“Genealogy can often be used as a base for the historical fiction writer. Following the lives of our ancestors brings us into a particular setting so that time and place both encircle and thread the story. However, for the novelist, one word fills the space between fact and fiction, and that word is ‘possibility’.” – Author, Gloria Waldron Hukle
Author Gloria Waldron Hukle’s extensive research into her own family’s lineage is a template for the depth of research needed to bring historical fiction alive. Here she taunts us with a dream and puzzle that you could only unravel through tracing your own family’s lineage and begs the question: are YOU one of the heirs to Manhattan?
Please welcome Gloria:
Have you ever wondered if you were in line to inherit in a big way from a long-lost distant relative? Today there are threads of evidence exploring that very possibility for thousands of us worldwide. The theory goes that if you can trace your lineage back to just one of five l7th century Manhattan settlers you could be in line to inherit a portion of one of the most desirable and spellbinding pieces of property in the world. You could be one of the so-called “Harlem Heirs”.
So who were these five benevolent men who may have passed to their future descendents a life-changing opportunity? And how is this windfall theoretically possible?
Well, to answer these questions we must turn back the pages of time. The biggest handshake goes to one Mr. Walter Shupe, a late l9th century Manhattan Attorney who seems to have spear-headed the formation of the Harlem Commons Syndicate, a company that issued stock worth about $300,000 at the time. Their hope was to claim about one thousand acres of prime New York City land and water. The purpose of this syndicate was to build and operate 14 miles of stone wharves and basins on the assumption that they, through inheritance, owned the rivers, marshes, and embankments along the Harlem River. The plan was to deepen the river to a depth of thirty feet. [One of the companies that they planned for the intra-structure work was Cole Dredging Company. The President of the Cole Dredging Company at that time was L.G. Jeffers. Col. Lee Crandall was Secretary.]
In November of l883 Mr.Walter Shupe sat in his office at 252 Broadway in New York City being interviewed by a reporter from the New York Times. It was Shupe who first introduced Resolved Waldron, Thomas Delavall, Daniel Tourner, John Servelen and John Obleene as men who in l666 were granted by English Governor Richard Nichols “all the lands covered by water from Seventy-fourth to One Hundred and Twenty-eighth Streets, which include the Morrisania Flats and all the made land between those streets and the entire river bed of the Harlem River from one limit of the grant to the other.” Shupe went on to say that this included “all soils, creeks, woods, meadows, pastures, waters, fishing and huntings, and fowlings, and all other profits, commodities, emoluments, and hereditaments to said land and premises in anywise appertaining”. [The Manor of Morrisania (later owned by Col. Morris and later the Bronx area) was originally a grant to Dutchman Arent Van Curlear.]
Shupe added strength to the land claim by pointing out that twenty-two years after the original grant by Governor Nichols, New York Governor Dugan confirmed the original five men did indeed have title to the lands and waters that Nichols had granted. Shupe also brought up the fact that in 1825 after a petition of a large number of heirs, over 300 acres of the high lands which went along with the original grant as pastures was sold to a Mr. Dudley Selden with the profits going to the heirs. At that time Chancellor James Kent examined the title and pronounced it ‘perfect’.
However, in future years the newly made land that was developed from filled in marsh land was claimed by the City of New York and then sold to whoever wanted it. As time went along the Selden heirs tried to regain their legal property rights or compensation as a portion of their inheritance and, it seems that’s when Walter Shupe stepped in, in about the year l873.
Putting more backbone to the land claim was the living Waldron residency bond, i.e., Trustee and one of the Syndicate incorporators, Samuel Waldron, was a direct descendent of Resolved Waldron and had lived on his property in the same house that was built by old Resolved Waldron back in the l600s.. (Being a direct descendant of Resolved myself; this bit of information certainly grabbed my attention!)
Walter Shupe was a “Trustee” and the spokesman for the board that included Samuel Waldron, Thomas H. Wyatt, Horace E. Brown, Joseph Hastings, William H. Keek and V.S. Miller. (Interestingly enough they were not all New York Residents. V.S. Miller was from Michigan, William Keek was from Indiana, and Joseph Hastings was from Ohio (which is where a general meeting of the company was held in 1883 with over 500 stock holders and interested parties attending).
So what happened? I don’t know. But, PBS’s History Detectives is on the case now, and a segment is to be aired, I believe, in a week or so. I’m anxious to see what they have turned up. Of course, as the expression goes, “don’t quit your day job”.
A few snippets that I discovered in the course of my research …..
In June 1886 the ‘Harlem Heirs’ controversy was again in the news. Claims were made that Samuel Waldron had “sold out” to the City of New York before the test suit for the group’s claims could be brought to trial. My attention was grabbed again. Was this true and if so what would this do to possible claims by Waldron heirs?
Apparently the claimants continued to fight through the courts for years. In January of l887 a group of the heirs presented the case to the New York State Senate, this time seeking their rights to a portion of Manhattan Island. (I don’t know the results of this claim.)
In l888 a Canadian, Tunis Covert, went to court against Samuel Waldron claiming that he owned Waldron’s land. After about a year this lawsuit was thrown out of court.
Later, Shupe was accused of misrepresenting the investors. Shupe died in Cleveland, Ohio in l903, no doubt a disappointed man.
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Gloria Waldron Hukle is the author of several novels and articles, including “Manhattan Seeds of the Big Apple,” “The Diary of a Northern Moon,” and “Threads-An American
Tapestry”. She and her husband reside in Averill Park, New York. ( http://www.authorgloriawaldronhukle.com )