TNGenWeb Project

By Daniel Byron Dovenbarger, ©

{ Page 65 }



The difficulties encountered while investigating speculation in what was to become Tennessee are immense. Not only are the records fragmentary, but there is the difficulty that the men involved in speculation were wise enough to keep few incriminating documents. Nevertheless, given the body of information inherited from that period, one suspects that speculative methods of the early surveyors can be detected and understood. Examining the material available will give an indication of whether the laws passed by the legislature of North Carolina were obeyed.

First of all, let us attempt to see who owned now much land. Since North Carolina's laws regulated this, it is one of the first aspects to examine for observance of the laws. To estimate the number of acres the early settlers and landholders in Middle Tennessee acquired from the State of North Carolina it is necessary to investigate the land grants issued. Selecting which men to examine is a problem. For the purpose of this study, it was assumed that the men most worthy of examination were the surveyors listed, or the names of the men for whom they worked. These were the men who worked with the laws examined earlier.

Unfortunately, no complete list of such men is available. The long lists of grantees do not indicate the men who were surveyors. The knowledge needed to compile such a list is unobtainable, for the men mentioned as surveyors in the records are only those men who were or became well-known for other reasons. Basing a study upon the men's names who are frequently mentioned as surveyors would be a biased study examining the land practices of the well-to-do and famous. These men were from such families as the Blounts, Donelsons, Robertsons, and the Bledsoes. The names of additional, less-well-known surveyors can be obtained from looking at the warrants, which bore the name of the surveyor executing them, but here the problem is not solved because many of the warrants have been lost, along with the identification of men who were involved with them. The result is that while a researcher might be able to construct an extended list of surveyors by examining all the grants within the collection of the State Library, such a list would still be incomplete and of doubtful utility. Furthermore, once such a list had been constructed, finding subsequent references to the men and the amounts of land they held would be improbable, at best. We can not determine exactly who owned how much land.

Given this situation, the only feasible approach is to examine carefully the personal documents that have been left by the men who were heavily involved in speculation in Tennessee lands. We must be satisfied with the limited position from which we start and make a critical appraisal of the amount and type of speculation that occurred in Tennessee. This method will not enable us to make quantitative judgments of the extent of the practices described but will produce at least a description of the types of practices involving the well-known surveyors, speculators, and the state. This cataloging of speculative practices will provide a useful device for understanding better the history of the period.

An example of this problem encountered when one investigates the land acquisition of the surveyors is found by a careful study of Betty Cartwright's North Carolina Land Grants in Tennessee 1778-1791. This book provides useful lists of grantees under the state of North Carolina within the Tennessee territory. Not surprisingly, however, the only men recognizable as surveyors in this early period of grants are the Bledsoes, Robertsons, and Kasper Mansker. Together with James Mulherrin, these were the men who obtained land grants for their service as surveyors in the earliest settlements of Middle Tennessee.(1)

The military grants in this section of Tennessee were to be numbered consecutively when issued to soldiers. Then, when a warrant was surrendered, another number, the military grant number, was assigned. Since each grant had, therefore, two different numbers, it was supposed to be easy to trace the land each man held and how it had been obtained.(2) Such was rarely the case.

A grant issued to James Hulherrin for 640 acres on grant number 929 in Davidson County, signed and authenticated by the proper state officers on May 18, 1789, might be presumed to be valid and legitimate.(3) No such presumption is warranted, however, because men often obtained grants in the names of men who actually never held title. These were the vagaries of the land situation in Tennessee.

The documents collected at the Tennessee State Library and Archives should be of immense aid in uncovering the history of land speculation in Tennessee and solving some of the problems mentioned. In order to verify most types of land practices, however, it is necessary to trace the history of a tract from its original granting to a period when it was completely alienated again, measured, and recorded. The tracing of such a fine, detailed, history of a piece of land is complicated by two considerations. One is that the researcher must develop some rational means of selecting which piece of property in particular he is willing to investigate. A private individual researches his own land title; the historian must examine a representative portion of land titles. Perhaps a random investigation of a certain number of tracts would allow a quantitative description, but in order to do that, the second problem would also have to be overcome.

