Evy Smith signed 100 acres of land south of the Mullica River over to Joseph Johnson for the sum of 112 British pounds, according to a deed dated June 13, 1761. At the time, the area was part of Egg Harbor Township.
Today, that’s the equivalent of $22,232 — barely enough for a down payment on a one-acre residence in Galloway Township, where the property is now — according to a historical conversion formula created by the University of Wyoming.
“These documents really do put things into perspective,” said Egg Harbor Township Historian June Sheridan, who coordinated the deed’s preservation with the Atlantic County Clerk’s Office.
The preserved document was returned to the clerk’s office Friday and will soon be put on display there. It was restored by the Philadelphia-based Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.
One of the two oldest surviving deeds from the area, the document pre-dates even the county, all of which was known as Egg Harbor Township until it officially separated from Gloucester County in 1837. Another deed, also from Egg Harbor Township, is from 1734.
While the deed has a lot to tell about the region’s early history, the story of its rediscovery and resurrection is perhaps even more interesting. Much like the expansive tract of land it conveyed, the yellowed paper has passed through many different hands in over 250 years.
Sheridan, president of the Greate Egg Harbour Township Historical Society, said the document was likely passed down from the descendants of the Johnson family, since it was found with about 10 other family documents and deeds — 29 in all — ranging from colonial times through the early 20th century.
The Johnsons were a prominent local family who were involved in one of South Jersey’s few Revolutionary War battles, fought near Chestnut Neck in 1778.
An educated family member probably drafted the actual deed, but the deed may not have been registered immediately, if at all, Sheridan said. It does bear the residue left behind by wax seals beside the two signatures, however.
“Sometimes deeds were handed down from party to party because, to record them, they had to go all the way to Woodbury in Gloucester,” she said. “It was a long trip.”
At the time, Sheridan said, the land the deed described was considered wilderness.
Over time, the land was carved up between family members and parcels were sold off. Although the deed was obsolete, a succession of nameless owners each decided it was important enough to save.
At some point during the last century, the deeds made the 1,000-mile trip to Florida in an antique trunk, where they ended up at a yard sale a year ago.
Rick Andrews, a recent transplant to the Bargaintown section of Egg Harbor Township, was on a family vacation at Disney World when his in-laws mentioned the trunk they had purchased for $6. It contained a trove of musty old documents full of familiar names and places.
“We started looking through it and saw a lot of local names we recognized, like Steelman and Leeds,” he said. “They didn’t know what to make of it, so (the relatives) sent us home with it.”
By chance, another local historian came across Andrews’ ad on Craigslist last February and notified Sheridan. After receiving the deeds from Andrews last spring, she began the painstaking process of deciphering their flowing script and antiquated legalese. Her transcriptions will soon be available at the Historical Society.
Arthur Michael Lucchesi, whose job as deputy county clerk includes curating over 10,000 30-pound volumes of records, said the deed’s return is a story of outrageous fortune.
“You think where that document has been for 300 years,” he said. “How many generations of people have held it, how many people have read it, how many people made a choice that it was worth keeping, and somehow it survived.
“This the first one of this age we’ve seen come in from outside a clerk’s office,” he added.
Saving a piece of history
Mary Broadway, a conservation technician at the conservation center, was among the last to touch the document. The firm was contracted by the County Clerk’s Office to repair the 250 years of damage caused by exposure to light, moisture, temperature and wear and tear.
Considering its age, Broadway said the document had held up well.
“It’s actually doing a lot better than something printed in the early 20th century, on poor quality paper,” she said.
Broadway said the difference was how the deed was physically made. Unlike the woven paper made today from wood pulp, she said, the deed is “laid paper,” made from scraps of rags and cotton fibers compressed against a screen. It then spent anywhere from a few months to a few years in a drying loft before it could be used.
The larger concern is that the ink, “iron gall” — made of iron and tanic acid — will eventually react to moisture in the air and eat through the paper. “You can see the strikethrough where ink has already corroded the paper,” she said.
Ingrid Bogel, the center’s executive director, said such commonplace documents are just as important as more lofty artifacts such as the Constitution.
“Our personal history is really our country’s history,” she said. “For instance, things like passport documents from Ellis Island, were at the time just pieces of paper. Now, as we look back on them, they really tell the story of our country.”
While the conservation treatment cost about $1,600, County Clerk Ed McGettigan said this was a rare opportunity to preserve a piece of the region’s past.
“This is a rare treasure and a rare find,” he said. “This is our first restoration project of a document probably because this is the most important document we’ve ever come across in the clerk’s office.”
McGettigan said he hopes the document inspires visitors to explore their own personal histories.
“This is something most people will never see,” he said.
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