Genealogy and family history always turns up some interesting stories. Perhaps the most intriguing story in my family is that of the Edwards Fortune.
I first heard the story when I was a young boy. One night I was sat in front of the television watching a show called Find a Fortune hosted by Carol Vorderman. The show operated on the premise of reuniting unclaimed fortunes with their lost heirs. The episode on that particular night featured the story of the Edwards Fortune which went something a bit like this…
There was once a pirate captain named Robert Edwards. Edwards was granted seventy-seven acres of land in Manhattan as a reward for his service to the Crown, namely for disrupting the Spanish shipping lanes. Because Edwards had no immediate use for the land he leased it to the brothers John and George Cruger who were vestrymen of the Trinity Church. He leased it to the brothers for ninety-nine years on the condition that the land would revert back to the family once the lease had expired. However, after the ninety-nine years had elapsed the land did not revert back to the Edwards family. Instead, it stayed in the possession of Trinity Church who insists that no lease ever existed and the land was gifted to them by Queen Anne. To this very day, the descendants of Robert Edwards claim that the family has been robbed of a massive property fortune.
One might be forgiven for thinking this was one of those tall tales. For me, the tale was about to grow a few feet taller. My nan, who was childminding that night, told me that my grandfather had told her the same story. Needless to say, I didn’t really think much of the story.
During my mid-twenties I developed a keen interest in genealogy and family history. Whilst researching my maternal lineage I discovered that I did indeed have ancestors surnamed Edwards. Whilst this could be a complete coincidence I began to wonder if there was there any truth to the story after all. It would be impressive if there was a nugget of truth to it. After all, not everyone can say they’re descended from a pirate, can they?
Digging around on the internet I found out that the Edwards Fortune story was relevant to hundreds of people around the world. The search results included newspaper articles, genealogy forums and there was even a Wikipedia page about Robert Edwards. Perhaps the most significant result I found was the ‘Edwards Millions’ which was an official document written by the old Glamorgan Record Office detailing the case. More importantly the Edwards Millions provided me with a lead by referring to several documents which are now held at the Glamorgan Archives in Cardiff.
The Edwards Lease
A few years ago I managed to visit the Glamorgan Archives and saw many of the records that they had available there. The record immediately stood out was the Edwards’ lease (see below).
‘Know all men by these present, that I, Robert Edwards, on this day lease to John and George Cruger, 77 acres, 3 rods and 32 perches, beginning at a stake set in the ground at high-water mark near Beatavers Kittleje and running East along Prince Street 1,000 feet, thence North-Westerly in a zig-zag course along part of Old Jan’s land to Christopher Street 2,500 feet, thence along Christopher Street to the high-water mark 547 feet, thence South along the Hudson River following the line of the high-water mark, 2,276 feet to the point and place of beginning.
Said land being leased for 99 years at 1,000 pounds and a Pepper Corn rent yearly, rental. Said land to be held by said John and George Cruger or by their heirs, so long as contract is filled, otherwise it must revert to me or my living heirs, and at the expiration of the 99-year lease, said land together with all such improvements shall revert to my living heirs, which will be the descendants of my brothers and sisters, which are as follows: Thomas Edwards, Robert Edwards, Joshua Edwards, William Edwards, Martha Edwards and John Edwards.
Witness my hand this June 1st, 1778
John Cruger, George Cruger, Anthony Barclay, Nichols Bayard’
(David Clark, 1962)
If nothing else the Edwards lease is an interesting document. It stipulates the extent of Edwards’ land and the terms of the lease. Unfortunately, the Edwards lease is not original. In fact, it’s not even a copy of the original but a copy of a copy. According to the catalogue notes the lease was originally in the possession of the Vaughan family of Whitchurch, Cardiff. The Vaughan family claimed descent from Robert Edwards and they were apparently involved in legal cases disputing the ownership of the land in Manhattan during the 1950s. At some point, the Edwards lease was brought into the collection of a local historian called David Clark. Clark’s collection, including the lease, was eventually deposited in the Glamorgan Archives.
The Edwards Claimants Association of South Wales
As an objective historian, I do not find the Edwards lease to be useful as evidence. Because the lease is not original it is entirely possible that it was manufactured to support the case of the Vaughan family. I cannot accept anything other than an original lease document as proof that the story is true.