The second difficulty facing the researcher is the extent of the records. The Tennessee State Library and Archives has compiled a truly exhaustive collection of documents relating to the land transactions in Tennessee. Unfortunately, even these are fragmentary. Also, since the records are arranged either according to district (in cases of land commissions) or by county, it is difficult to trace backwards the history of a piece of land through the different jurisdictions it may have been under. An example of this is that a piece of land near Clarksville, Tennessee, today in Montgomery County, at different times was part of Tennessee, Sumner, and Davidson counties. In order to trace a particular piece of property, one must know exactly the history of the counties in that area, as well as the nature of the documents kept and stored by the counties that were in control of the title.

Since each county kept its own records, there is a wide variety in what is available to the researcher. Part of the problem might be eliminated if one could refer to plat maps of the land in question, but plat maps are only available for the Ocoee District. Even there the plat maps are of little value, since all they show are the borders of the property surveyed. These plat maps are little sketches drawn in the field, and adequately show streams and other features of the land in question but are of no help to someone trying to establish the location of a particular piece of ground.(4) The collected records of the Commission Docket might be supposed to reveal cases of land fraud, errors, or cheating. The dockets are of little help because all they list are the decisions of the land commission in the cases that came before it. Mere indications of valid or invalid grants do little in the way of testifying to the types of fraud practiced at the time.(5)

The other collections that might be supposed to be of immense value to the researcher in early Tennessee land problems are the enormous collections compiled by Lyman Draper. The Draper collections of manuscripts are a valuable source of Tennessee's history and should contain references to the activities of the surveyors in the area. Instead, a thorough investigation of this material reveals the disappointing fact that only scant reference to anything connected with land business is found. Two documents in the Draper collection of King's Mountain papers are merely receipts of surveyors for pay received. Another document in this collection examines an earlier land problem. In a petition of citizens to the legislature of North Carolina of 1774, the citizens of the western counties asked for relief from the surveyors' oppression. Apparently, the surveyors had been surveying land that was already settled. The new surveys were for purchasers of the land who had not yet taken possession. The petition, in essence, merely urged that pre-emptors' rights be guaranteed by the legislature.(6) As we have seen, this was later done.

Very few secondary land purchases have filtered through the pages giving evidence of what happened to some of the large tracts issued by North Carolina. One such grant was the tract of 25,000 acres issued to General Nathaniel Greene. This tract along the Duck River was later sold to settlers in smaller chunks. One purchaser was John White, who acquired 150 acres of the land for $500.00 to establish the town of Columbia. John Dickey of South Carolina purchased 5,000 acres of the tract at three dollars an acre. Another 5,000 was sold to Major George Doherty, who later was to become a major landowner with William Polk in the counties of Maury, Giles, and Lincoln.(7)

Joseph Martin, who was a surveyor in the Middle District, was made a brigadier general of the militia there in 1787. On July 29, 1789, he was appointed assistant executor of war grants and warrants. As such, he was to play a major part in the land deals affecting Middle Tennessee.

In uncovering such principal men, an interesting fact is revealed. This fact is that many of the men involved with either surveying or speculation were members of families that had intermarried.(8)

Often the practice of intermarriage seemed to stem not only from the fact that these people felt themselves on the same social plane, but that families involved together in business deals and land transactions needed trustworthy friends. Intermarriage, of course, does not imply a tendency for wrongdoing on the part of the families involved, but there are indications that the interrelated families of some of the wealthy surveyors and speculators did tend to keep land deals and practices secret. Some groups so identified are the Bledsoe, Ramsey, Eaton, Montgomery, Shelby, Winchester, Robertson, Blount and Hayes families.(9)

Some of the men who became well known had, by the time they moved to Tennessee, established vast domains of territory in the area. John Sevier, later to become the first governor of the State of Tennessee, had become a local hero at the Battle of King's Mountain during the Revolutionary War. His activities in the emergence of the State of Franklin had also won him popular support. According to one commentary, however, "John Sevier . . . held title to immense tracts in that region Tennessee, and still unsatisfied, continuously grasped for more."(10) This grasping for land was not unusual on the frontier of those times. Indeed, upon occasion it appeared to be a prerequisite for holding public office.

