It seems such an odd word to find in a document involving land.
But there it was, in the mortgage of “the whole of three several Farms or Plantations in the Township of Duanesborough” in what was then Albany County, New York, given by William Perkins to Leonard Gansevoort and Jacob Cuyler, on the 21st of October 1788, for 100 pounds “current lawful money of New York.”1
Each of the farms was described in detail, and farm number 277 was described as containing “one hundred and eight acres … and twenty four Perches of Land.”
So I read on.
And, sure enough, a little later in the document, farm number 280 was described as containing another “one hundred and eight acres … and twenty four Perches.”
Okay. What the heck was a perch in 1788 New York?
Now we could look at the usual suspects for an understanding of the term. The usually-but-not-always-accurate Wikipedia will tell us that a perch is “a unit of measurement used for area in the English system of measurement.”4
But this document is from New York, not England. It’s probably the same, but we need more.
And we could go to my favorite law dictionaries. In Black’s Law Dictionary, the word is defined as a “measure of land containing five yards and a half, or sixteen feet and a half in length; otherwise called a ‘rod’ or ‘pole.’”5
But Black wrote his dictionary in 1891 — more than a century after this New York mortgage.
John Bouvier’s law dictionary was a bit earlier, and he defined the word the same way: it was a “measure. The length of sixteen feet and a half: a pole or rod of that length. Forty perches in length and four in breadth make an acre of land.”6
But “a bit earlier” is 1856 — almost 70 years after the mortgage was executed.
So did the word mean the same thing in 1788 New York as it did to these dictionary writers decades later?
Probably. But probably can get us into trouble.
So how do we know for sure?
And the answer comes straight out of New York statutory law. Because, on 7 February 1788, the New York Legislature adopted a law that tells us exactly what it meant to use that word — and others — in land records of that time:
Be it enacted by the People of the State of New-York, … That an acre of land shall contain one hundred and sixty square perches or rods ; each perch or rod being in length, five yards and one half of one yard ; and each yard three feet ; and each foot twelve inches ; so that when an acre of land shall be sixteen rods in length, it shall be ten rods in breadth.7
It pays to go fishing … in the statute books of the day.
- Albany County, New York, Mortgage Book 7: 219, William Perkins to Leonard Gansevoort and Jacob Cuyler, 21 Oct 1788; County Clerk, Albany; digital images, “New York, Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 29 Oct 2013). ↩
- Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “perch,” rev. 16 Oct 2013. ↩
- Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (http://www.m-w.com : accessed 29 Oct 2013), “perch.” ↩
- Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Perch (unit),” rev. 25 Oct 2013. ↩
- Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 887, “perch.” Black then defined the rod as a “lineal measure of sixteen feet and a half, otherwise called a ‘perch.’” Ibid., 1049, “rod.” ↩
- John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of the Several States of the American Union, rev. 6th ed. (1856); HTML reprint, The Constitution Society (http://www.constitution.org/bouv/bouvier.htm : accessed 29 Oct 2013), “perch.” ↩
- “An ACT for ascertaining the Measure of Land,” 7 Feb 1788, in Laws of the State of New York (Albany : Charles and George Webster, Printers, 1802), II: 118; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 29 Oct 2013). ↩