The fact that one of the key pieces of evidence is not original did not deter people. A testament to this is the records of The Edwards Claimants Association of South Wales which are also held at the Glamorgan Archives. The vast proportion of the collection is made up of lineages of those who claim to descend from Robert Edwards’ brothers and sisters named in the lease. Personally speaking, I do not have a leg to stand on here. My Edwards lineage only goes back as far as the early nineteenth century and I would need to go back another two or three generations more to see if I am descended from any of the names mentioned in the lease. This has since proven to be very difficult undertaking due to the commonality of the surname Edwards in the Welsh Valleys.
Whilst I was at the Glamorgan Archives the complexity of the Edwards story became apparent. There are, for example, several competing identities of Robert Edwards. One document I looked at related to the Edwards family of Ness Strange, Shropshire. This Robert Edwards was most certainly a real historical character as there are many records pertaining to him at the Shropshire Archives and the National Library of Wales (Glamorgan Record Office, 2002). Interestingly, whilst I was doing some digging around I discovered that this particular Robert Edwards is descended from the Princes of Powys (Burke, J. 1835, p.78). Furthermore, if Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The Chronicle of the Kings of Britain is to be believed the lineage would also extend to the ancient Brythonic kings that ruled Britain before the arrival of the Romans (Roberts, 1811).
Another document called The Edwardes Legacy referred to an Edwards family based in Northampton, Virginia. This family is supposedly descended from Richard Edwardes, an illegitimate son of Henry VIII (Edwards, B.M. 1973, p.193). These are but two examples that demonstrate the permutations that exist in the story.
The story of the Edwards Fortune is very complicated one and I may have to accept that I will never get to the bottom of it. The logical step for me is to push back the Edwards line in my family back a few more generations. If I can do that I can see whether or not there is a connection to any of the Robert Edwards’s described in the records that I have seen. As for proving the story I have a couple of ideas on where to continue my search.
I’ve noticed that Edwards wasn’t really a proper pirate per se. He was more of a privateer. A pirate isn’t bound to any law but his own. He attacks ships indiscriminately regardless of its nation of origin. Privateering, on the other hand, is state-sponsored piracy. Privateers were permitted to attack and capture ships from enemy nations. Authority to do this was usually given through a ‘letter of marque’ which came from the Admiralty. If you remember the story, Edwards was granted the land for disrupting the Spanish shipping lanes which sounds like focused privateering behaviour against a designated enemy. Besides, the Crown would never give a pirate of the criminal variety land in Manhattan. So this begs the question, is there a record somewhere that shows that a letter of marque was issued to a Robert Edwards?
Another potential avenue of enquiry would be to look at land grants. If Edwards was given land then it should have been recorded somewhere. However, this might not be an easy line of enquiry to follow. The author and broadcaster Philip Berrill who has also been investigating the case has observed that land grants in eighteenth-century New York were a shambles (Rowe, M. 1999).
What is for sure, there will be some lengthy days spent at The National Archives…
Burke, J. (1835), Edwards of Ness Strange, A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Commoners of Great Britain and Ireland Enjoying Territorial Possessions Or High Official Rank, But Uninvested with Heritable Honours, Volume 2, H. Colburn, London, pp.78-80
David Clark (1962), Copy extract from Will of Rob Edwards [of New York] giving details of 1778 lease [DXN/7], David D.M. Clark of Cardiff Collection, Glamorgan Archives, Cardiff*
Edwards, B.M. (1973), The Edwards Fortune, The Edwards of Northampton [DX350/3], Edwards Family Collection, Glamorgan Archives, Cardiff, pp.193-206*
Glamorgan Record Office (2002), Edwards Millions, Glamorgan Records Office, Cardiff*
Roberts, P. (1811), The Chronicle of the Kings of Britain, Google Books
Rowe, M. (1999), Pirate’s heirs win right to raid New York, The Independent [online], http://www.independent.co.uk/news/pirates-heirs-win-right-to-raid-new-york-1122465.html (accessed 27/09/2016)
*Used with the written consent of Glamorgan Archives.