Conservation Public Lands & Waters

250 Years Later, King of England Still Controls American Access

Tony Hansen Avatar

Sometime in the 17th or 18th century, before the colonies gathered to form these United States, the lands we now call home were under English rule, commanded by His Majesty, the King of England.

Back then, the curly-wigged kings did what politicians have done since the creation of politics: They handed out a few favors. Those favors granted ownership of lands throughout the area now known as the mid-Atlantic states. These crown grants gave full ownership and control of the described lands to the holder of the grant.

But do those grants apply hundreds of years after a ragtag group of militia knocked the red off the coats of the British Army? Apparently, they do.

This is not a joke.

A Virginia court case has brought the issue of crown grants to the forefront again and, if past history is any indication, the result could close sportsman access to two miles of the popular Jackson River in West Virginia and could have far-reaching impacts in other mid-Atlantic states as well.

Landowners along the Jackson stretch are suing two anglers for allegedly trespassing on the river. They claim they not only own the land along the river but the riverbed as well within that stretch because of a crown grant issued by the King of England.

Earlier this summer, Alleghany County Circuit Court Judge Malford Trumbo delivered a partial summary judgment preventing anglers from returning to that section of the river until the full case is resolved which isn’t likely to happen until this fall, according to reports from the Chesapeak Bay Journal.

This is certainly not the first time crown grants have been used to prevent access to a river that is otherwise very clearly navigable and meets all the standard criteria for a public waterway.

In 1996 the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in Kraft v Burr that crown grants take precedent over state ownership and while boaters can legally float the river, they cannot touch the bottom or fish the stretch without landowner permission.

In 2005, a section of the Hazel River in Virginia’s Culpeper County was closed for five years to public use because of that ruling. The stretch is now open because the Culpeper County commonwealth’s attorney decided the crown grant had not been validated in court.

In 1997, in the case of Douglaston Manor v. Bahraki, the courts ruled that ownership of the riverbed in Virginia’s Salmon River had passed from King George III, to the state of New York. When the state resold the property which contained the river, they passed to the new owners all of the rights given under English common law, which included control of the riverbed. Although the river is navigable, public access can legally be impeded by preventing any contact with the river bed, including wading or even dropping an anchor to hold a drift boat in place while fishing.

Not surprisingly, it is in the courts that much of the access at stake in these crown grant disputes will be decided.

If a landowner can prove they have an authentic crown grant, they seem to stand an excellent chance of shutting down public access to rivers that flow through it.

There is believed to be crown grants along stretches of some of the mid-Atlantic’s most iconic rivers — the Jackson, York, Elizabeth, Cowpasture, James, and Shenandoah.

Trouble is we’re talking about documents drafted hundreds of years ago. The legal description of the granted lands aren’t like those you see in the endless pile of paperwork at your mortgage closing. Instead, they more likely contain descriptions along the lines of “15 paces past the wide-branched oak to the majestic stone . . .”

It’s unclear whether the most recent crown grant dispute will see a full trial. The anglers involved may decide to simply stop forking over cash for attorneys and choose to fish elsewhere. And I can’t help but think that’s just the way old King George would have wanted it.