What is a Proprietors’ Road?

At the beginning of English settlement on Nantucket, most of the island was one unfenced common for the grazing of livestock, mainly sheep. The Proprietors’ Roads were laid out in 1821 in reaction to the first massive exchange of common land for private land. In 1816 a group of influential Nantucketers had petitioned the Proprietors of the Common and Undivided Land for set-off of a large tract of land near Siasconset known as Plainfield in exchange for grazing rights known as sheep commons. The Proprietors resisted, but they lost the case in court in 1821. Once the Supreme Court had ruled against the Proprietors, additional petitions were received for set-offs in Smooth Hummocks, Head of the Plains, and Trott’s Hills.

Alarmed as each of these large tracts was subtracted from the Common and Undivided Land, the Proprietors responded by laying out roads to ensure that the public and livestock would continue to have access to the remaining commons and to water, both fresh and salt. In 1821 they laid out a road to the Town Pasture, roads around all the island’s ponds, roads around the swamps, and ten-acre strips of land along the shores. Though designated for unrestricted public use, these 1821 Proprietors’ Roads were not public ways; they were under the jurisdiction of the Proprietors.

The locations of some of these unpaved, unmarked Proprietors’ Roads are to be found in Proprietors Plan Book 1 in the Nantucket Registry of Deeds.

For more about Nantucket’s streets and roads, see Frances Karttunen’s book, Ways Off Shore: A History of Roads and Ways in Nantucket County, available from the NHA Museum Shop.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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