The Welsh Ancestry Mystery of Manhattan

When researching your family’s lineage, there may be instances where you might stumble across stories or people that you never knew existed but are part of your heritage. There is one such fascinating story that has gripped generations of the Edwards family for over a century. It pertains to one man who is said to be the rightful owner of 77 acres of prime land in New York, an area which is now a significant part of Manhattan and home to Wall Street, Broadway and The Stock Exchange.

Robert Edwards was a Welsh buccaneer who was given 77 acres of largely unsettled land for his services in disrupting Spanish sea lanes. On June 1st 1778, Edwards leased the land for 99 years to John and George Cruger, on the agreement that the land and all improvements thereon were to revert to the descendants of Edwards and his siblings at the expiration of the lease on May 31st 1877. Though the lease expired, the land was never handed back to Edwards’ descendants; instead, it ended up in the hands of Trinity Church, of which the Crugers were wardens.

The Edwards family claim that when the property, pastureland at the time, was leased to the brothers, the terms stated the lease would expire in 99 years. The Cruger brothers in turn allowed the Catholic church to use the land as it saw fit. The church has controlled the land ever since, building upon it themselves and renting it to other parties. The rent for this use is stored in a vault in Manhattan itself, now estimated at over $650,000,000,000!

Subsequently, all attempts by Edwards’ heirs to file a claim to the land have proved fruitless, with the case eventually being defeated by New York state’s Statute of Limitations.

Genealogically speaking, the problem of proving descent stems from the fact that there were no standard spellings of surnames in Wales at the relevant period. Thus, the surname was eventually standardised as ‘Edwards’, deriving from the Christian name Edward, but the name can appear interchangeably in documents of the period as Edward, Edwards or even Edwardes. When the members of one family use these spellings interchangeably, and when a number of families favour the same Christian names, it is virtually impossible to differentiate between them.

A document held at the Glamorgan Record Office in Cardiff, entitled “The Edwards Millions” outlines the case as it stood in 2002, with claims and counterclaims further complicating the issue.

The Welsh patronymic naming system in common use during the 18th and preceding centuries – whereby a son or daughter takes as a surname the Christian name of his or her father – further compounds the problem by providing us with numerous unrelated Edwards families.

Another major problem is the scarcity of information available from such records of the period. Parish register entries are sparse, giving little more than that a particular person was baptised, married or buried on a particular date. Few families have records detailed enough to supplement these entries, and those which do find even this information difficult to verify officially.

If you are interested in researching your own ancestry, our previous blog ‘Ancestry Research: Tips and tricks on where to begin’ aims to give you an initial jumping-off point. We have also recently created our own ancestry chart template that is downloadable, which you can access here.

At My Story Told, we hope to turn your personal history into a written document for future generations to share, enjoy, and celebrate your life. For more information on our process, contact us here.