In the early East Hampton Town records accounts are frequent about the initial apportionment of land by the trustees, who were the only governing body. Though it is not stated in an obvious fashion, it appears that the grants of acreage were conditional in that recipients were obligated to abide by certain obligations, some spelled out, others apparently assumed.
Requirements described in some of the records are for keeping a road passable, as in 1667 when Thomas Chatfield and John Miller were told, “Ye highway being still to remaine as they are already layed out.” Elsewhere in the old town books are orders that landowners had to keep their lands properly fenced.
Property owners in those days seemed to be able to sell their land, however, more or less the way it is done today, with a private transaction signed in the presence of witnesses and officially recorded. In a 1678 contract signed with an X, John Edwards sold 10 acres “near a place called Indian well” for the sum of 20 pounds. And so it went. In 1693 Samuell S. Brookes sold his eight acres at Hog Creek to Jacob Schellinger for 45 pounds. Another transaction involved about six acres “lying neer the walnuts . . . in accabonick Neck,” among other plots.
Little is said in the early town records about what a property owner could do on his land. (They were mostly men, of course.) Far more time and ink seemed to be spent listing the earmarks distinguishing cattle and who would be responsible for watching the herds sent each spring to Montauk to graze.
It is a far cry from today’s Town Hall, where even the color of a shop’s new business sign can be the subject of several weeks’ debate. Want to build a house near a wetland? It will take up to a year to secure the necessary approval.
Yet in some aspects property ownership 350 years ago is strikingly familiar. Then as now, land meant making money, if at a somewhat smaller scale.