Burn Bridle Press – Bucks County History

Falls Common: The Great Timber Swamp

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While William Penn was parceling up Pennsylvania for the first generation of European settlers, England’s system of land use was undergoing a fundamental shift. Since medieval times English agriculture was for the most part practiced communally, employing an “open field” system in which each community had a few very large fields which were divided into smaller strips to be farmed by individual families. Likewise, livestock grazed on common pastureland and the right of common use extended to lumber harvesting, fuel gathering, pig foraging, berry picking, and any number of activities essential to the community members’ subsistence.

At the time of Pennsylvania’s settlement, much of England’s commonly held land was been seized by wealthy land owners and enclosed as private property. While the new property owners became rich, the rest of the community was forced off the land they’d been farming for centuries. The frustration of the commoners is perhaps best summed up in the famous poem:

They hang the man, and flog the woman,
That steals the goose from off the common;
But let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose.

Interestingly, while the traditional commons of England were increasingly threatened with enclosure, William Penn set aside a commons in what would eventually become Falls Township. According to historian (and former Spruance librarian) Terry McNealy:

The Manor, as it was eventually laid out, and the plantations of the earlier settlers, with the lines straightened in accordance with Penn’s wishes, are shown on Holme’s map of 1685. Penn, in compensation to the landowners whose boundaries were changed by the adjustments, granted a tract of 120 acres to the inhabitants of the area which was later established as Falls Township, as common land. This tract, not indicated on Holme’s map, came to be known as Falls Common, but was also known as the “Great Timber Swamp.” The Common was located in the Middle Lots between the village of Crewcorne and the spot where Falls Meetinghouse was built in 1690 forming the nucleus of the village of Fallsington. Since it was a large tract of undeveloped land, the Common formed an effective barrier between Crewcorne and Fallsington.

The early use to which the Common was put, as well as a glimpse of Penn’s efforts to keep firm control of matters in Pennsylvania from England, is revealed in a letter he wrote James Logan, his secretary in the province, on 4 January 1701-2: “There is a swamp between the Falls and the meetinghouse; I gave the Falls people, formerly, leave to cut timber in it for their own use, which they have now almost spoiled, cutting for sale, coopery, &C., which now, or in a little time, would have been worth some thousands. Phineas Pemberton knows this businees; let all be forbit to cut there any more, and learn who have been the wasters of timber, that hereafter they may help to clear the rubbish parts that will be fit for use, or give me tree for tree, when I or my order shall demand it.”

(The Middle Lots, by Terry McNealy. The Historian, Summer 1970, Vol. VI No.3, p.22-23)

Given Penn’s personal intercession to control the use of the land and its apparent short life, Falls Common may not have played a formative role in the development of early Buck County. However, it is interesting to note this relict of medieval communalism  in a pattern of development primarily defined by the allotment of land to individual owners in fee simple.

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Written by Moses Doan

February 24, 2012 at 11:15 pm

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