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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

By Turf & Twig ~ A Transfer of Land in Colonial America

“This turf and twig I give to thee, and I hope a loving brother thou wilt be.”
From the Turf and Twig, Livery of Seisin Ceremony.
Spencer-Pierce Farm which was conveyed by Turf and Twig.

I first heard of the turf and twig ceremony when researching my ancestor, Daniel Pierce, and learned that a property was conveyed to him from John Spencer in 1651 by means of "turfe and twigge." The following deposition was recorded in the Registry of Deeds, Salem, Massachusetts.
"This deponent saith that about the yeares 1651 or fifty-two I was at the farm y’ Mr. John Spencer sold to Mr. Daniell Peirce in Newbury, and Mr. Spencer and Mr. Peirce with myselfe and another, I suppose it was Mr. William Thomas, and, as we were going through the land of ye said farme, Mr. Pierce said to Mr. Spencer you promised to give me possession by turfe and twigge. Mr. Spencer said soe I will, if you please to cutt a turff and twigge, and Mr. Pierce did cut off a twigge off a tree, and cutt up a turfe, and Mr. Spencer tooke the twigge and stuck it into the turff, and bid us beare witness that he gave Mr. Pierce possession thereby of the house and land and ffarme that he had bought of him, and gave the turff and twigge to Mr. Pierce and further saith not.
Taken upon oath 10 Jan. 1679.
Before me
JOHN WoooBRHXiE, Commissioner."

William Penn Statue, New Castle Common, Delaware
Turf and Twig, otherwise known as Livery of Seisin, is a ceremony performed since medieval times in England that effected the transfer of land from one party to another. Livery means delivery, and seizin means possession. The common law once provided that a valid conveyance of a fee interest in land required the physical transfer by the transferor to the transferee, in the presence of witnesses, of a piece of the ground (often, in the literal sense of a hand-to-hand passing of an amount of soil), a twig, key, or other symbol. This practice was brought to the American Colonies and continued until the late 17th century. In fact, in 1682 William Penn performed the Livery of Seisin ceremony with twig and turf, along with a porringer of riverwater, when he obtained property in New Castle, Delaware.

Sealing of the Freeman's Purchase With the Presentation of Turf and Twig
An example of the many Livery of Siesen ceremony's that took place between the colonists and the Indians is the Freeman's Purchase in 1659, made by the General Court of Plymouth from Wamsutta, son of Massa­soit. The land included in the pur­chase extended to the northern bound­ary of Freetown (Massachusetts) and easterly from the Taunton River four miles. It was all purchased for some household implements and some pieces of cloth. The contract was denoted by the English custom of presenting the "turf and twig." The "turf" represented all the water included in the purchase, and the "twig" denoted all the land and all that was on it.

1797 Early American Deed

When conveyance was made by turf and twig the transfer was supplemented by a deed in the usual form, duly signed and recorded. Witnesses signed an affidavit attesting that they witnessed the deed of transferring the clump of dirt. And this, my friends, is the origin of the word deed! In colonial deeds and wills the term “seized” is frequently used to describe the land they are selling as something which they are“lawfully seized and possessed of,” or that someone “died seized” of a piece of property. Although some of the terminology from the Livery of Seisin exists today, the ancient ceremony became obsolete as literacy increased and only a written deed was deemed necessary. See the video below to observe how the turf and twig ceremony was performed.


  1. Very interesting post. I love Colonial Quills, I am learning so much about our history.
    Thank you all for sharing.

    1. So glad you are enjoying CQ! We love research so much that it is a real pleasure to share Colonial history with our readers! Thanks for visiting

  2. This is a most interesting post. I love the video--very educational.

  3. Fascinating post, Carla!!! Thanks for sharing!!!

    1. You're welcome, Carrie. Isn't this a neat ritual from history?


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