In Search of Monhegan's Letters

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Monhegan Plantation is an island ten miles off the coast in the Gulf of Maine. An artists’ haven with a rich history in fishing, the island’s average population of 75 residents explodes each summer with the opening of inns, cottages, summer rentals and hundreds of day hikers who arrive by ferry.

Boundary surveying on Monhegan requires finding housing (if the job requires overnight stay) and equipment transportation (ferryboats only carry passengers). Truck use on the island is limited. Adding to Monhegan’s charm in the summer months are the curious and chatty tourists who frequently stop and ask you what you’re doing. Depending upon your response, they will either keep moving along or draw you into a conversation that eats up valuable daylight.

Monhegan’s rugged natural features are challenging­steep ledge faces, thick spruce, and an unforgiving underbrush mixture of blow downs, island roses, blackberry bushes and Japanese barberry. Monhegan at one time had a healthy deer population that kept much of the underbrush in check, but after the deer were removed in the late 1990s, the underbrush has flourished ever since. It is not for the faint of heart to leave the well-traveled trails and strike out across the island "bush" whacking out a line.

Many of Monhegan’s property descriptions were created throughout the island’s early land conveying history. There were two distinct periods of land transaction periods, one in 1807 and another from 1843-1845. Fortunately, the original proprietors had the foresight to create corners that would stand the test of time. Nevertheless, a unique, rewarding, yet sometimes frustrating aspect of conducting a boundary survey is the hunting and searching for the record monuments of the operative deeds. These often consisted of letters three to four inches in height that were chiseled one-half to three-quarters of an inch deep into prominent ledge faces.

As modern surveyors trained to follow in the footsteps of the original surveyors, the footsteps on Monhegan are interesting when you consider that many of the original surveyors were most likely mariners by trade. This comes to light in how they partitioned their land. Large sections of fields, wood lots and pastures were conveyed with limited math and even less monumentation, while conveyances that included fish yards or flake yards (an area where they dried the fish; racks for these yards often seemed to be major concern of the property descriptions), fish houses and access to beaches were often conveyed to the nearest inch with bearings, distances and the letters carved in ledge for corners.

The Original Proprietors
Thomas Horn, Josiah Sterling (Starling in later deeds) and Henry Trefethren were three proprietors who created the first major land division on Monhegan in 1807. All were related by marriage­Josiah Sterling and Thomas Horn had married Henry Trefethren’s sisters­and all three couples lived on the island at the time of the division. Prior to the 1807 divisions the entire island was owned by Henry Trefethren (senior), so these divisions appear to have been an equitable distribution of the entire island between his three children’s families. They also divided in third interests the surrounding islands and ledges namely Monanus (now called Manana), Smutty Nose, Duck Island, west rocks and east rocks.

The original divisions divided the entire island into five large lots with the lot lines transecting the island east to west, shore to shore. Josiah Sterling acquired the larger middle lot, called Lot 3. Thomas Horn acquired two strip lots either side of Sterling, called Lots 2 and 4, while Henry Trefethren acquired the end lots of the island, Lots 1 and 5. All the deeds of this original division were dated June 18, 1807 and recorded sequentially in the registry. Other deeds of smaller parcels were also passed this same day among the three parties to clarify ownership of a house lot and fish yard.

The descriptions of these large lots were very vague with limited math to enable modern reconstruction of the parcels, however, initials were carved in pairs in the ledge at the end of the lines on their respective sides. For example, where Thomas Horn and Henry Trefethren shared a common line, at the end of each line on a prominent spot on the ledge near the ocean they carved TH ~ HT.

While conducting a boundary survey along one of these lines, I was collecting parol evidence and generally introducing myself to the abutting land owners. I had completed preliminary deed research so as to be familiar with the project scope as I spoke to the abutters. I knew a few of the record monuments would be letters carved in ledge and I was hoping the abutters would have first-hand knowledge of their location.

During one of these conversations a lady told me "I’m sure you’ll see the TH~HT in the ledge down by the shore, that’s my corner." She said it so matter-of-factly I was sure the letters would show themselves with little searching, so I didn’t press for more details. I spent the better part of that morning climbing all over the ledge outcrop searching for the letters, but to no avail. Just before sunset I returned to the lady with my hat in hand to admit I could not find the letters. She looked at me disappointedly, looked out the window and said "You wait about another half-hour, just at dusk, walk to the corner of the house, put your right shoulder against the corner board of the house and look towards Manana and you can’t miss them." I smiled, said "Thank you," and thought to myself that the lady was just having fun with the gullible surveyor. To humor her (and for my own curiosity) I did what she said. Following her instructions I looked towards the ledge on which I’d spent the morning searching. Sure enough­just a hundred feet away were the letters TH~HT in all their glory. The texture and color of the ledge combined with depth of the letters had perfectly hidden these letters during the morning sun, yet in the low shadows of dusk, the letters showed themselves perfectly.