The extant records of the period reveal that major fraud on the part of land speculators evidently was first uncovered in 1796. In that year, Andrew Jackson claimed that during some of his work with land grants in Tennessee, he had discovered violations of the law in John Armstrong's land office. Jackson sent his findings to the Governor of North Carolina, Samuel B. Ashe. A long, secret investigation led to the implication of James Glasgow, secretary of state for twenty years, along with other respected members of the General Assembly. These included William Blount, John Gray Blount, and Thomas Blount, as well as William Tyrell, John Sevier, and Stockley Donelson.(11)

The first person to suffer as a result of Jackson's discovery was James Glasgow. He resigned the position in which he had served "faithfully" for so many years. An indictment was sworn against him charging that he had caused duplicate warrants to be issued, thereby permitting holders to obtain free acreage. The trial was scheduled for Raleigh, North Carolina.

The duplicate warrants might never have been discovered, except for the fact that they covered thousands of acres of land that had been granted to major purchasers. Such massive transactions were hard to overlook, especially when such warranted land was situated in Middle Tennessee, where the land had been set aside for the completion of military warrants. Such fraud was doubly illegal there, since the holders of the duplicate warrants had no right to buy any of the lands reserved for soldiers of the North Carolina Revolutionary Line.(12)

After the trial was set for Raleigh, a plot hatched in East Tennessee indicates how important the issue was to some powerful and important men. Apparently, men affected by the discovery of the fraud and standing to lose from the exposure of the records planned to destroy the documents and land warrants kept in the Comptroller's Office in North Carolina. This plan was no idle threat. The men intended either to steal the documents or burn down the building containing them. One of the men, Phillip Terrell, commissioned his slave to break into the building and remove the records. The plot was unveiled to some authorities in North Carolina. Terrell's slave was caught and, after conviction, hanged.(13) James Glasgow was also convicted and fined 2,000 pounds.(14) He later moved to Tennessee.

During the investigation of this land fraud, the legislature of North Carolina was highly interested in what was happening. Different interests represented in the state had a high stake in the outcome. Both speculators and settlers were represented in the Assembly. During one period, the legislature investigated whether blank warrants had also been issued from Glasgow's office. Such action would have allowed massive illegalities to occur and enormous areas of land to be appropriated by men with no legal right to acquire such amounts. Further questions arose from the fact that Glasgow's office had continual problems accounting for money that should have been collected by his office for land sales. All these questions were raised by the General Assembly before the trial of James Glasgow but were never really answered. Apparently, James Glasgow had powerful allies in the Assembly, because at the resolution of one of the members, who testified to his belief in the innocence of Glasgow, the issues brought up about Glasgow's behavior were expunged from the official record of legislative activities.(15)

The questions raised about James Glasgow's behavior as secretary of state for North Carolina do not really prove that all the charges against him were true. Even though he suffered disgrace and was removed from office, it must be remembered that occasionally powerful forces could move against public officials and cause their downfall without solid cases against them. Still, it is evident that enormous irregularities did occur during Glasgow's tenure. By issuing either duplicate or blank warrants, the secretary may have provided his friends with an easily concealable method of obtaining massive amounts of land for speculation. These charges against him at least indicate the types of fraud that could be practiced.

Other sorts of fraudulent land transactions were exposed in a letter John McIver wrote to John Steele of North Carolina from Knoxville in October of 1812. McIver was searching for evidence to prove where General Martin Armstrong (brother of John Armstrong, who was running the land office) was in September of 1795. If Armstrong was in North Carolina at that time, then a deed concluded in Knoxville on September 12, 1795 was a forgery or antedated. John McIver already had suspicion that such was the case and merely needed to validate where Armstrong was at the time.(16) Here is another example of illegal methods in the land business: forgery.

Martin Armstrong, although not as well known as his brother John Armstrong, has been identified as having a large role in the "Glasgow frauds." Evidence seems to show that Martin Armstrong was one of the chief culprits in those frauds.(17)

The web of fraud uncovered in 1796 seemed to involve more people as time passed. Some of the biggest figures in land speculation were the Blounts of North Carolina. This large family develped most of their wealth as merchants. In turning to land speculation they sought to increase not only their wealth substantially, but also their power and prestige. An effort to determine the extent of their complicity with various frauds conducted under the laws of North Carolina meets with frustration because so much of the information needed has been lost. Other information crucial to a determination of the extent of their land deals could only have been obtained from the men they employed. Such evidence is not to be had. The result is that their personal papers are the chief source to indicate their activities and chronicle many of their transactions. Given the information we have, no method can be devised to determine the size of their holdings in Tennessee or the extent of their control of speculation there. As will be seen, however, even the strictest judgment must award the Blount family a unique place in Tennessee history. The Blounts were among the major speculators in the area and shaped a great deal of what occurred. Exploring what we can of their land practices will give a good approximation of the extent to which North Carolina's laws were observed by speculators and the surveyors they employed.

