Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Land

Daniel M. Friedenberg

[A review and exerpt from the book published by Prometheus Books, 1992.
Reviewed by Pat Patterson]


Mr. Friedenberg takes a hard look at land ownership and speculation in early America. Hero debunking? Overly cynical? Judge for yourself. I found it well worth reading. These land companies and the major purchasers are familiar to all of us genealogists interested in early Virginia and the frontier. Friedenberg's work is helpful in putting together an overall view of events in land development and territorial expansion that doesn't turn away from the behind-the-scenes manipulations. His attitude is often provocative: you'll get Friedenberg's interpretation, not an impartial analysis of interests, and his view of causes and motives is often quite cut-and-dried. But it's a wonderful antidote to the white-washed history we all got fed in early school years. I strongly recommend reading this work.



Evading the 1763 Proclaimation: The Land Companies

"The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government, they have only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can't get and promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten, that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time it is made good by looting A to satisfy B. In other words, government is a broker in pillage." -- H. L. Mencken

The Ohio Company Whelps the Mississippi Company

The Ohio Company of Virginia, which had been launched with such golden hopes, soon ran into problems. The long years of the French and Indian War paralyzed all activity, preventing the company from meeting the terms of a grant that called for settling two hundred families. Also, the internal politics in Virginia was hostile to the company, not only because of public ire against its role in starting the war, but also because of party politics.

This hostility requires some explanation. Although the aristocratic class formed a united front when its collective privileges were threatened, internally it was divided (as was true of New York Colony in this same period) into two competing factions. One might be called the Tidewater or Northern Neck clique and the other the Albemarle and Shenandoah clique; or plantation owners living north or south of the Rappahannock River. Though not so sharply defined, it was also the older aristocracy against the new blood. The Ohio Company was dominated by old Virginians from the tidewater area. The newly rich group from the southwestern part of Virginia was composed of more aggressive men, with the outstanding exception of George Washington. The Loyal Company and the Greenbrier Company, new partnerships created by Piedmont speculators, were thus rivals of the Ohio Company.

The power of each faction ultimately depended on its influence with the governor, whose cooperation was necessary not only to receive land patents, but also to set the terms. Under Sir William Gooch, acting governor in the 1740s, the Ohio Company was out of favor. In fact, in order to receive its original grant, the shareholders of the Ohio Company had to appeal to influential interested parties in London to put pressure on the Virginia government to act: as mentioned, that was the reason for Lawrence Washington's trip to England in 1748. The Ohio Company charter was only secured due to the influence of the Duke of Bedford, who received a share as reward, rather than by the Virginia council.

Things changed when Colonel Thomas Lee, a leading member of the Ohio Company, became pro tem governor after the departure of Sir William; and the fortunes of the company were definitely up when Robert Dinwiddie, whose interest in the Ohio Company preceded his arrival in America (as is known by correspondence between Lawrence Washington and Dinwiddie while the latter was still in London), was appointed to the top Virginia office in 1751.

The relation of the Ohio Company to the French and Indian War has been noted. In 1757, Dinwiddie resigned because of ill health and returned to England. The position of the company then weakened. During the years of the war the shareholders, who by their own statement had spent over L310,000 to advance the undertaking, believed, with reason, that after the eviction of the French their patent would be renewed. The change in British policy, culminating in the 1763 Proclamation, came as a tremendous blow.

Another problem the company faced was that the partners, though among the leading aristocrats of colonial Virginia, had little influence on the lords controlling British policy in London. Benjamin Franklin and his colleague Samuel Wharton, who were far more astute in such matters, knew where to apply pressure and whom to corrupt. The Virginia autocrats, in their private cocoon of black slaves and small white planters and mechanics, reacted with rage when they could not have their way: that rage transformed itself into a colony whose aristocrats were united in revolution a few short years later. At this earlier point of time, however, their inability to break through the rules established by the 1763 Proclamation left them unable to pursue their speculative activities. Losing favor in Virginia itself after the departure of Governor Dinwiddie, the Ohio Company shareholders were paralyzed.

One possible solution was another grant. The leading lights of the company felt they might improve their chances by making a claim to a new area. Much of the same group holding Ohio Company stock -- including George Washington and his half-brother, John Augustine Washington; four Lees; Presley Thornton; and William and Henry Fitzhugh -- organized a new scheme called the Mississippi Company, which, after originally exploring the possibility of a grant farther west, petitioned in 1768 for an area running on the far side of the Alleghenies from western Pennsylvania to what is now Kentucky. The original petition for a million acres in the Mississippi Valley was then enlarged to two and a half million acres. The group requested that the king forego quitrents, fees, and taxes for twelve years, in return for which they would attempt to establish two hundred families on the land. Arthur Lee, whose father had been the initial sponsor of the Ohio Company, was in London and acted as agent.

