Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The 19th Century Ejectment of Henry Piepgras from Land Beneath the Waters Surrounding City Island

In the late 19th Century, land values in and around City Island were soaring. One consequence was a multi-year litigation by Elizabeth Delancey and John Hunter (children of Des Brosses Hunter) to "eject" City Island's largest shipyard owner from the use of land beneath the waters surrounding City Island. Today's Historic Pelham Blog posting transcribes an article about the initial court decision arising from the dispute and then summarizes a number of additional court decisions dealing with the same dispute.




A suit of more than usual interest was decided in the Supreme Court for Westchester County, at White Plains, last week, by Mr. Justice Barnard. The action was for ejectment to recover possession of 145 acres of land under water, surrounding City Island, in the East River, and constituting a strip of land under water nearly three miles long by 400 feet wide. Land values in City Island are increasing so rapidly that the property in question has, of late years, become quite valuable.

The plaintiff in the action was Mrs. Elizabeth D. De Lancey, now resident in Virginia, as owner of three-fourths interest in the land. The defendant was Henry Piepgras, owning the largest shipyard on the island, and the claimant for the remaining one-fourth interest was Mr. John Hunter of Westchester. The origin of the title to these lands dates back to a patent from the Crown, through Governor General Monckton, to Benjamin Palmer, dated 1763. The original Palmer obtained this grant for the purpose of developing City Island into a rival, if not the successor to the commerce of the city of New-York, expecting thereby to avoid the then serious dangers of navigation at Hell Gate. His speculation proved disastrous, and the only trace of it left on the island is the name, 'City' Island, adopted in place of Minneford's, the original Indian name.

The island soon reverted to its original agricultural condition, and the quit rents, on which the Crown patent was conditioned, were never paid. In 1819 the Legislature of this State provided for the sale of all lands for non-paymens [sic] of quit rents. The property in question wat [sic] sold pursuant to the act then passed, and the title of the Palmer heirs was thus extinguished, and the property was conveyed by the Controller of this State, in 1836, to Des Brosses Hunter, the father of the present claimants, who thereupon leased the lands to Capt. Joshua Leviness, who used them for oystering and other purposes for over thirty years. The Hunter title, though acceded to at first, was finally resisted by the islanders, but it has always remained a matter of common knowledge on the island. It was attacked by the islanders in 1887 by a proceeding before the Commissioners of the Land Office for the cancellation of the deed to Elias D. Hunter. The City Islanders in this case were defeated. Shortly afterward the present suit against Mr. Piepgras was instituted as a test case, and it has resulted in a verdict sustaining the De Lancey and Hunter claims in all respects. The case, however, will undoubtedly be appealed and contested in the highest courts.

Numerous novel and interesting questions of law were raised in the case. The case is the first one ever instituted in this State on a title arising from a quit-rent sale. The principal defenses urged on the trial of the present case were prior conveyances of the lands in question by the Pell Manor grant: tenure of the lands in trust by Benjamin Palmer for the benefit of the City Islanders; non-performance by the State officers of all requirements of the quit-rent sales, as per the act of 1819, &c.

As to this, plaintiff contended successfully that the lands having forfeited to the State for non-payment of the quit rents, exact compliance with the requirements of the statute in the matter of sale was immaterial. The court also held that claimants' title had been perfected by adverse possession.

The counsel in the case were: For the claimants, Mr. Walter D. Edmonds and Mr. John Hunter, Jr., of Temple Court; for the defendant, Mr. James R. Steers, Jr., of Bryant Building."

Source: A Very Interesting Suit. - It Was Brought To Recover Possession of Land Under Water., N. Y. Times, Jun. 7, 1891, p. 6, col. 3.

What follows are summaries of reported judicial decisions released in later years in connection with the same dispute.

De Lancey v. Peipgras, et al., 63 Hun 169, 45 N. Y. St. Rep. 41, 17 N.Y.S. 681 (Sup. Ct., Gen. Term, 2d Dep’t 1892). In the initial decision (see description above), Plaintiff and John Hunter recovered from the appellant in an ejectment action a strip of land under water adjacent to City Island. The Court granted judgment for them and denied a request for a new trial. Piepgras appealed and the intermediate appellate court affirmed the decision.

De Lancey v. Peipgras, 93 Sickels 26, 138 N.Y. 26, 33 N.E. 822 (N.Y. 1893). In action where the Plaintiff and John Hunter recovered from the appellant in an ejectment action a strip of land under water adjacent to City Island, the appellant sought to overturn the lower court’s decision. The New York Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment though it modified it by inserting a proviso and reservation contained in the original City Island patent issued to Benjamin Palmer.

Piepgras v. Edmunds, 23 N. Y. Civ. Proc. R. 241, 5 Misc. 314, 31 Abb. N. Cas. 39, 25 N.Y.S. 961 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Co. 1893). The plaintiff had a shipyard on City Island and was “ejected” from lands under the waters surrounding City Island where he had a dock and rails used to haul ships out of the water following a lawsuit filed by Elizabeth De Lancey, John Hunter, Jr. and others. On appeal of that ejectment action, the New York Court of Appeals modified the judgment of the court below saying that it should have recognized certain easements provided in the English Crown’s original land grant to Benjamin Palmer in 1763. The plaintiff filed this action against the lawyer for John Hunter, Jr., Walter D. Edmunds, and John Hunter, Jr. He claimed that because they had the Sheriff “eject” him from using the land under the water using process that did not adequately reflect the modification made to the judgment by the New York Court of Appeals, his business had been shut down unnecessarily and he was entitled to $15,000 in damages. The court rejected his claims and dismissed his complaint.

De Lancey v. Piepgras, 73 Hun 608, 56 N. Y. St. Rep. 181, 56 N. Y. St. Rep. 736, 26 N.Y.S. 807 (Sup. Ct., Gen. Term 2d Dep’t 1893). Following lengthy litigation to have Henry Piepgras “ejected” from land beneath the waters surrounding City Island that he used for a dock and ship rails to support his shipwright business, the Courts finally held that he could be excluded from such land beneath the water. Elizabeth De Lancey erected a structure to shelter employees to guard against use of the land beneath the water. Piepgras made violent threats, then removed De Lancey’s structure, throwing it into Long Island Sound. De Lancey brought this action against Piepgras and the court below entered an order directing Piepgras to restore possession of the land beneath the water to De Lancey and to cease and desist from interfering with her enforcement of the execution of the judgment in the earlier action allowing her to take possession of the land beneath the water. The appellate court affirmed the decision.

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