren Township was due south of another 2000 acres he owned that bordered the Passaic River in what is now Passaic and Bernards Townships. Dockwra also owned l000 acres in Green Brook and Dunellen, 2800 acres bordering the Raritan River om what was known as the Raritan Lotts, as well as thousands of additional acres throughout central Jersey.

William Dockwra, one of Warren's largest Colonial-era landowners, was a merchant in London during the later half of the 17th Century. Possibly of Irish descent, Dockwra (or Dockwray/Dockwrae, as the name is variously spelled) is best known in England as the founder of London's first penny postal system. "In l683...," according to The Dictionary of National Biography, "Dockwra established a penny postal system in the metropolis. There existed at this time no adequate provision for the carriage of letters and parcels between different parts of London. Dockwray set up six large offices in the city, a receiving-house was opened in each of the principal streets, every hour the letters and parcels taken in at the receiving-houses were carried to the 'grand offices' by one set of messengers, sorted and registered, and then delivered by another set of messengers in all parts of London. In the principal streets near the Exchange there were six or eight, in the suburbs there were four, deliveries in the day. All letters and parcels not exceeding one pound in weight, or any sum of money not exceeding 10 Pounds, or any parcel not more than l0 Pounds in value, were carried to any one place within the city for a penny, and to any distance within a given ten-mile radius for twopence."

Dockwra's penny post, forerunner of today's postal system, appears to have been successful, although Dockwra himself was eventually dismissed from his post as Comptroller of the Penny Post in l700 for "injuring the trade of the post-office porters." According to Lord Macaulay, however, more than likely Dockwra lost his post because of the threat his system posed to the Royal postal monopoly. In l702 Dockwra petitioned Queen Anne for compensation, pleading that six of his seven children were unprovided for. He died on Sept. 25, l716, "aged near l00." From early Colonial documents, we know that he married Katherine Mudie, that his sons, William and George, were probably living in l695/97, when they inherited property in Perth Amboy from John and Margaret Carrington, possibly relatives, and that his daughter, Margaret, survived him by at least 22 years. Dockwra never came to New Jersey, although in a letter of April l685 to Deputy Governor Lawrie, he states his intention "to reside among you...if Providence permitt me...."

Dockwra's connection to Warren dates to l683 when he joined the East Jersey Board of Proprietors. "William Dockwra, who had purchased the [Samuel] Groom proprietary in l683, took an active interest in settling the province," wrote John E. Pomfret in his work, The Proprietors of East Jersey. "He had invested l00 Pounds in the Scottish proprietor's cargo of l683 and during the next two years he sent out 35 indentured servants. Next to the Sonmans' heirs, Dockwra paid the largest charges in support of the province.... In l685 he purchased 7/40 of the Thomas Cox share and 1/2 of Mew's share. Outweighing his substantial landed interest, however, was his conspicuous role on the council of proprietors. He proved himself invaluable to the London men, who in March 1685 granted him 1,000 acres for 'his fidelity, care, and pains in negotiating the public affairs of the province.' Later he was voted an additional 1,200 acres for his services as their agent. Meanwhile, in July 1688, he became receiver general and treasurer, and in November 1690 he was appointed secretary and register...."

"Andrew Hamilton, the Scottish merchant, acted as Dockwra's proxy and agent in the province, and the two worked together for their mutual advantage. Dockwra took up other choice lands throughout the province...," securing lands on the Manalapan, on Crosswicks Creek, 3,000 acres on the Millstone River, 2,000 acres on the Passaic above the falls in l688, 3,000 at the head of the Assinpink, land in Perth Amboy, a tract at Wickatunk and Barnegat, and an additional 4,600 acres between the Millstone and Assinpink. "In fact, there was hardly a portion of East Jersey lands in which he did not share. A large land boom would have benefited him enormously."

Vastly powerful in his role as executive secretary of the proprietors, Dockwra's 15-year tenure came to an end in l702 when the Board removed him from his offices after hearing charges that he had accepted bribes, issued unauthorized orders and tampered with the minutes of the proprietors' meetings. Pomfret, who calls Dockwra "an ambitious, self-seeking man whose arbitrary conduct led to his repudiation," admits that the Dockwra may have acted no differently than many of his co-proprietors. Other authorities suggest that some of the charges against Dockwra may have been trumped up by his enemies, the same folks who brought about the downfall of Peter Sonmans, Dockwra's closest associate on the Board.

As the 17th Century drew to a close, the East Jersey Board of Proprietors was divided into two factions: The Scottish clique, centered in Perth Amboy, supported a monopolistic policy of retaining large land tracts which could be rented to settlers. A second faction, headed by Sonmans and Dockwra, favored the rapid sale of proprietary lands in order to generate quick profits. The Dockwra-Sonmans faction eventually allied itself with the settlers who owned land originally purchased from the Indians, preferring to collect quitrents from these settlers rather than ejecting them from their lands, as the Scottish clique urged.

