Turf and Twig, otherwise known as “Livery of Seisin”, is a ceremony performed in medieval England that effected the transfer of land from one party to another. This practice was brought to the American Colonies and continued until the late 17th century.
I first heard of the turf and twig ceremony when researching ancestor Daniel Pierce as seen in this excerpt from Old Newbury by John J. Currier.
“Coffin, in his History of Newbury, on page 397, gives the
deposition of Anthony Somerby, which contains a statement
to the effect that Spencer conveyed the farm to Pierce by
means of ” turfe and twigge.” This method of transferring
real estate was not uncommon in England at that time. The
testimony is as follows : —
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.
JOHN WoooBRHXiE, Commissioner.
The above deposition is recorded in the Registry of Deeds,
Salem (Ipswich Series), book 4, page 133.
If conveyance was made by turf and twig as therein stated,
still the transfer was supplemented by a deed in the usual
form, duly signed and recorded. The full text of that deed
has already been given.
The discovery of additional testimony indicates that some
question of title was in dispute when Anthony Somerby’s
deposition was taken ; and this new evidence will be presented
in connection with a later conveyance, to which it
more properly belongs.”
The ceremony originates from the Livery of Seisin (Source: Wikipedia) . . .
“Livery of seisin is an archaic legal ceremony, once practiced in England and in other countries following English common law, to convey property. The common law in those jurisdictions 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.
Livery of seisin could refer to either:
- livery in deed, whereby the parties actually went on to the land, and the transferor symbolically delivered possession of the land by handing over a twig or a clump of earth to the recipient, or
- livery in law, whereby the parties went within sight of the land and the transferor telling the recipient that possession was being given, followed by the recipient entering the land.
Turf and twig ceremony
The turf and twig ceremony dates from the 12th century, and was practiced regularly during English colonialism to take sovereign possession over unclaimed lands.
The process has taken several forms over the centuries. Dr. Bernulf Hodge in A History of Malmesbury describes the process as:
- “The lucky new Commoner goes to his “given” acre and cuts a turf from the selected site and drops two shillings in the hole made. The High Steward then twitches him with a twig and sticks the twig in the turf, then hands it to him saying, “This turf and twig I give to thee, as free as Athelstan gave to me, and I hope a loving brother thou wilt be.” The High Steward then takes the money out of the hole and the new landowner replaces the turf.” 
The practice was discontinued in the late 17th century.”
William Penn performed the Livery of Seisin ceremony with turf and twig when he obtained property in New Castle, Delaware.