History is a process of discovery. Even when we are not actively researching a particular topic, we learn new facts and interpretations that led to a more complete understanding of some other topic. Such was the case when I recently saw a photograph on display in a London gallery that led me to reconsider the story of Richard Smith and his bull.
In April, I wrote about the long running dispute between Huntington and Smithtown concerning the two town’s overlapping claims to the same territory. The dispute involved several lawsuits in both the English and the Dutch courts and wasn’t finally resolved for over two centuries. At the end of that post I wrote: “As for the story about the Indians granting to Richard Smith all the land he could encircle in one day, there’s a reason the animal he rode was a bull.”
But perhaps there is some historical basis for the story. My reassessment started at a special exhibit in London’s Guildhall Art Gallery. The photographs on display were taken by Martin Parr, the City of London’s photographer in residence since 2013. Mr. Parr captured the color and pomp of some of London’s ancient traditions. These are not the well-known and tourist friendly ceremonies of the Royal family. They are the activities of London’s medieval guilds and churches. Most of the ceremonies and groups shown had unusual sounding names. One series of photographs was particularly obscure. They were titled “Beating the Bounds on Ascension Day.” One showed school children in uniform beating the ground with very long sticks.^
The photographs in the exhibit had no explanations beyond their titles. So when I returned home I searched to find out what Beating the Bounds was all about. It is a medieval Anglo-Saxon church custom to confirm the borders of a parish. The priest would lead parishioners along the boundary of the parish, stopping along the way to beat the boundary markers–and sometimes young boys as well. Not that the boys did anything wrong. Rather the intent was to impress upon those who could carry the memory of the boundary farthest into the future the importance of the event. Sometimes a painful experience is easier to remember. When he’s an old man, the boy will remember where he was hit with a stick. Establishing parish boundaries was important because in pre-Reformation England, the parish was the basic division of jurisdiction. The parish priest had to know which paupers he was responsible for care of; over whom he had authority; and, perhaps most important, who was required to provide support for his parish.
Although the Reformation diminished the importance of the parish in civic affairs, the tradition continued–and still continues in some English parishes as evidence by Mr. Martin’s photograph. English settlers in the New World carried the tradition with them; not to confirm parish boundaries, but to confirm town boundaries.* In the colonies, there was less emphasis on beating and prayers; what was required was to walk the boundary with representatives from the neighboring town. This became known as perambulation. The only states that still require perambulation are Massachusetts and New Hampshire. But compliance is far from universal. A similar tradition of walking the boundary line with one’s neighbor is depicted in the Robert Frost poem, Mending Wall.
The requirement was imposed in New York by the Duke’s Laws, promulgated on March 1, 1665 by Governor Richard Nicoll soon after the English seized New Amsterdam from the Dutch. The comprehensive Duke’s Laws included a section requiring each town to “sett their bounds within twelve months after their bounds are granted” and every three years thereafter. The process was to be initiated by the “Ancientest Town.” Three of the overseers from each town would perambulate the bounds and “renew their Marks.” Such perambulations to take place between the 20th and the last of February.
It just so happens that two days after he issued the Duke’s Laws, Nicoll issued a patent to Richard Smith confirming his title to what we now know as Smithtown. It is not only possible, but entirely likely, that Richard Smith followed the requirement in the Duke’s Laws to set out the bounds of his property within 12 months after the grant. His perambulation could understandably be the basis for the bull story. Sometimes even legends and tall tales have some basis in fact.
^To see the photograph by Martin Parr that inspired this additional research,visit https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2016/feb/19/photographer-martin-parr-eccentricity-city-of-london It is the sixth picture down after the headline.
*To read more about the transfer of this ancient English tradition to New England, see di Bonaventura, Allegra (2007) “Beating the Bounds: Property and Perambulation in Early New England,” Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities: Vol. 19: Iss. 2, Article 1. Available at: h p://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlh/vol19/iss2/1