Anyone living on Dockwra's 3000 acres would have one of two titles: either a deed from Dockwra or his agents, or one from the Elizabethtown Associators, who claimed title under a much larger Indian purchase made by Governor Gawen Lawrie on Oct. 30, l684. Other settlers, covering their bets, had deeds from both. Dockwra's New Jersey representatives spent much energy, and many years, attempting to clear "squatters" from his land, although it appears they were satisfied if the settlers paid quitrents instead. Some with Elizabethtown titles did indeed pay Dockwra; others refused, leading to years of controversy.

The dispute between Dockwra's agents and those who held title under the Elizabethtown Associators is documented at length in the minute books of the East Jersey Proprietors, affording us a record of Warren Township's first settlers along the banks of the Passaic. The earliest reference is dated June 28, l742, when "Richard Fletcher & Jonas Greenaway, being settled on Dockwra's 3,000 on south side of Passaic by appointment this day attended and acquainted this Board, that they have for many years held possession for Dockwra's heirs, but are now threatened by Elizabeth Town...." Fletcher and Greenaway told the Board they were willing to post a bond in favor of the Board for l00 Pounds proclamation money to indemnify it for any legal costs, "whereupon it's agreed that the Clerk of this Board give to each of them an engagement in these words: ....The Council of Proprietors of the Eastern Division of New Jersey, do promise and engage to protect Richard Fletcher and Jonas Greenaway in their possessions upon Dockwra's 3,000 acres on the south side of Passaic River, and to defend them against all suits and actions that shall happen to be brought against them by any claiming under Elizabeth Town, they having given bond to hold the possession for the heirs of Dockwra." Other entries follow:

October 11, l742: "Mr. [James] Alexander reported to this Board that Mr. [Daniel] Dunstar, Mr. [John] Stelle, Mr. [Daniel] Cooper and Mr. [John] Cross all informed him the said Alexander that the people on Pasaick were making great destruction there of the timber belonging to the Proprietors and particularly of the timber on that tract of 2,000 and 3,000 acres belonging to Dockwra, and on Mr. Kearny's and that they all make it their business to cut staves and headings and send down to the landing and that Daniel Cooper tenders his services to the Proprietors in anything he can do, to put a stop to this matter."

March 24, l743: "Samuel Beedle and Jacob Carle, being settled on Dockwra's 3,000 acres on south side of Passaick, by appointment this day attended, and acquainted this Board, that they have for many years held possession for Dockwra's heirs, but is now threatened by Elizabeth Town, and is willing to enter into bond...which he now executes in l00 Pounds proclamation...and bond is in the Clerk's keeping for the heirs of Dockwra."

"William Nichols, being settled on Dockwra's 3,000 acres on south side of Passaick, being likewise threatened by Elizabeth Town, is willing to enter into bond in such manner as Samuel Beedle and Jacob Carle...."

Similar entries follow the same pattern: August 19, l742, John Moore; March 25, l743, Elijah Thorp; March 27, l745: "Samuel Doughty Junr. having represented to the Board that he had purchased the improvements made by Richard Fletcher on that part of Dockwra's 3,000 acres which the said Fletcher formerly settled with the approbation of this Board...;" December 3, l748, Jonathan Catterling; April 19, l748, Joseph Moore; May 22, l749, Caleb Jones; April 14, l749, "Jonathan Thickston and Samuel Mills, having purchased the improvements made by Samuel Beedle and Jacob Carle...;" October 16, l752, Daniel Little and Joseph Little; March 24, l756, Samuel Pope; May 4, l757, "Henry Davis and Edminster Moore having purchased Samuel Pope's improvements...."

Dockwra's daughter, Margaret Bowles, engaged attorneys to protect her inheritance, to what effect we do not know. On June 22, l738, The Pennsylvania Gazette printed the following notice: "To be SOLD, Divers Tracts of Land scituate in the Eastern Division of the Province of New-Jersey, late Part of the Estate of William Dockwra, deceased, and now belonging to Margret Bowles. Any Person inclined to purchase, may apply to the Subscriber, who is fully authorized to sell the same. And Notice is hereby given to all such Persons, who have settled on any Part of the said Lands without License, that they forthwith apply and agree for the same; or that they immediately depart therefrom, as they would avoid being sued for the Trespasses already committed."

One lasting legacy of Dockwra's l690 purchase is the border between Warren Township and Berkeley Heights as well as that between Somerset and Union Counties. On Nov. 4, l741, the Governor, Council and General Assembly passed an act to annex a portion of Essex County to Somerset. That act traced the northeasterly border of Somerset "to Passaick river; thence down the same to the lower corner of William Dockwrae's two patents on the same river; and thence down on a straight line, southeasterly to the head of Green brook...."

REF: New Jersey Archives, Volume 1,ll and 23; Geo. J. Miller, Ed, The Minutes of the Board of Proprietors of the Eastern Division of New Jersey; The Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. V; John E. Pomfret, Colonial New Jersey and The Proprietors of East Jersey; Theodore Thayer, As We Were; and Manuscript Collection, N.J. Historical Society, NJ IV-24.