The Legend Of The Edwards Fortune: Fact Or Fiction?
by Brijit Reed
Gullibility may be an inherited trait. Or not.
For almost 240 years, a story has circulated about a fortune belonging to the descendants of a man named Edwards, who was largely rumored to have emigrated with his brothers from Wales to America and later became a pirate in service to the British crown during the Revolutionary War. Since the 19th century, the story has spanned newspapers around the globe—from places in America like Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, California, and Colorado, to Canada, Wales, and even New Zealand.
Unfortunately, the details have always been fluid and often conflicting, shaped by the whims of the individuals who've shared them. However, the core elements have always been the same—an Edwards ancestor, usually Robert Edwards (but also sometimes Uriah Edwards, sometimes John or Thomas Edwards), was the original owner of a large parcel of land which he leased to the Cruger brothers for a term of 99 years for the amount of £1,000 and one (1) peppercorn per year. At the termination point of the lease, the rights and value was supposed to revert to the descendants of the original Edwards and his brothers. The one constant in the tale is that the Cruger brothers allowed Trinity Church to use the property and said church has never compensated the Edwards family for their land. The real twist is that this tract of land was no mere farm. According to an article I found in the real estate section of a newyorkmag.com issue (Feb. 22, 1999), entitled, This Land Is MY Land, it was appraised at $680 billion in 1999. What makes this particular property so valuable? The answer is simple—it's located in lower Manhattan, the site of Wall Street and the World Trade Center.
I first became aware of this legend when researching my 6th great-grandfather, Uriah Edwards. He was an interesting character. He was supposedly born in Wales in 1714 and immigrated to America with his parents around 1735, settling in Virginia, where he became a successful planter and raised his family. In a deposition taken on July 4th, 1839 in Franklin County, Kentucky, testimony was provided by his son, Benjamin, on behalf of Uriah's daughter, Rebecca (Edwards) Hawkins, my 5th great-grandmother. Benjamin's statement was made to establish proof that Rebecca had indeed married Reuben Hawkins, a soldier in the Revolutionary War, so that she could collect his pension. In his testimony, Benjamin stated that when it was time for Uriah to go to the parson's to witness Rebecca's marriage, he refused, choosing to stay behind in his still and continue making whiskey, as he didn't approve of Rebecca's choice of husband.
At the time, I wondered why Uriah didn't want his daughter to marry Reuben Hawkins, but I never really expected to find an answer. However, a tantalizing clue was revealed in the form of a news item from the Denver Post dated Aug. 1st, 1901, entitled Fortune For Denver Man. It detailed the story of a 93-year-old man named Richard S. Barnes who was expecting to inherit some money that had been due the heirs of Uriah Edwards. It went on to say that Uriah had built privateers (pirate ships) in service to the king of England before the American Revolution and that in reward, he had originally been given 300 acres of land near New York City, but it was later reduced to sixty. The article detailed how the property was leased out for a term of 99 years and was valued in the neighborhood of $400,000,000 to $1,000,000,000.
What does all of this mean? First of all, it may provide the reason that Uriah didn't want his daughter to marry Reuben Hawkins. If Uriah was a Tory, he sympathized with the British. As a soldier in the American Revolution, Hawkins was an original Yankee—standing in opposition to everything in which Uriah believed. Second, holy smoke— my family owns part of Manhattan? What a story! My mind was spinning and I have to admit, at first I was taken in—and then I did more research.
Most articles claimed that the 99-year lease expired in 1877. Further examination into this intriguing matter revealed that Uriah's great-granddaughter (and my 3rd great-grandmother), Sarah Jane (McKendrick) Crutcher Sheets, believed in the family legend. I found an article in the Frankfort Roundabout (Kentucky), dated March 28th, 1891, that included her name as one of the Edwards heirs who attended a meeting in Frankfort to consult on the details of the inheritance. The lease had expired within Sarah Jane's lifetime and wasn't settled by the time she died in 1893. The Roundabout went on to report that the value of the estate at that time was worth $300,000,000.
Various news items indicated that Edwards (whether he was Robert, Uriah, John, or Thomas) received the land from King William II in 1697, Queen Anne in 1705, or King George III in the 1740s. Others, like the article my 3rd great-grandmother was mentioned in, stated that Edwards arrived before the Revolution and bought the land. Most versions of the tale refer to Robert Edwards as the original owner, stating that his will stipulated that his estate was to go to the descendants of his siblings when the 99-year lease expired.
Money has a tendency to bring out the worst in some people. The one constant amongst all of the articles I've located regarding the Edwards inheritance, is that all of the descendants involved actually believed in the story, and someone was trying to rally them together to get their share of the pie. Several stories mentioned organizations that were assembled to pursue the inheritance. The Edwards Heirs Association, The Edwards Estate Corporation, and The Pennsylvania Association of Edwards Heirs are just a few. Many of these groups were led by unscrupulous con artists who preyed on the Edwards descendants, like Alabama attorney, Joel F. Webb, who was fined $1000 and sentenced to three years in prison for fraud in connection with the Edwards estate.
Although through one lens, the story certainly looks like a racket, there are indications that there may be at least a kernel of truth to it. On October 10th, 1924, The Bee (Danville, VA) reported that "the Trinity Corporation has already indicated a desire to avoid litigation and reach a compromise" in regard to the Edwards estate. It also stated that one of the heirs, Dr. Joel King, was preparing to address the heirs association when he suddenly dropped dead "and a large number of valuable papers disappeared at the time of his death" and were never recovered.
In yet another crazy twist, one more family has been engaged in battle with Trinity Church for the rights and compensation to some of the property as well. The descendants of Anneke Jans Bogardus have made her name famous through their numerous lawsuits since the 1780s, claiming that only five of her six heirs conveyed their land from the Dutch colony to the British crown in 1671.
According to an article in the New York Times dated April 24, 2013, Trinity has been locked in dispute with former church members who resigned over the way it has handled money. Some believed that the church should be more financially transparent to its members, more charitable to those in need, and more representative of Episcopal beliefs. At least one former member, Jeremy C. Bates, has filed suit against the church, saying that it was "being too corporate and wasn't acting on its values". In the lawsuit itself, it is noted that the church, "adopted the brand "Trinity Wall Street".
Unfortunately, many Edwards descendants often gave what little money they had to support numerous schemes to claim their inheritance from Trinity Church. While gullibility may certainly be a factor on the part of these people, great numbers of them dreamed of improving the lives they already had and others desperately dreamed of crawling out of poverty. After all, in many cases these stories were passed down through the generations, fueling the belief that the Edwards descendants were the rightful heirs.
If the legend is true, the heirs have been lied to and conned by both the church, which should have felt obligated to officially purchase the property from them, as well as the hustlers who used their dreams to line their own pockets. If the legend is really more akin to "wanna buy the Brooklyn Bridge?", they were still victimized by a long and painful hoax that spanned almost two and a half centuries and numerous generations. Surely the royal family back in England has some record of the original recipient of the land, as well as how much was given.
Either way, it's still a darn good story.