GREAT AMERICAN LAND BUBBLE
The GREAT AMERICAN LAND BUBBLE
The Amazing Story of Land-Grabbing, Speculations, and Booms from Colonial Days to the Present Time
by A. M. SAKOLSKI ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF FINANCE COLLEGE OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK
HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS NEW YORK AND LONDON 1932
Redbones early settlers of Kaskaskia
It will be recalled by the reader that just prior to the Revolution, the Indiana and Illinois lands were “prOmpted” by a group of politicians and Indian traders through spectacular purchases from the supposed Indian owners. Largely to offset opposing claims to the territory, Virginia, during the Revolutionary War, sought possession of the region and sent George Rogers Clark to drive out both the Indians and the English. In 1780, the Virginia authorities established a court at Vincennes (then a wellestablished French settlement) which assumed the right of granting lands freely to every applicant whom they approved.
The members of the court naturally were kind to themselves. “An arrangement was made,” notes William Henry Harrison, Governor of Indiana Territory in 1802, “by which the whole country, to which the Indian title was supposed to be extinguished, was divided between the members of the court.” Most of them, however, abandoned the land in a few years, because they could find no purchasers. When settlement in the territory began, however, after 1800, the claims of these “grantees” were bought up by speculators who infested the western country. These resold to others in different parts of the United States. “The price at which the land is sold,” wrote Governor Harrison to James Madison, “enables anybody to become a purchaser; one thousand acres being frequently given for an indifferent horse or a rifle gun.”
Many ignorant persons were induced to buy these fraudulent titles, and a number began to settle upon the land. “I should not be surprised,” wrote Harrison, “to see five hundred families settling under these titles the ensuing Spring.” He feared that upon learning of their invalid titles, the settlers would petition Congress to confirm their ownership. “The extent of these speculations was unknown to me until lately,” the governor stated. “I am now informed that a number of persons are in the habit of repairing to this place [Vincennes] where they purchase two or three thousand acres of this claim, for which they get a deed properly authenticated and recorded, and then disperse themselves over the United States to cheat the ignorant and credulous. To check this practice, I have forbidden the recorder and prothonotary of this county from recording or authenticating any of these papers.” 11
Though William Henry Harrison, hero of Tippecanoe, railed against the unprincipled land jobbers that “infested” his Indiana territory, he, himself, participated in one of the questionable and corrupt speculations in the Old Northwest. When George Rogers Clark, and his Virginians, took possession of the Illinois country and drove out the British, he found French colonies established along the Kaskaskia River. These simple-minded French pioneers feared the Americans because of both their pillaging and their Protestantism. Some fled the country and settled in Louisiana. Others who remained were sought to be appeased by grants of land. Thus, in Vincennes, each head of a family was given 400 acres, drawn by lot. After the Ordinance of 1787, many again became frightened, as they were told they would be required to change their religion–and left their settlements.
As might be expected, they sold their land titles for almost anything. Their claims were eagerly bought up by both resident and non-resident land grabbers. Among those who bought these titles were William Henry Harrison, the first secretary, and General Arthur St. Clair, the first governor of the Northwest Territory. Neither, however, went into this business of land grabbing on a large scale.
But Harrison’s name appears several times, in the lists of those who presented claims to the Frenchmen’s lands in Kaskaskia. 12 St. Clair personally presented no claims, but it is clearly evident that his son, John Murray St. Clair, was closely associated with one John Edgar, merchant of Illinois, who garnered more land claims in this region than any other individual. St. Clair, as governor of the territory, passed upon the validity of these claims, and he seems to have approved a vast number held by John Edgar and, jointly, by Edgar and his son.
John Edgar settled in Kaskaskia in 1784. He was a native of Ireland, and brought with him to the Illinois country a stock of merchandise, useful to the pioneer inhabitants. He soon built up an extensive trade, established a flour mill, and entered local politics. He was also appointed a “Major General of Militia” as well as a “judge” in the Northwest Territory. He became very friendly with Governor Arthur St. Clair, whom he occasionally entertained in his sumptuous backwoods palace.
In the St. Clair Papers, published in 1883, there is a letter written by Edgar to Governor St. Clair, which indicates their close association. On April II, 1801, after congratulating the governor on his reappointment “in spite of the opposition of your enemies,” he wrote, “I must now take the liberty of refreshing your memory concerning the deeds for the three surveys which I sent you last Spring, for which I now begin to feel myself anxious.” And, in a more familiar vein, he added: “Present if you please, Mrs. Edgar’s and my compliments to Mrs. Dill, Mrs. Vance and the rest of the family. 13
St. Clair brought upon himself severe criticism because, among other things, of his approval of several Kaskaskia claims. He was rebuked by Washington for his actions, and finally was removed by Jefferson in November, 1802. His confirmation of a grant of 30,000 acres to John Edgar and his son was subsequently annulled on the ground that it was made after St. Clair had authority to act as a land commissioner. St. Clair’s son, however, remained in Illinois, but the general returned to western Pennsylvania after his dismissal, where he died in 1818, a poor and broken-down old man. He acquired no wealth because of his political position in the Old Northwest; though, when surrounded by ravenous land jobbers in this back country, he undoubtedly was under great temptation to join in their schemes. But he seems to have passed up the opportunity.
