I marvel at the ability of the human mind to see connections where none exist. Its a talent we share with many predators. Frogs see nothing but flies. Cats see parakeets floating amongst dust motes in the dark. And in 1971 an 83 year old Baptist preacher named Elvy Edison Callaway saw the garden of Eden on a bluff above the Apalachicola River, in Florida's panhandle. Elvy's 99 page tome - “In The Beginning: The Four Greatest Recorded Events of This Earth” - swung between “loving pastoral contemplations, and theories one might expect to find written on the walls of an asylum,” as Jeremy (J.D.) Swartz noted on his blog (Here). In his book Elvy observed the Florida river had four heads, just as did the river running through the biblical paradise. He also proclaimed that the rare Torrey tree, found in the beautiful Alum Bluff State Park, was in fact the gopher wood, from which Noah had built his ark. All this and more, the lawyer turned preacher saw floating in the shadows above the Apalachicola.
Imagine what Elvy could have made of the morality play enacted on July 15, 1788, when Congress requested that Georgia cede her “vacant territories” west of the Apalachicola River to the nation. It was for the good of the nation, and since in exchange the national government would assume Georgia's war debt, good for Georgia too. But the Georgia politicians said “no thanks”, choosing instead to reach for the false profits of the Yazoo lands. And with that the brash young state of Georgia made partners with the 18th century venture capitalists like Patrick Henry, and left the Garden of Eden far behind.
Now, in truth, Patrick Henry had never been much of a business man. When he was 18, in 1755, the “indolent, dreamy (and) procrastinating...ill-dressed young man” impulsively married the equally impetus, plump and buxom Sarah "Sallie" Shelton. Her father owned the Hanover Tavern, amongst other things, and after a few months as a barkeep, Patrick decided on a career which would not require so much physical labor. With only six weeks of study he passed the Virginia bar. The parents of the bride and the groom were so thrilled, they set the fecund couple up with some land and slaves – an instant entrance into Virginia's planter class. It was the perfect foundation for a politician. But, alas, Patrick would be short of money his whole life. Which is part of why it is assumed he formed the Virginia Yazoo company
The 53 year old Patrick Henry assembled a slightly odd group of investors. At 53, droll and humorless, Paul Carrington was a long time member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, and a judge of the Court of Appeals. At barely 30 years old, Abraham Venerable was an up-and-comer in Virginia society, while 50 year old Francis Watkins was the clerk for the local courts. None of them were national figures. But the key investor, in fact the man I suspect was the actual brains and force behind the Virginia Yazoo enterprise was David Ross, who had already assembled 100,000 acres in Virginia, buying up plantations and farms abandoned by loyalists during and after the revolution. He was also owned 211,417 acres of Kentucky, and several thousand more in what would become Tennessee (claimed by North Carolina). He was, by any measurement, a very rich man and amazingly, for the time, he was Scottish.
See, the middle of the 18th century was a bad time to be a Scotsman. First came the battle of Culloden in April of 1746, in which Bonnie Prince Charlie, the last Stuart to claim the Scottish crown, was crushed by the army of King George II of England. This was quickly followed by punishment for the rebellion - the Highland Clearances, the “disarming act” and the outlawing the clans wearing their tarters. Scotland was under the royal lash, and David Ross's family had been at the core of the rebellion. As a younger son he stood to inherit nothing from his father's now looted estates. So in the middle of the 1750's he joined the horde of Scots emigrating to the American colonies.
But where most Scotsmen chose the less settled Carolinas, Ross chose Virginia. And somehow he arrived with contacts and with money. Almost immediately he invested in the Oxford Iron Works along the Potomac River, south of Alexandria, and the Antietam Iron Works in Maryland. He then began buying land and planting tobacco. It is hard to escape the suspicion that David's family had strategically sold out some Stuart supporters, perhaps his own cousins. It is what the losing side of a rebellion often has to do to save the family fortunes.
But most years tobacco barely covered operating expenses for the Virginia plantations. The truth was, slave labor was ruinously expensive and never very efficient. To really build a fortune, the Virginia planters - such as the gout ridden George Mason - were required to buy Indian land cheap (prior to the revolution, mostly north of the Ohio River), or pick it up for pennies on the pound from veterans who had been paid in land for service. The new owners then surveyed it quickly, subdivided it in haste and sold it off in 100 to 600 acre sections to land hungry farmers at inflated prices. And this was the game David Ross entered into as soon as he could.
To quote from Wood Holton's 1994 paper in 'The Journal of Southern History ' ('The Ohio Indians and the Coming of the American Revolution in Virginia'); “Land speculation was a principal source of income for the Virginia gentry, the 2-to-5 % of families who stood atop the colony's pyramid of wealth and power. Starting in 1745, the gentry-dominated Executive Council gave to gentry-owned land companies preliminary grants to millions of acres west of the Appalachian Mountains...During the frontier years, absentee landholders owned three-quarters of the region's total acreage...little acreage was left for residents. ”
The nine year long French and Indian War (AKA in Europe the Seven Years War) interrupted this profitable enterprise. And after the peace was signed, and before the eager speculators could even reopen their purses, King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Henceforth, no colony could lay claim to any land west of the crest of the Appalachians. King George III's goal was to save himself the expense of another war by keeping the speculation hungry colonialists separate from the Indian tribes. Individual farmers were still free to negotiate with tribes for acreage in the Indian lands, but their property rights would not be recognized by any colonial government, meaning the land could not be resold, meaning speculating in Indian lands was dead. Wood Holton argues it was this loss of income which spurred the Virginia power structure, including that “great land-monger” George Washington, and speculators Thomas Jefferson, George Mason and Patrick Henry, to support the American Revolution.
Almost the instant that shots were fired on Lexington Green, David Ross et al were back in business. Even before the American victory at Yorktown, in June of 1779, Virginia and her governor Patrick Henry, joined the other southern colonies in reviving virtually all of the land claims rejected by George III's government. And once the states turned to the speculators, the yeoman farmers would no longer be buying their land directly from the government. George Mason rehired his old employee Daniel Boone to began “exploring” new lands to the west of Boonesborough, paying him in land - from which he earned $20,000, a small fortune during the revolution. And on November 20, 1789, the Virginia Yazoo Company, headed by Patrick Henry and David Ross , along with the Tennesse Company and the Carolina Company, formally applied for land grants from the State of Georgia.
The middle man had returned. To a substantial portion of the wealthy speculators who were founding fathers, this is what they meant when they said “freedom”. And that is the morality play we shall now follow.
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