Looking at the John Gray Blount Papers, edited by Alice Keith and William H. Masterson, gives a good grasp of the nature of the land business while Tennessee was being settled. These papers indicate to a great extent the amount to which the Blounts' lives and fortunes were tied up with the transactions they conducted in Tennessee lands.

Apparently in the early period of the land business, efforts to secure the influence of friends was important. In a letter of 1783, William Blount promised John Donelson to remember Stockley and John Donelson whenever there developed an opportunity to appoint new surveyors. In return Blount asked Donelson to locate for him as much land as possible outside of the military district.(18)

As the market opened up for entries, information from the frontier sped back and forth. In a letter of July 5, 1783 to William Blount, Thomas Polk described the prices of land script and how the business in land was going. He then mentioned that he was to get 2,250 pounds for locating 60,000 acres for William Blount.(19) It is not clear whether these lands were in the Tennessee region or not, but this sort of transaction was consistent throughout western North Carolina and what was to become Tennessee.

By September of 1783, further land deals were impending. Then William Blount was informed by John Donelson that an Indian Council was to be held October 12, 1783 at French Lick on the Cumberland River. John Donelson had sent his son Stockley on a mission to see about locating land somewhere in the Tennessee region. Joseph Martin and John Donelson attempted to make a treaty with the Indians for the Great Bend of the Tennessee River. Their largest worry was about Georgia's claims, and not about the fact that private purchases of Indian lands had been forbidden by the North Carolina General Assembly. Technically, the Great Bend of the Tennessee River is outside of the area bounded by North Carolina's claims, but at the time its status was unclear. The deals surrounding that piece of territory were fairly typical of the general pattern of speculation that occurred. Donelson concluded his letter with solicitation of Blount to secure appointments for both of the Donelson sons.(20)

Interesting developments were continuing at this time in the circle of speculators. Much of their effort was directed to securing warrants for the military lands. At one point this is described in a letter from Elijah Robertson to William Blount. It solicited help for Blount in selecting "located lands."(21) William Blount, in a letter to John Donelson, Joseph Martin, and John Sevier, dated May 31, 1784, urged the securing of the lands at the Great Bend of the Tennessee, but the letter continued with advice to open warrant claim bids as low as an eighth of a dollar an acre. The men also were told to create fictional names, if necessary, in order to get as much land as possible. All these lands thus claimed were later transferred to Blount. The design was, as Blount said, "to get as much land as possible."(22) Usually, surveyors working for Blount decided what were the best ways to do that. Appointments for Blount's friends were forthcoming; Stockley Donelson became the surveyor for what is now East Tennessee, while John Donelson (the son) got a similar appointment in the Cumberland area.(23)

Although the Donelsons had not originally come from North Carolina, their powerful friends in that state, such as William Blount, enabled them to secure such lucrative posts. The other men who became important were also active as surveyors. Martin Armstrong and Daniel Smith were in charge of the military grant surveys, while the records indicate that James Mulherrin surveyed a great deal of the land for the first warrants in Davidson County. Most of this land was based upon warrants for guard rights or soldiers' service.(24)

In a letter to John Gray Blount from John Strother, a hint of fraudulent land deals is found. Strother urged Blount to purchase specific warrants "blocking" a 7,200 acre parcel on Spring Creek.(25) Presumably this could mean simply buying tracts along the creek in order to deny the interior tracts access to water transportation, but it might also be an identification of "padded" surveys. By allowing "padded" surveys, John Armstrong's land office may have issued more land than was granted to the Blounts. "Padded" surveys contained an acreage beyond what was listed in the warrant for the tract. Once identified, these tracts were purchased by speculators who could sell the excess land and make a large profit.

