Home » Manhattan: How 77 acres of New York are Welsh…..kind of

Manhattan: How 77 acres of New York are Welsh…..kind of

IF you’ve ever had a trip to New York, you might have been a little closer to home than you thought, because 77 acres is considered Welsh property in some circles.

This land could now be worth up to 650 billion dollars and considered somewhat of a lost treasure. 

It’s a complicated story that dates back the 18th century and a Welshman called Robert Edwards.

The fortune is said to result from a lease in 1778 by a Welshman, Robert Edwards, of approximately 77 acres of land in New York forming what is now a significant part of Manhattan and on which stands not only Wall Street and Broadway but such valuable properties as The Stock Exchange.

The land was leased to the brothers John and George Cruger for 99 years with the condition that thereafter it would revert to the heirs of Robert Edwards named in the lease as his brothers William, Jacob, Leonard, Joshua, John and Thomas and his sister Martha.

The lease expired in 1877 and ever since families called Edwards have been trying to stake claim to the fortune on the basis that they were descended from one of Robert’s heirs.

However, that proves difficult, due to 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 eventually standardised as ‘Edwards’, deriving from the Christian name Edward by the addition of a final ‘s’ can appear interchangeably in documents of the period as Edward, Edwards or even Edwardes.

Some of New York’s most recognisable sites are in the 77 acres

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.

The Welsh patronymic naming system in common use during the 18th and preceding centuries whereby a son or daughter takes as a second or 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 paucity of information available from such records of the period as survive.

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.

So who was Robert Edwards?

Put simply, nobody really knows.

He is difficult to identify positively for a number of reasons. To start with, there are British and American versions of the legend. Some say he came from a family which originated from England or Wales but which emigrated to America in the 1620s or 30s; others that he, himself, emigrated to America from South Wales with his brothers Jacob, Joshua and John.

Confusion is compounded by the fact that several claimant families appear to have basically the same family tree with slight variations. On the basis of just two of these, we find one Robert Edwards born 1716 with brothers and sisters as named in the lease and one Robert Edwards born 1730 with brothers and sisters identically named plus additional ones.

One thing is certain, the name Robert Edwards was not uncommon. Indeed when one realises that the surname derived from the Christian name Edward it should come as no surprise to be told that not all families bearing the name are related to each other.

If the legends are to be believed, Robert Edwards was a man of many parts being variously described as a captain in the army, an officer in the navy, a shipbuilder, a buccaneer who was granted the land for services to the British Crown, and the the saviour of an Indian Princess whose father, the Chief of the local tribe, awarded him the land for saving his daughter’s life.

That there was a Robert Edwards serving as an officer in the British navy at the relevant period can be verified by navy records. The other stories have as yet no firm basis in fact.

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 counter claims further muddying the issue. 

Tales of unscrupulous lawyers and fraudulent claims have also hampered attempts by amateur researchers to get to the truth. 

Finally, the statute of limitations in New York, which sets a time limit for all claims to be commenced within fifteen years of the expiration of a lease, appears to have all but buried the claim many years ago.

So will we ever know who the man was, who rightfully owns the land, and if his descendants can make a successful claim?

Probably not, but at the very least, the man, whoever he was, can rest easy knowing his land was put to good use.