On the eve of Thanksgiving here in the US, Andro Linklater, the author of a new book, Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership (Bloomsbury), describes how the Pilgrims imposed their notions of private property on the land commons in the New World. The consequences – while perhaps inevitable, whether from them or other settlers – were nonetheless pivotal in the future development of America. Lanklater published an excerpt of his book recently on the Bloomberg News website. (Tragically, Linklater died a week before his book’s publication on November 12.)
In 1623, William Bradford, the future governor of the colony, declared that land would be privately owned and managed, with each family assigned a parcel of land “according to the proportion of their number.” This decision had profound effects on how individual Pilgrims managed their land and related to each other.
As Bradford wrote: ‘‘And no man now thought he could live except he had catle and a great deale of ground to keep them all, all striving to increase their stocks. By which means they were scattered all over the bay quickly and the towne in which they lived compactly till now was left very thinne.’’ You might say that private property rights in land were the beginning of suburban sprawl.
Linklater points out that the native people, the Wampanaog, had allowed individual parcels of land to be used and occupied by individual families, but no one could have exclusive, permanent ownership of the land. As the Wampanaog leader Massasoit explained: ‘‘The land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish, and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?’’