Joseph Martin, who with John Donelson had schemed the purchase of the Great Bend of the Tennessee from the Indians, was in March, 1785, nominated to become the Indian agent of the area.(26) Meanwhile, other new surveyors in Middle Tennessee became employees of the Blounts. Edward Harris and Griffith Rutherford both worked for the Blounts. Harris was required to procure sufficient certificates for John Gray Blount to redeem some of the locations Harris had surveyed.(27) How these certificates were obtained is not known. Another man, Michael Rogers, had discovered a warrant for 274 acres in his name, but he had been unaware of the transaction. His own language conveys the problem best:

Wake County, Dec 24th 1787 Sir
I saw a Warrant for 274 Acres of Land Allowd. me & Indorsed by me to J. Gray and Thos. Blunt & BY THEM SOLD to Colo. James Roberson on Cumberland I Never Conveyed that Property to any person Neither was it my Hand Writing (I mean the Indorsement) How Ever You Came by it you Can Best tell I Know I Never Sold it & to be Short in the Matter I mean to be paid for it & I shall Expect an Ansr. from you or I Shall Proceed to do myself Justice According to Law I should have Done it long ago had it not been for the Acquaintance I have with your brother Mr. Wm. Blount & the Solicitation of your friend.
I am Sir Your Obt Servant
Mich Rogers(28)

Similar circumstances surrounded the revelation that John Donelson had made entries for 97,000 acres for the Blounts, but there was no record of transfers to the Blounts being made from the people whose names were on the warrants issued.(29)

By 1788, James Robertson was elected from Davidson County to the General Assembly. The records show that for 1787, 165,000 acres were legally owned in the Mero District. Robertson was assessed for a full fifth of that amount.(30) Blount letters indicate that not all methods used to get these quantities of land were legal.

What were some of these methods? In a letter to John Gray Blount, William Blount admitted that he was trying to deceive Wilson Blount in order to partition their common holdings. This deception was the help of John Gray.(31) Writing to Wilson Blount, William Blount informed him that the locator of lands was to get a fifth of the area claimed. He also mentioned that grants for 188,000 acres in 1,000-acre tracts had been filed. They were in the name of Elijah Robertson, but could be transferred to the Blounts after preferred tracts had been chosen. In order to do this the Blounts could consult a plan showing them the major waterways crossing the lands. William also mentioned the various expenses in locating lands. The cost were listed as locator fee (usually in land), entry-taker's fee, secretary's fee, surveyor's fee, grant fee, chain-carriers' fee, and fees for the markers or choppers.(32)

On the other hand, some sense of the magnitude of the profits made in the land business is seen in the fact that William Blount proposed at one point purchasing old warrants at fifty shillings per one hundred acres and then selling the same land at ten pounds per one hundred acres, payable in cash.(33)

At about this same time a Blount associate, John Armstrong, was having his first trouble from his entry-taking days. He had been served a writ demanding payment of funds due the state from the land office. Unfortunately, Armstrong did not have the money. He begged the Blounts' help, since he had lost the money by "indulging" them. In order to protect himself, Armstrong had to launch a suit against the Blounts. Armstrong asked the Blounts to use their political power to ease his difficulties.(34)

A friend of the Blount family outside of North Carolina acted as an intelligence agent in planning strategy for land sales. Hugh Williamson, a North Carolina representative in New York, wrote to the Blounts about the cessation of Indian hostilities. Williamson foresaw a corresponding jump in land prices, and commented that many members of Congress held large tracts of land affected by the latest treaties. An opportunity for great profit existed, Williamson advised, if Blounts' land outside the treaty area was traded for something closer to Nashville.(35)

Other reports on the land business came to the Blounts from the frontier areas. James Robertson informed John Gray Blount that a law was needed allowing the division of General Morris' tract of land. In such circumstances, Robertson promised to survey selected, choice parts of the tract for the Blounts. Robertson also recommended Robert Hayes as a possible replacement for Daniel Smith, should Smith resign.(36) Letters of this type give a good indication of what operations were being conducted as North Carolina was ceding its western lands.

As can already be seen, the Blounts were heavily involved in speculation in Tennessee lands. While a summary of the land to which they actually obtained title is impossible to construct, the amounts they talk quite casually about in their correspondence can shock the uninitiated researcher. In a list of work done for the Blounts by William Polk, it is discovered that Polk had surveyed 141,000 acres of land. Polk did this and then listed the warrant numbers for each of the tracts involved. Presumably this list was an inventory of what Polk had done in order for him to be paid.(37) What is surprising, perhaps, is that Polk was merely one of many surveyors employed by the Blounts.