The Mississippi Company made little headway. The truth was that the Virginians behind this new company did not have sufficient influence and, as will be seen, another group of colonials, mainly from Pennsylvania, were in this same period on the point of achieving a great coup in land speculation. As a final note, Washington recorded his total loss in the venture as a little more than L327.

Some evidence seems to indicate that the Mississippi Company was formed as a diversion to give more weight to the Ohio Company claims Clarence W. Alvord, whose two-volume study entitled The Mississippi Valley in British Politics is the lodestar from which all other ore of the period must be mined, speculates that the Virginia group hoped that by avoiding a frontal attack on the more powerful Pennsylvania syndicate (whose project, first called the Indiana Company, then the Walpole Company, and last Vandalia, overlapped the area desired by the Mississippi Company), more consideration would be given as a sop to their Ohio Company.

There appears to be some truth in this analysis, as shown by later events. The British ministry rejected entirely the petition of the Mississippi Company, one in which no English lords or merchant princes participated. However, to buy off pressure from shareholders of the Ohio Company, which had some British participation, two shares of the total of seventy-two shares in Vandalia were given to Ohio Company members. Colonel George Mercer, the company agent in London, also got an extra share for his "cooperation." To quiet the claims of the veterans of Washington's 1754 Virginia regiment in the French and Indian War, the Vandalia sponsors also assigned these men a total of 200,000 acres from their much larger patent, of which Washington ended up with 40,000. The future first president was not happy since his shares in the Ohio Company and the Mississippi Company were larger than his land claim under the veterans' bonus. But most of the other persons involved accepted the settlement with varying degrees of resignation.

The Greenbrier and Loyal Companies

It will be recalled that the Virginia council in 1745 made two grants each for 100,000 acres: one to James Patton and the other to John Robinson. Several years after his patent, John Robinson formed the Greenbrier Company to market the acreage. The company took its name from the Greenbrier River on which the grant lay, the area involved being the first lateral river bank beyond the Alleghenies. Eventually the Greenbrier Company became a satellite of a much larger speculation created by Robinson and his friends.

When the Ohio Company was about to receive its charter by means of pressure from London, Speaker Robinson and his legislative cronies decided to organize a still more ambitious scheme. Called the Loyal Company, it was launched and received both council approval and the governor's sanction without trouble. The grant was for 800,000 acres along the western frontier of Virginia. In terms of present geography, most of the Ohio Company patent fell in West Virginia, as well as a part of western Pennsylvania; while the Loyal Company patent fell mainly in what is now Kentucky.

The Loyal Company was backed by the newer aristocrats from the Piedmont. The more prominent were Peter Jefferson, father of Thomas Jefferson and the wealthiest squire in Albemarle County; Dr. Thomas Walker, a practicing physician and surgeon without medical degree; John Lewis, whose family enters prominently in Revolutionary annals; five Merriwethers, who were related by blood to almost anyone of importance in western Virginia; Francis Thornton; and Edmund Pendleton. Most of these men were members of the council or assembly. Pendleton was the front man for the John Robinson interests, Lewis represented the Shenandoah Valley and the others were mainly from Albemarle County. The older aristocrats were not completely excluded: for example, Francis Thornton and Thomas Nelson were members of both the Loyal Company and the Ohio Company. In general, however, there was a clear line separating the two competing cliques.

In contrast to the Ohio Company patent, the Loyal Company was not required to settle any families. The grant was made solely as a speculation and, put simply, was a present that the leaders of the legislature, with the governor participating, made to themselves. This elicited a complaint to the Crown from George Mercer, representing the Ohio Company in London. Listing the various land patents to the dominant political faction in the Virginia legislature, he wrote, "No less than 1,350,000 acres of land were granted by the governor and council to borrowed names and private land-mongers who were incapable of making effectual settlements...." The complaint was true but had no ring of pure silver, for it was the whine of one group of hungry speculators preempted by another.

