Envisioning the Early Colonial Landscape through Deeds

While working on the historical narrative for the National Register nomination of Midland Cemetery, which is stewarded by my friend Barbara Barksdale, I collected a deed for adjacent parcels. This deed transferred over 700 acres from Richard Peters to John Potts in 1756. Richard Peters was a Philadelphia bigwig and personal friend of the Penn family; John Potts was the founder of Pottstown and son of a blacksmith immigrant that started a family legacy of forge and foundry operation. John Potts bought or built very many of eastern PA’s well-known historic forges and foundries.

Richard Peters had collected up well over a thousand acres of land just south of modern-day Harrisburg and across the river in York, including a majority of the area today known as Steelton. The cemetery property was at one time owned by Peters, but it was not included in the large collection of tracts transferred to Potts by the deed in question. Despite that, I find the deed useful for imagining what the land the cemetery rests on must have been like in this early period. When the deed was made, Europeans had only begun to settle in this region just a little more than a half-century prior, and there was still a substantial population of native Susquehannock people living in the area (though their numbers were already much-diminished from the early 17th century by disease and relocation).

The Steelton borough water tanks sit on what was previously the headwaters for the largest run in the Steelton area. This means that the cemetery, which floods at its periphery during heavy spring rains, was actually atop the bank of a substantial stream when it was first put into use. Stick a trowel in the depressed terrain on the cemetery property and you’ll pull up primarily smooth rounded river rock. Before I began researching the history of the property, I had done this myself, the day an overgrown section was cleared out for ground penetrating radar. Within a few weeks, obligate wetland plants began sprouting up from the newly disturbed soil. This must have been a wet place indeed, I thought.

Over a year later I came across the Peters to Potts deed, and was grabbed by the following portion of it:

Together with all and Singular the Houses Out Houses Edifices Buildings Yards Orchards Gardens Mines Minerals Quarrys Meadows Marshes Savannahs Swamps Cripples Woods Under wood Timber and Tree Ways Waters Water Courses Liberties Profits Commodities Advantages Hereditaments & Appurtenances to the Said Several Tracts…

Lancaster County Deed Book N, Page 372

There is a certain amount of boilerplate language used in the rights and appurtenances clause of any deed, but things outside of the norm give us insight into what the land was like and how it was being used. “Mines Minerals Quarries” are definitely not something you’ll find in every deed. This suggests Steelton’s long-abandoned mines (which I theorize birthed its eponymous steel industry, though the research must continue after our coronavirus pandemic ends) were already in use at this time. Additionally, there’s a good chance Steelton’s still-operating quarries and mineral extractions were in progress as well. The value of these commodities would certainly explain why investors like Peters and Potts would be interested in the land. Given the well-documented use of limestone by Susquehannock people for uses like hearth rocks and pot boilers, it would not be surprising to learn that the lime quarry here had its origins in precolonial times.

Then there’s the “Meadows Marshes Savannahs Swamps Cripples Woods Under wood Timber and Tree Ways Waters Water Courses”. A cripple in this context is an archaic term used in Philadelphia and environs to describe an extremely densely grown swampy land. Through this seemingly exhaustive description of the land being conveyed, we get a strong sense that it is alternatingly full of mature woodlands, open meadows and grassland, and marshes that would likely turn into the swampland or cripples it already had in abundance with time.

For at least the past century, a strip of woodland has demarcated a boundary between the Steelton reservoir tanks and the land that now belongs to Steelton-Highspire School District, but was before the school’s construction a farmstead. I would wager that this strip of woodland it has been there for quite a long time, buffering this important water supply. (As an aside, my father’s friend came across a coin from the 1690’s there last year, and I think this speaks to the idea of very early exploitation of this tract, as well as the significance of the spring that provides Steelton’s water supply today. Peters had actually kept this portion of the land until his death, and only afterwards was it conveyed to a new owner from his estate.)

Such woodlands as those quickly crept over the main section of Midland when it was abandoned in the 1980s, and over the portion of Midland that was newly available for burial use after the run was plugged by the reservoir in the late 19th century. Imagine these woodlands being left to their own devices, with comparatively minimal manipulation by the people. It’s not hard to envision the woodlands covering the whole vicinity, mucky earth full of wetland wildflowers like those that emerged at Midland last spring, until woody growth was so thick that it blocked out the sun everywhere but the banks of the now-devoured run.

Pardon the low quality of this image, as I snapped it while attempting to survive my exceedingly foolhardy attempt to navigate the place I think of when I imagine a cripple in 18th century parlance. The start of the Yellow Breeches Creek is gloriously pristine for those of use who love waterways and wetlands; but it’s so densely grown on the sides and straight down the middle that it’s hard to tell which part is river and which is semi-firm-footed swampland as you pass through. After a scant hour and a half I gave up, hauled my boat onto my shoulder, and maneuvered it nearly a mile through muck covered with woody growth that opened no more than 12″ at any point.

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