As time went by and the information of the investigation of James Glasgow became public, the Blounts found themselves wrapped up in the scandal. In a letter of May 17, 1798, Thomas Blount wrote to John Gray Blount and protested that he was innocent of any wrongdoing in connection with Glasgow. Thomas Blount wondered if any of the surveyors in the Blounts' employ were connected with Glasgow. Unfortunately, he continued the letter to proclaim that he did not know enough of the land business to understand or form an opinion on the fraud.(38) This letter serves chiefly as evidence that the Blounts considered themselves not guilty of Glasgow's practices. Even so, this private letter shows Thomas to be a bit naive, for both brothers were heavily involved in acquiring land during the period in question, and this left them open to charges of widespread illegalities.

Samuel B. Ashe, as governor, followed a policy of working diligently to punish speculators and inhibit their illegal actions. Although he had been friends with the Blounts, his allegiance to the laws and goals of the state often brought his plans into conflict with the Blount fortunes.(39)

An example of the practices Governor Ashe investigated is found in a question he put to the North Carolina Supreme Court in February, 1796. Ashe wondered if grants were legal where only one outside boundary had been described covering a whole block of grants of smaller acreage. Each of the smaller grants would not be delineated by the surveyor but would be described only by the number of acres it contained. An example might be a block of 20,000 acres surveyed together, with twenty individual grants of one thousand acres said to be within the limits of the grant surveyed. What could easily develop from this practice was the surveying practice already mentioned: padding. Here the surveyor only had to certify a certain number of acres to be within a grant, when in actuality there would be a great deal more. By not delineating each separate grant, this possibility was increased. Usually when padding was done, as mentioned earlier, a surveyor would be working with a speculator who purchased the described grants and sold off the extra acres.

The Court of North Carolina resolved the question and advised the governor to declare all such grants illegal and void.(40) By the time Governor Ashe had raised the question, the practice had been in operation for years and much of the land was warranted.

Another instance of fraudulent land activity was charged when Thomas Davidson, entry-taker, was accused of warranting lands that had never been entered.(41) This was followed by a presentment of a Grand Jury of North Carolina against John Armstrong for gross speculation. The presentment called for adherence to the state laws regarding entry-taking.(42) Looking at the land office's past record, however, such admonishment meant little.

Eventually, an indictment against the Blounts was sworn and a trial held in New Bern. This trial caused an immense amount of excitement to the Blounts, chiefly because Thomas was running for public office at the time. The trial may have come about by the intervention of the Blounts themselves. In a memorial to the North Carolina Senate December 16, 1799, Thomas and John Gray Blount complained of the fact that secret commissions in the government had leaked terrible suspicions about the Blounts for two years. The Blounts, looking to clear their names, wanted either to be declared innocent or have the matter fully investigated in public. This memorial was tabled at the time it was offered but may have been reconsidered to initiate the trial for the Blounts.(43)

On May 11, 1800, John Gray Blount, in a letter to his brother, indicated that the "duplicate business" was to be tried in Raleigh during the month of June. The charge against both Blounts was "high crimes and misdeaminors." Again proclaiming his innocence, John Gray asked Willie Blount to discover anything at all that could be used in their defense. John Gray then charged that Stockley Donelson and William Blount were the masters of the subject. Since they were both out of the state, John Gray asked Willie to inquire of Stockley Donelson if he remembered anything relating to getting North Carolina to replace "lost" warrants.(44) The Blounts needed a defense, and they were having a difficult time discovering one, but John Gray would have more time than he anticipated. The trial was not until July and took place at New Bern.

In a return letter from Willie Blount, which has been described as a "public letter" for use in the trial, was a list of military warrants discovered in Knoxville. Willie explained carefully how the books were irregularly kept and how difficult it was to obtain valid information on which lands went to whom. He then explained patiently that in 1793 he obtained plats from Stockley Donelson (who was in prison). According to Donelson, the originals of these plats had been lost and duplicates were needed. Apparently, Willie agreed to get the duplicates, and did, at John Armstrong's office. Willie had gone to the office and filled in blank warrants for land transfers to John Gray and Thomas Blount without ever seeing the originals or knowing that the originals had already been issued as grants.(45) According to this account, the issuing of duplicates was a mistake made, more by accident than not, in order to replace "lost" originals. Willie's story claimed that there was no intention to deceive or defraud anyone. Even on the surface, however, Willie's account lacks credibility.