Dr. Thomas Walker, the heart and brains of the Loyal Company, deserves special notice. Agent of the Loyal Company for some forty-one years, Dr. Walker had his finger in every official land activity in Virginia during the second half of the eighteenth century. Like similar top Virginians, a dazzling marriage inaugurated his career. It was to Mildred Thornton, widow of Nicholas Merriwether, whereby he acquired the Castle Hill estate, some 11,000 acres in Albemarle County. Mildred Thornton was also a cousin to George Washington and, though Walker and Washington were antagonists in the feud between the Ohio Company and the Loyal Company, they were partners in other projects, such as the Great Dismal Swamp venture. Walker was also the bosom friend and neighbor of Peter Jefferson, and became guardian of Thomas Jefferson after his father's early death. Through the force of his personality and a web of family ties, Walker's faction dominated the land grants of the Virginia council for decades. Dr. Walker also had that charming ability to siphon personal interest into official appointments, a characteristic of great success everywhere. It was due to his Machiavellian hand that the Loyal Company succeeded where the Ohio Company failed.

The French and Indian War suspended development plans and in 1763 the Virginia council, under direct orders from London, notified company officials that the Loyal Company patent was not to be renewed, because of the proclamation forbidding settlement west of the Alleghenies. The reaction of company shareholders was not what might be thought from loyal colonists, for Walker and his associates of the Loyal Company went ahead in open violation of the proclamation. Going one step further, the company, in 1766, assured of the support of William and Thomas Nelson of the council and, it would seem, the governor himself, urged all who had quitted their claims during the war to return to them on pain of forfeiture -- an entirely illegal action.

By winking an eye the Virginia government could overlook those subrosa actions, but the Crown still stood in the way. The difficult solution to this problem would be to move the boundary farther west by treaty agreement with the Indians. It would seem that only a miracle could achieve such an aim in view of the 1763 Proclamation, but Dr. Walker set to work.

The first step was to be sure that Virginia commissioners at Indian treaties involving land changes would go along. The Virginia legislature dutifully chose two men to represent the colony at such treaties: Colonal Andrew Lewis, son of John Lewis and head of the Greenbrier Company, and Dr. Thomas Walker, head of the Loyal Company! Like Dinwiddie and Washington representing both government policy and their own pocketbooks as shareholders in the Ohio Company, Lewis and Walker could now proceed with unclouded vision.

After the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768, which established the boundary lines to the north of Virginia, Lord Shelburne in London was anxious to settle the entire western frontier in order to avoid Indian wars. He ordered John Stuart, superintendent of Indian affairs for the southern department, to fix the frontier to the south. Lewis and Walker, the Virginia commissioners, wanted to move the boundary as far west as possible in order to make legitimate the claims of the Greenbrier and Loyal companies. John Stuart, however, agreed with the Cherokee chiefs that the line of the boundary should run to the mouth of the Great Kanawha River in what is now West Virginia, rather than farther west to the Ohio River alongside what we now call Kentucky. The Virginia commissioners worked through their political friends and the House of Burgesses passed a request that Stuart move the boundary to the Ohio River. The royal governor, however, had no choice but to back the superintendent of Indian affairs and, with the reluctant signatures of Lewis and Walker appended, the Treaty of Lochabar, South Carolina, in 1770, established the line at the Great Kanawha.

Then an odd thing happened. By agreement with the Cherokee chiefs, for "a promise of =A3500 that was never paid," the line was moved west to the Ohio River after treaty signing. It was obvious that much rum flowed. John Stuart did not object since the change was made with the consent of the Cherokees themselves. It is not difficult to guess who offered the money to the Cherokee chiefs, for the line of the Loyal Company claim now was extended even beyond the original grant.

Dr. Walker, apparently in fear of reversal by the Privy Council, went to work immediately. By December 16, 1773, some 980 surveys were made, on which basis 201,554 acres of land, slightly more than one-quarter of the original grant, were sold. Thomas Walker had succeeded, unlike the Ohio Company shareholders, in thwarting the declared policy of the British Crown. This was due to his close contacts with the Virginia legislature, many of whose members had a personal interest in his success. Indeed, the Virginia council was so subservient to Walker that when settlers established themselves on land that the Loyal Company no longer owned, after the revocation of the patent in 1763, the sheriff was ordered to remove the offenders unless they purchased their land from the company. In effect, settlers who by Virginia law had a preemptive right to fifty acres, were forced to buy land they had already improved from a company whose charter had lapsed. This would have been impossible, the evidence indicates, if it were not for the fact that Governor Dunmore in Virginia and William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth in England (who had succeeded to the office of colonial secretary) both were personally involved in the speculation.

It almost goes without saying that Dr. Thomas Walker in 1775 represented Albemarle County in the Virginia assembly as a member of the Revolutionary Convention. Patriotism and land thirst were blood brothers in the Virginia planter aristocracy.