I have always been confused by Patrick Henry. He is famous for saying, “Give me liberty or give me death”, a bold statement that should have gotten a lot of press. Yet nobody at the time recorded him saying it. He also supposedly said “If this be treason, let us make the most of it”, another bold statement which, again, nobody wrote down at the time. What is fact is that he was always suspicious of the power of government. We largely have him to thank for the Bill of Rights, today a beacon of freedom for billions of people world wide. But he was also the CEO of the Virginia Yazoo Company, when he sold swamp land to war veterans and unsuspecting tax payers.
My guess is the Yazoo Indians were only joking with French explorer Robert de La Salle. In 1682, la Salle asked about the water at the edge of their town and the Yazoos told him it was a river....a 180 mile long by 100 mile wide “river” which did not so much as flow into the Mississippi River, as seep. It was a swamp. But the last laugh was on the Yazoo Indians because La Salle named the “river” after them.
And since even in 1789 nobody was interested in buying a swamp, American crooks decided to call it the Yazoo Lands, instead. Besides patriot and ex-governor Patrick Henry's Virginia Yazoo Company, there was the Tennessee Yazoo Company and the Carolina Yazoo Company. And together they formed the first American lobby firm, what they called "The Combined Society". It's stated purpose was “By means of certain influences...to obtain from the State (of Georgia) large grants of land...for the end of making a large sum of money...” They were certain they could obtain a deed from Georgia, because Georgia was flat broke.
Georgia had paid for its war of revolution by claiming lands westward to the Mississippi and beyond, and using them as collateral to borrow gold and silver. The problem was that land, including that swamp, was occupied by native American tribes and claimed by the King of France.
The solution was first suggested by an ex-militia Colonel named Thomas Marston Green. He'd been farming out in the Pine forests when a bunch of Spanish soldiers and surveyors showed up looking to inventory the lands they had just bought from the French. Colonel Green realized that after the inventory would come the taxes. And he hated paying taxes. Luckily Green had no objection to collecting taxes. In the fall of 1784 Green showed up in the state capital of Louisville, Georgia, suggesting the state take over his plantation as "Bourbon County". It would be the largest county in the United States, and Marston Green would, of course, run it, selling the land he did not want and splitting the take with the state. And on 7 February, 1785, the rich white men running Georgia passed the Bourbon County Act, and waited for the money to roll in.
Unfortunately, Green went home and told the Spanish to get out because Georgia was now running things. They threw him in jail. And as long as Georgia was taking that attitude, the Spanish decided Americans could no longer use the port of New Orleans to ship their produce to market. That made the settlers in western Georgia, very unhappy. In 1788 the state of Georgia backed down and repealed the Bourbon County Act. But that still left Georgia flat broke.
The next answer they tried in the fall of 1788 was the infamous Pine Barren Land Speculation, in which a dozen rich white men surveyed (badly) about thirty million acres of Georgia and sold it off (quickly), mostly to smaller speculators, Everybody thought they were going to get rich. The problem this time was that Georgia contained only about nine million acres. There were a lot of duplicate titles, and five or six owners for every section of land. Over night land prices went from sky high to bargain basement, inspiring a fake advertisement, offering, “ Ten millions of acres of valuable pine barren land in the province of Utopia, on which there are several very sumptuous air castles, ready furnished”.
This business model would later be called a Ponzi scheme, and the only people who got rich were the ones at the top, and none of that money trickled down to the state of Georgia. So in 1789, this time under the Governorship of an arrogant fire plug named George Mathews, they tried it again, only bigger. And this was where Patrick Henry got into the game.
It was enough to make you wonder why the American people continue to have such childlike faith in capitalism, considering how often they keep getting screwed by it. It's a morality play, of sorts, if the moral is "There's a sucker born every minute".
Patrick Henry had never been much of a business man. When he was 18, the “indolent, dreamy (and) procrastinating...ill-dressed young man” impulsively married the equally impulsive, plump and buxom Sarah "Sallie" Shelton. He went to work for Sarah's father in his Hanover Tavern, but 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 were so thrilled, they set the fecund couple up with some land and slaves – an instant entrance into Virginia's upper class. It was the perfect foundation for a politician. But, alas, Patrick would be short of money his whole life. Which is why 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.
But the key investor, the actual brains behind the original Virginia Yazoo Company 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. Ross also owned 200,000 acres of Kentucky, and several thousand more in what would become Tennessee (claimed by North Carolina). He was a very land rich young man. And, oddly, he was Scottish
See, after the 1746 battle of Culloden, Scotland was under the royal lash, and David Ross stood to inherit nothing from his father's now looted Scottish 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, and arrived with little but the clothes on their back, David Ross chose Virginia and arrived with contacts in the colonial government, and with cash, Almost immediately he invested in the Oxford Iron Works along the Potomac River and the Antietam Iron Works in Maryland. He then began buying land and planting tobacco. It is hard to escape the suspicion that David Ross's family had sold out their fellow Stuart supporters, perhaps his own cousins. It is what the losing side of a rebellion often has to do to save the family fortunes.
Most years the iron works struggled to get by, and the tobacco barely covered operating expenses. To really build a fortune, Colonial Virginia planters - such as the gout ridden George Mason - used their large plantations as collateral to buy Indian land north of the Ohio River, cheap. 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. To quote from Wood Holton's 1994 paper in 'The Journal of Southern History: “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...During the frontier years, absentee landholders owned three-quarters of the region's total acreage...little acreage was left for residents. ”
The only draw back was that the invasion of English farmers set off the French and Indian War, which brought the sale of western lands to a halt for nine long years. Then in 1763, after the peace was signed, King George III issued a Royal Proclamation that henceforth no colony could lay claim to any land west of the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. Individual farmers were still free to negotiate with tribes for acreage on Indian lands, but their property rights would not be recognized by the English crown, meaning the land could not be resold, ending speculating in Indian lands. Wood Holton argues it was this loss of income which spurred Virginians, like the “great land-monger” George Washington, and speculators Thomas Jefferson, George Mason and Patrick Henry, to support the American Revolution
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. George Mason rehired his old employee Daniel Boone to began “exploring” new lands to the west of Boonesborough, paying him in land - from which Boone earned $20,000, a hefty fortune during the revolution. And on 20 November, 1789, the Virginia Yazoo Company, headed by Patrick Henry and David Ross, along with the Tennessee Company and the Carolina Company, formally applied for land grants along the Yazoo River from the State of Georgia.
To the wealthy speculators who were also the founding fathers, this is what they meant by the word “freedom”. And that is the morality play we shall now follow.
- 30 -