About a hundred years ago, in 1912, Jacob Wilbur decided to “develop” the large area of land in which the old white pine tree lived and is living. He purchased it from H.H. Holm. He called it “Portland Gardens,” but the first thing that happened was that he had a plan created in which the open land was divided into very small rectangles. Over the years, some roads were created and houses built, but the area in the upper left corner of the plan–where our old pine lives–was never completed.
In 1924 that area was sold to Amato Kataruchi, and then a couple years later the City of Portland took possession of it for taxes unpaid. In 1969 the city sold it cheaply to the D—– family that had bought our house when it was first built in 1967. (Our house is actually in an adjacent development that was called Sunset Heights–it was “developed” by a firm called Jordan and Hammond in 1967.)
I learned all of this by searching online land records and deeds via the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds. After thinking about the pine tree’s possible 162 year life, I was inspired to see what I could learn about the history of the land to which we now belong. I didn’t realize how easy it was for anyone to trace one aspect of the history of their land through deeds, its so-called “ownership.” And, I didn’t realize the challenges either. The boundaries of our yard were formed in 1969 through the combination of two lots–front (where the house is) and back–which in our deed is actually described as four small lots, and a corner of another.
So I could trace the “owners” of our yard from us back to the D—– family, with three families/individuals in between. But prior to 1967, I had to start searching separately the front and back sections–the back section leading me to the Portland Gardens development plan in 1912. Then the search got even more complicated because tracking how the developers acquired the land meant investigating multiple sellers, and entirely different descriptions of the land. Still working on that.
All of this feels important to me as part of understanding our relationship to this land, and as part of a decolonization process–moving beyond the norms of our society which treats land as a possession, rather than as the place to which we might belong. And understanding the many ways that colonizers sought to acquire land–through purchase, through theft, through trickery, and through misinterpreting the early agreements made with indigenous peoples–they treated the offer to settle here in right relationship with the indigenous people as instead granting ownership of the land for whatever use they might want to make of it.
There are so many land records in the registry of deeds. So many pieces of paper dividing the land into large and small pieces. There are whole professions built up around establishing who owns or owned what pieces of land. Title insurance, title search companies, and all the rest. I want to understand the history, but it is wearying to track such an ultimately destructive operation. My ancestors were not part of this process here in Maine, but perhaps by learning more about this land right here, I can better understand the process as it happened over the whole continent. It is a long story of the ways those of us who have European descent broke our relationship to the land and to her peoples.