Next to Edgar, to whom were confirmed 49,200 acres, the largest jobbers in the Kaskaskia claims were William Morrison and Nicholas Jarrot. Jarrot was a jobber of no political importance, but Morrison, like Edgar, was prominent in early Illinois politics. He was a native of Pennsylvania, who emigrated to Kaskaskia in 1790. He also was a leading merchant in the Illinois country, to estimate it, but there is much evidence indicating that British speculative interest in American growth and prosperity was greatly aroused in this period and that agents were employed by British capitalists to acquire both agricultural lands and urban real estate in the United States.
Red River settlers from Kaskaskia
The titles to these and other New Mexican land claims were as troublesome to settle as those in California. Congress, however, did not take up the problem until a decade or more after the California mess was attended to. The courts, moreover, were slow in adjusting New Mexico claims, and as late as 1890 there were still 107 claims pending, covering 8,704,785 acres. It was not until 1904 that most of these were settled.
Here, also, the lawyers found the land claim business highly lucrative. One, who became exceedingly wealthy, was Stephen B. Elkins, in later life a West Virginia millionaire, cabinet ofricer and United States Senator. Elkins went to New Mexico in 1863. He learned the Spanish language, entered politics, was then sent to the state legislature and later to Congress. His chief occupation in New Mexico, however, was in defending the titles to lands granted under the Mexican régime–and incidentally, he acquired a substantial financial interest in them.
George W. Julian, who in 1868 was appointed United States Surveyor-General of New Mexico, in a speech at Indianapolis on September 14, 1892, thus characterized the land dealings of Elkins:
Elkins’ dealings were mainly in Spanish grants, which he bought for a small price. Elkins became a member of the land ring of the territory, and largely through his influence, the survey of these grants was made to contain hundreds of thousands of acres that did not belong to them. He thus became a great land holder, for through the manipulation of committees in Congress, grants thus illegally surveyed were confirmed with their fictitious titles …. By such methods as these, more than 10,000,000 acres of public domain in New Mexico became the spoil of land grabbers. 21
As in the case of California, excessive claims were the rule rather than the exception in New Mexico. Although under the Mexican régime the maximum acreage granted to an individual
was eleven leagues (about 50,000 acres), several claims embraced a much larger area. The Las Vegas grant comprised a million acre tract, and the so-called “Maxwell Grant” almost two million acres, i.e., about 3,000 square miles.
The Maxwell Grant was one of the most notorious of the New Mexico land claims, and in this Elkins “made himself particularly conspicuous as the hero. “Lucien Benjamin Maxwell, a native of Kaskaskia, Ill., and one of the most striking early figures along the Rocky Mountain frontier, acquired it in 1864, from Carlos Beaubien and Guadelupe Miranda, the original grantees. It was adjacent to the Red River in northern New Mexico and contained almost the whole of the present Colfax County. In extent, it would make three states the size of Rhode Island. Here Maxwell, while living in barbaric splendor, attempted to found an American barony, but his principal business was raising sheep.
He probably would have continued as America’s greatest sheep herder, Had it not been for the discovery of gold on his domain. This gave him plenty of excitement. By disposition a gambler, he forthwith invested large sums in developing placer mining. The result were negative. Like Sutter in California, he was met by an army of squatters and free-lance miners, who refused to be ousted except by force. In order to save a remnant of his fortune, he sold his grant to an English syndicate for $1,250,000-onehalf of which sum was paid to his sales agents.
The syndicate formed the Maxwell Land Grant and Railroad Company and tried to unload its obligations on the public. It did succeed in selling bonds to Dutch investors, who were undoubtedly influenced by the fact that the “Hon.” Stephen B. Elkins was president of the company. All this was done before the validity of the grant was fully established. In the meantime, the finances of the company went from bad to worse, and by 1875 it was bankrupt. Its lands were sold for unpaid taxes, and its personal property disposed of at sheriff’s sale to satisfy creditors.
After the Maxwell Land Grant failure, Stephen B. Elkins left for West Virginia, where he married the daughter of its wealthiest citizen and statesman, Senator Henry Gassaway Davis, and where he also became a United States Senator. Maxwell’s subsequent career was less fortunate. He invested a large part of the proceeds from the sale of his land in the bonds of the Texas and Pacific Railroad. Through subsequent bankruptcy of the railroad, the bonds became almost worthless. He also essayed banking, and organized the First National Bank of Santa Fé. As its first president, he pictured himself on its notes with a cigar in his mouth. He died in comparative poverty, July 25, 1875. Sheep raising on his New Mexico property would have been more profitable to him and more beneficial to the country than the exploitation of its gold mines.
Another notorious New Mexico land claim which became a securities gamble, and which was, in 1895, adjudged a criminal forgery, was the so-called “Peralta-Reavis Grant.” This fraudulent scheme to obtain title to about 1,3000,000 acres under a supposed gift from the King of Spain dating back to 1748, was concocted by James Addison Reavis, a St. Louis real estate dealer. Reavis, in 1871, met George M. Willing, Jr., who represented himself as the proprietor of an immense tract of land on the borders of New Mexico and Arizona, that he had purchased from the heirs of Don Miguel de Peralta. Reavis visited the location with Willing, and while at the latter’s home, it is charged, stole a deed to the property made out in blank and signed by Willing. Armed with this document, he proceeded, in 1883, to seek the validation of his land claim under the Act of Congress of July 22, 1854. In the meantime, he married a squaw, who, he claimed, was the direct heir and descendant of the original grantee. He then assumed the name of Addison Peralta-Reavis.