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The EDWARDS MisFortune - a Genealogical Disaster
By Bob Sterne

As a descendant of the EDWARDS line, and a keen genealogist, I have become interested in the "Edwards Estate" legend. There are several versions of this story, all of which have probably become embellished with the passage of time and the greed of some of the individuals relating them. I have been trying to make some sense of this fable, and have come to the conclusion that much of the genealogy of the EDWARDS family has been altered over the years to try and support one claim or another to the 77 Acres of prime Manhattan Real Estate which is at the crux of the tale. This land includes much of the financial centre of New York, including the ill-fated World Trade Centre, and had been valued at up to $680 Billion US (before Sept. 11th). These are my personal opinions, based on articles I have read, and I apologize if I offend you. My main concern is for the disservice this has wrought on our family genealogy.

The source of the fortune, depending on which version you follow, is either Thomas HALL\HAEL (1611-1699), or his Great-grandson Robert EDWARDS (1716-1788). One version has it that Thomas HALL was given land by the Dutch of "New Amsterdam" (now New York) for warning them so that they could evacuate the women and children before he shelled the city with his British gunboat. This land supposedly passed to his wife, Anna MEDFORD and then to his daughter Elizabeth (1640-1703), who married Thomas EDWARDS (1639-1705). The problem is that there are no baptism records or marriage records that indicate there were any children of Thomas and Anna, and she sold some land (maybe all of it?) to William BEEKMAN in 1670. Some histories show Thomas had an earlier marriage to Mary Elizabeth DRURY and that Elizabeth was their daughter. Assuming that Elizabeth actually did inherit the land (or some of it), then it would have passed to her husband, and through him to his eldest son Robert EDWARDS (1662-ca1738). This Robert married Margaret CUELIN (1666-1738) and they had (apparently) 10 children, one being Thomas Nathaniel (1690-1781) who married Isabella Elizabeth DOWNING (1694-1785). There appears to be no information on the descendants of his siblings. How he would have ended up with inheriting the land is not clear to me, as some brothers were supposed to be born before him.

Thomas and Isabella had 8 children, 7 sons and 1 daughter. The eldest son, Robert (1716-1788) was a Captain in the Royal Navy. He has been reported to be the direct source of the "Edwards Fortune" as an alternate route to inheriting it from his Great-grandfather (maybe in case the HALL connection proves not to be true). The story here is that he was in fact a Pirate, and was rewarded by Queen Anne for the raiding of Spanish ships, by the grant of land in New York. However he acquired it, he apparently leased out 77 acres of land to John and George CRUGER in 1778 for a period of 99 years. When the lease expired, the land, together with all improvements, was to revert to his lawful heirs, the descendants of his 7 siblings (since he was unmarried). Immediately after signing the lease, he embarked for England, and the ship and all passengers were lost in a terrible storm. There are many stories of what happened to the land, including that the CRUGERs were wardens of Trinity Church and that is how the land ended up in the possession of the Church. The Church reportedly maintains that the land was granted to them directly by Queen Anne in 1705, however, there is apparently no deed available.

When the lease expired in 1877, the (half-hearted) search for the rightful heirs started, and the controversy over who owns the land continues to this day. Trinity Church once said there were over 5000 claimants. Whole organizations have sprung up to fight for "justice", some of them organized by family members, and some by con-artists interested only in bilking the supposed heirs of real money in their greed to obtain a portion of an illusory fortune. There have been civil cases and criminal prosecutions, and they are still continuing. In 1933, Trinity Church was successful in obtaining a Court victory that stated that any applicants could get no relief because they were guilty of "laches", which basically means that they didn't act soon enough on their claim. I suppose that there is a remote possibility that this could be overturned if someone could prove that there was fraud or other illegal acts involved in covering up the facts surrounding the existence of the lease prior to the Statute of Limitations coming into effect, but it's a long-shot.

The effect this has had on the genealogy of the EDWARDS family is downright shameful. When you look through various versions of the family history, there are several Robert EDWARDS who are claimed to have received land in New York. I don't mean to infer for a second that anyone intentionally falsified their ancestry. However, there are many reports of scams in the past with the intention of convincing people that they were heirs to the "Edwards Estate". This information has unfortunately become a part of many family's history, just in case the money was ever awarded. I can't really blame our ancestors for trying to help connect us with our wealthy roots, even if a lot of it was probably wishful thinking. I have serious questions about a few "links" that I have come across in my own family.

The first version I saw of my family history had my 6G-grandmother, Elizabeth EDWARDS as being a daughter of Thomas Nathaniel and Isabella Elizabeth DOWNING, hence a sister of Robert, and a rightful heir of the "Edwards Fortune". The trouble is, that there is apparently no record that they had a daughter Elizabeth. I think that was an ancient attempt at horning in on any possible inheritance. Most versions of my family tree seem to place Elizabeth as the daughter of Francis EDWARDS (1705-1793), a 2nd cousin of Thomas Nathaniel's. I believe that this is the proper lineage, and that Elizabeth is NOT a potential heir. Another question that has arisen recently, is around Robert EDWARDS (b.1703), only brother to the above Francis. The two boys were orphaned in 1705, and raised by the WREN family. I have seen it reported that all 12 children attributed to Francis are the children of Robert by his second wife, said to be a Margaret CULLEN. I have also seen a note (different source) that this Robert was granted 34 acres of land in New York "for his loyalty to England", but it also stated that he had no descendants when he died in 1778. Obviously, both versions can't be correct. Remember Robert (1662-ca1738) who married Margaret CUELIN? How about his grandson, Robert (1716-1778), the one who leased out all that land? Any time there is a Robert EDWARDS about the right age to be involved in the money, there seems to be great confusion. I personally believe that Francis is my 7G-grandfather, not Robert, although I admit that the thought of descending from an 18th Century Welsh Pirate who owned a Trillion dollars (Canadian) worth of Manhattan Real Estate is pretty tempting.

It may very well be that I am in error on some of the above points. I welcome reasonable arguments supporting contrary opinions, especially if they are backed up with documentation. I myself have NO documentation previous to my GGG-grandparents George KIDD and Jane SAUNDERS, who immigrated to Canada in 1821. If my lineage is correct, the split between the EDWARDS line which allegedly ended up with the land in New York and my branch of the family was 7 generations before her. I therefore have only a casual interest in this whole affair. The purpose of this article is only to make you stop and think. There is a lot of information about the "Edwards Estate" on the Internet. I have links to some of the sites I used in my research in the Bibliography below. Unless you can show me actual documents that I'm directly in line for a slice of Manhattan - please don't try and convince me that I'm an heir!


Ancestry.Com: "The Hall-Edwards Estate: Fact or Fiction?"
Ancestry.Com: "False Heirs: The Hall-Edwards Estate Fraud."
Post-Gazette.Com: "Old family keeps trying for a slice of old Manhattan."
"The Edwards Fortune" from the book "The Edwards Family of Northampton".

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