By William Winfield Scott, City Historian of Passaic, NJ
From the Passaic County Historical Society Publication, September 1, 1929
*Note: The following article was written more than 80 years ago.
For perhaps twelve hundred years, previous to A.D. 1678, the Lenni Lenape tribe of the Algonkin nation of Indians was considered the owner and possessor of all land now included in the limits of the present city of Passaic. As is well known in process of time Charles II, of England, ignored the title of the Indians by conveying all land in New Jersey to his brother, the Duke of York, and from him through mesne conveyances, East Jersey became vested in the Lords Proprietors, who granted patents or deeds for the lands, but not until there was produced a deed from the Indians.
The first white man to settle in what is now the city of Passaic was Hartman Michielse, who, by deed, dated April 4, 1678, purchased from the Indians an island in the Passaic River, now (1929) part of Acquackanonk Park, in the First Ward, where he at once settled.
An event so manifestly important to the people of our city was worthy of being marked by a fitting celebration in April, 1929, the 250th anniversary of this first deed, in order to have an important historic fact impressed upon the minds of the local public, particularly the youth, but there was no celebration, nor anything to mark the event, owing to public apathy. Fortunately, however, there had been erected on June 18 of last year (1928) a tablet of wood, inscribed as follows:
This tablet is erected to the memory of Hartman Michielse.
The first white man to set foot in this county,
who on April 4, 1678, settled on this spot then known as
Meneheniki Island, which he then purchased from the Indians.
The erection of this tablet was by the Passaic County Historical Society. The event is worthy of being marked by a more permanent tablet.
Adjoining the island were two contiguous tracts of land containing nearly three hundred acres, purchased from the Indians by Christopher Hoagland, a New York fur dealer, in May 1678, and by him conveyed to Hartman Michielse on February 16. 1679. The latter subsequently divided the same with this three brothers, two of whom settled thereon. This land was known as the Point and is today (1929) covered by huge mills, business houses, and dwellings. Hartman’s objects in making these purchases were to establish upon the island a fur trading post with the Indians, and, by acquiring the adjacent land, to protect it from competitors. He was so well satisfied with his purchases that he set about to interest, in addition to his brothers, ten other men, all of Communipaw (Jersey City), fourteen in all, in the purchase of an adjoining tract of thousands of acres called Acquackanonk, which embraced not only all remaining land now comprising the city of Passaic, but included the present cities of Clifton and Paterson, for which a deed was obtained from the Indians, dated March 27, 16o79. The name Michielse became Vreeland, and (members of) this family for many years were the largest real estate owners in the county.
While Christopher Hoagland had obtained a patent July 15, 1678, simultaneously with the deed from the Indians for the Point land, Hartman, owner of the island and the fourteen men who purchased Acquackanonk, like many others in East Jersey, denied the necessity of securing patents, claiming that Indian deeds were all that was necessary. A controversy followed lasting four years, and ended only when the Governor, by a letter dated February 29, 1683-4, notified all persons that claims of title under Indian deeds would not stand; that under them they had acquired no title and would have none unless they secured a patent, failure to obtain which would work forfeiture of the land. They soon obtained patents.
From a legal standpoint, deeds from Indians conveyed no title to the land, the real title, as held at present, being derived from the English Sovereign, who claimed it by right of discovery and conquest. The only right the Indians posses was that of occupancy, but with no title to the fee. In the United States Supreme Court, Chief Justice Taney held, in the case of Martin et al. vs. Waddell, as reported in 16 Peter, 347: The English possessions in America were not claimed by right of conquest, but by right of discovery. According to principles of international law, then understood by the civilized powers of Europe, the Indian tribes of the new world were regarded as mere temporary occupants of the soil; and the absolute rights of property and dominion were held to belong to the European nations by which any portion of the new country was first discovered.
In an earlier case Chief Justice Marshall, of the same court, in the case reported in 6 Church, 142 (Fletcher vs. Peck), held: That the nature of the Indian title, which certainly is to be respected by all courts until it be legitimately extinguished, is not such as to be absolutely repugnant to seisin in fee on the part of the State.
In our own State, in the case of the Mayor and Common Council of Neward vs. George Watson et al., Hon. David A. Depue, Justice of the Supreme Court, held: By the English common law, the title to lands in this State was vested in the English Crown; and it is a fundamental principle in English Colonial jurisprudence that all titles to lands in this colony passed to individuals from the Crown, through the Colonial or Proprietary authorities.
The Indians never assumed to own lands in severalty. No one person was the owner of a lot, tract or farm. The land occupied by a tribe was owned by the tribe in common, as was this land. Certain tracts were cultivated for years, perhaps, and became known by the name of the Indian occupier, and so was considered as his own land.
Being located at the head of tide water, Passaic soon became a noted shipping port for northern New Jersey, to and from which were shipped the products of the forests, fields, and mines of Hunterdon, Sussex and part of Bergen counties of this State, and of Rockland and Orange counties, New York. It was known as Acquackanonk Landing, which with its reformed Dutch church, founded in 1683 (still most flourishing); its district school, dating from 1692, and later known as Nassau Hall Academy; its stores, taverns and other conveniences, made it the metropolis of this part of the State during Colonial days, and, in fact, during the entire period of the Revolutionary War it was one of the most strategic points in this part of New Jersey. It possessed the only bridge across the Passaic River, over which troops of contending armies passed during the first two years of the war, after which it was held solely by the Americans. Washington, on his famous retreat, November 21, 1776, from Fort Lee, crossed this bridge, which was immediately destroyed thus preventing his capture and delaying the British.