The Second Division
The second major land division took place between 1843-1845. These were the divisions of the five original proprietors’ lots. Around 1843 Isaac Smith split up and distributed a majority of the Josiah Sterling’s lot. Between 1844-1845 Hayden Kingsbury, Benjamin F. Brown and Richards Stevens divided up a majority of the Thomas Horn property. These descriptions would call for the Starling Line and wall where appropriate. There were also extensive references to letters carved in stone hubs and ledge outcroppings for corners.

A majority of these subsequent conveyances were to extended family on the island. However, while the intent, shape and size of these lots at the time of their creation were probably well understood by all parties involved, their respective deed descriptions did not convey such a clear picture. It is not uncommon for deeds created in this time period to not close with any type of accuracy. Also, the use of letters during this time period loses any sense of consistency or systematic use. Gone is the use of the proprietor’s initials or even any type of alphabetical sequence when using the letters that would help during boundary retracement. An example of an operative deed during this time period would start with an "A" in ledge twelve feet from the southwest corner of the Pierce fish house, then a course and distance across a field to a "KK" in ledge, then in the next course would go across the road to a "D" in ledge.

This unorganized use of letters, along w
ith the close proximity of some of these deeds using the same letters, quickly adds confusion and ambiguity to what, at the time, seemed like clear intent. I have spent many hours with deed sketches of an area trying to compile and piece together the called-for letters in deeds, trying to make sense of what these fisherman and farmers were thinking. I’ve even imagined a scenario of these same men sitting around a fish house table with a few cocktails, dividing up the land and laughing as they assigned letters to the corners.

It is deeply satisfying to find a long lost record monument and knowing that your research and hard work are going to pay off. Never is that feeling more rewarding when literally being watched over by a client who’s wondering what the heck he’s paying for as you dig around the beach and overturn rocks.

On a project not far from the project mentioned earlier, I was retained to complete another boundary survey of a fish house lot. A fish house is a prized commodity for its location and proximity to the shore. Used for storing fishing gear, ropes, bait and sometimes a small workshop, their respective lots were usually not much bigger the fish house itself. The record monument needed to recreate this area of the shore frontage was an "L" carved in the ledge during the 1843 divisions.

At first observation of the shore frontage in the area where the "L" should be, it was obvious there was no visible ledge in which I had become accustomed to finding the letters. There were medium to large rocks that had likely come from the neighboring beach. Much like a farmer de-rocks a field, fishermen had cleared the neighboring beach to land their skiffs and deposited the rocks here.

Knowing what had to be done, I started digging, overturning and flipping rocks to get to the natural ledge face. After a time, this commotion gained the curious eye of my client who had been watching and wanted an explanation. I explained there was an "L" carved in the ledge in 1843 and tried to explain the importance of it being a record monument and its recovery being crucial to the completion of his project. He listened and appreciated the importance of its recovery. He then joined in the excavation process with the enthusiasm of looking for buried treasure.

We continued the arduous process of digging until all at once, with the client positioned literally over my shoulder, we turned over a large rock and there was the "L"! It was as clear and defined as the day it was put there. At that moment I knew my client shared the same rewarding feeling and sense of accomplishment I felt as a surveyor.

Ask the Right Questions
The deeds of 1843-1845 also used passing calls and ties to buildings in the area to clarify and help find these elusive letters. While these tie distances can be extremely helpful in locating the calledfor letters, they must also be approached with care. I learned this lesson with a dose of humility while conducting a boundary survey of a small parcel on the shore which contained a fish house.

I had completed the necessary deed research to determine senior title and their corresponding record monuments. The operative deed had tie distances to the corner of fish houses and letters carved in ledge. The fish houses in the area were of right vintage with all the visible signs of being the original fish houses. I diligently pulled tape and swung ties to look for these elusive letters carved in ledge. After many hours and no luck, an older fisherman who had been watching me with limited curiosity most of the morning walked over and said, "I know you know we had a bulldozer down here before the 1978 hurricane and we slid all these fish houses around so we wouldn’t lose them to the ocean surge. We tried to slide them back on line, but, you know… " His all-telling shrug told me that they weren’t even close. He then walked down with me towards the beach and described where the fish houses once were. Armed with this new information the record monuments were easily recovered and I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of the history of an area, as well as the need to ask the right questions.

To this day only a small proportion of the letters which make up Monhegan’s colorful land transaction history have been found. Each new job brings another opportunity. Using the letters already found to recreate the next deed, I’ll head off on yet another search.

Mike and Karen Falla own and operate Falla & Sons Land Surveys Inc. in Clinton, Maine. Mike is licensed in the state of Maine, and has been surveying for 18 years.

A 3.980MKb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE