Before refineries lined the New Jersey Turnpike - in truth, before New Jersey existed; before Peter was Great or Washington was born; before steam engines or peppermint or "Robinson Crusoe" - before any of these things, the proprietors ruled.

There were 12 men, most of them from London. Most would never set foot in the New World. But they owned half of what would become New Jersey, 1.1 million acres of verdant field and forest and pristine shoreline.All but a smattering of those lands were sold off long ago, but their corporation survived, its shares handed down from generation to generation.

It is now 314 years old, the oldest continuously operated corporation in the United States. But not for long. A court will soon dissolve the East Jersey Board of Proprietors, and a vestige of colonial America will be gone forever.

"It was very traumatic for a number of members. It was all done with a heavy heart," says Frederick A. Gerken, the board's registrar.

The board has fallen victim to a very modern malady: Its shareholders, most of them elderly, are afraid they may face legal liability for environmental and other problems on lands the board owns.

The age of the board's members is in itself a problem. For hundreds of years, shares were kept within families, but sadly, in the 1990s, the allure of being part of history is not what it once was.

"The grandchildren who might have become involved, well, really, it doesn't mean anything to them," Gerken says.

The breakup wasn't easy. The board is not chartered by the state - it PREDATES the state - and it took a while to determine that a court could terminate the corporation. The court should act in a few months.

There was also the matter of dispersing the board's assets.

Its real estate operations - including the rights to any remaining lands - were sold to the state for $300,000, according to Jim Hall, assistant commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.

Its sole building, the surveyor general's two-room brick office in Perth Amboy, was sold to that city for a dollar.

And its greatest treasure, more than 300 years of maps and records, was donated to the state archives in Trenton.

When they are made available to the public in a year or two, these papers will offer a window into history. Most of them are deeds, recording the sale of land marked by a prominent oak tree, or the course of a creek.

But there is also the last will and testament of one Simon Roude from March 26, 1689, "being very sick of body but of perfect mind, I do bequeath my body unto the earth for decent burrial and my soul unto God who gave it. Nextly it is my will that after my deceasse my wife will have the benefit of my housing land and meadow . . ."

And there is the court record of "Sambo the Negro," who was charged with burning his master's barn in 1667. He was acquitted, but that was not the end of his troubles. The court levied costs of 5 pounds, 3 shillings and 8 pence, which his master refused to pay, so Sambo was sold.

And there is a large red portfolio containing, among other things, two 31/2-foot-wide pieces of parchment - the words "This indenture" in black lettering inches tall, followed by streams of tiny script.

This is the original deed for all of East New Jersey, the birth certificate of the East Jersey Board of Proprietors.

In 1664, King Charles II granted rights to what is now New Jersey to his brother, the Duke of York, who then divided those lands. The west went to Lord John Berkeley, and the east to Sir George Carteret.

When they died, under the terms of their wills their lands were sold to retire their debts.

The 12 men who bought East Jersey in 1682 were a prosperous lot, including a goldsmith, two skinners, a draper, a tailor. The best known was William Penn, the Quaker who already had been deeded Pennsylvania.

But the cost was steep: 4,800 pounds. So the proprietors brought in 12 more men, most of them Scots, to share the burden; the corporation's first meeting was in 1684. Later, the shares were split 4-for-1, bringing the total to 96.

Until 1702, the proprietors were the law in East Jersey, but then they ceded the right to govern to Queen Anne, and contented themselves with selling and renting the land.

Like most landlords, the proprietors were not always popular. There were riots when the board tried to collect "quit-rents" from settlers who were obligated to pay so much per acre of farm or wood land or city lots.

Maxine Lurie, a professor who teaches New Jersey history at Seton Hall University, says the Revolutionary War ended the pro-pri-etor-ships that owned Pennsylvania and Maryland.

But the New Jersey boards survived - because among their number were supporters of the revolutionary cause, because so many were prominent people, because they were willing to change with the times.

"Here we had an organization that seems to come out of feudal times, and it becomes a modern corporation," Lurie says. "It's kind of a strange transformation, but that's what happens."

In the 1790s, she says, the board began a rapid sale of its holdings.

"People throughout New Jersey are stealing their lumber, they're squatting on their land. People are taking it from them piecemeal. They might as well sell," Lurie says.

Over the years, the proprietors were rewarded with a dozen dividends of 5,000 or 10,000 acres each, and four of cash.

Gradually, the board's primary responsibility turned to title research, helping to certify that sellers had title to land that was being sold, using records that extended back to the original East Jersey deed.

Still, the proprietors met every year, on the third Tuesday of May, to sort through the year's business. Shares were bought and sold, though the proprietors are circumspect when asked about the price ("I could never get a straight answer," says Lurie).

Among the shareholders are prominent families such as that of former Gov. Thomas Kean. Fewer than half live in New Jersey, and some live in Europe.

Rutgers University owns one share. Forty years ago, a prominent alumnus inherited the stock, and donated it to the state university. Richard P. McCormick, a professor of history, persuaded the school to dedicate all dividends to a fund to buy books on New Jersey history.

Over 40 years, the fund collected several thousand dollars.

McCormick represented Rutgers at the board's meetings. Now retired, he says he will not mourn its passing.

"It had essentially outlived its usefulness," he says.

But if he should regret the loss, he could buy a share in the board's successor as the nation's oldest corporation: the West Jersey Board of Proprietors, still going strong with 3,200 shareholders.