The Board of Commissioners to investigate fraud listed five cases in which fraudulent transactions stemming from Blounts' land deals had been charged. The first case was when duplicates were issued with the originals going to the Blounts and the duplicates to Donelson or Tyrrell. The second category was where the originals went to James King and the Blounts received the duplicates. A third type was where the Blounts got the originals and duplicates and assigned the duplicates to either Donelson or Tyrrell. Fourthly, a situation existed where Blounts obtained grants on the duplicates and assigned the originals to Stockley Donelson, who obtained grants with them. The last case consisted of Blounts obtaining grants on the duplicates, while Stockley Donelson assigned half of his interest in the originals to others, and then obtained a grant with those to whom he had assigned the original.(46) This Board of Commissioners acknowledged that enterers had not been assigning land to Blounts, nor had Blounts forged the assignment of lands from themselves to others.(47)

Before the trial began, Thomas Blount was working to clear suspicion from his name. Part of this was done by having a letter printed explaining his innocence. This handbill was to be circulated among the voters of his district in an effort to increase his chance of winning the election occurring after the trial. Other efforts were made on a more personal level, such as the letter he wrote to John Haywood in which Thomas adamantly proclaimed his innocence and claimed he would refute all the calumnies that had sprung up against him.(48) On the other side of the case evidence was also being circulated. A handbill chronicled the charges against the Blounts and urged the voters to repudiate such characters. This was found in an election circular merely signed by "An Elector."(49) Many of the charges in the circular were based upon the association of Blounts with Stockley Donelson.

The efforts to defend the Blounts against the charges of fraudulent speculation were augmented by a list of warrants sent by Thomas Blount to John Gray. This list, sent in 1800, may have been used at the trial. The list contained an indication of which warrants had been issued upon duplicate grants.(50)

The trial of Thomas and John Gray Blount was not going to be the trauma that it might have been. The state prosecutor was Blake Baker, a close personal friend and political ally.(51) On July 15, 1800, the Blounts received an acquittal at the close of the trial. By July 25, 1800, the state had refused any attempt to prosecute other cases in the duplicate warrant fraud scheme.(52)

The acquittal of the Blounts was perhaps aided by a man sent from Knoxville. John Hillman came to the trial prepared to testify that the Blounts knew nothing of the duplicate warrant business.(53) Unfortunately, he was never called to testify.

The records of the High Court of North Carolina are interesting in the case against the Blounts. It is hard to understand why there was an acquittal because the counsel for the defense was never heard by the jurors. The release of the Blounts was based entirely upon the nature of the evidence shown before the defense case was presented. There seems to be something slightly mysterious in the rapid resolution of a trial about which there had been so much fervor. The nature of the reasons for the acquittal may never be known, but it could not really have been that the prosecution's case was too weak.(54)

Thomas Blount, after his trial, quickly attempted to make political gains. Another election circular was printed protesting the charges against him and proclaiming his acquittal. It was printed as a handbill and also appeared in the Raleigh Register and North Carolina Weekly Advertiser on August 12, 1800.(55) It did not seem to help him in the next election.

Although the Blounts had been cleared by this trial, they still had other problems to face. The bottom fell out of the speculation market in the later 1790's. Blount fortunes had reached their nadir. Letters between them during this period reflect the frantic struggles they had to make in order to remain solvent. By December 18, 1802, Thomas Blount was indicating to John Gray that he was nearly ruined and very poor.(56) Additionally, the Blounts were in debt to North Carolina for large sums of money.(57) At times, the Blounts would rely upon state funds to carry out some of their speculative activities.(58) Exactly how this was carried out is not known, but John Haywood, a close friend, was treasurer of the state. Sometimes, the debts the Blounts acknowledged were merely indicated to be debts to John Haywood. The extent to which the Blounts relied upon these state funds is unknown.(59) Not surprisingly, when Haywood died in 1827, an audit of the state treasury indicated a large shortage of funds.(60)

Other Blount problems had developed for the brother in Tennessee. On January 25, 1798, five articles of impeachment had been drawn up against William Blount, then serving as a senator from Tennessee. The charges included colluding with the British, inciting the Creek and Cherokee, alienating Indians from the United States, "seducing" an Indian agent into conspiracy, and inciting distrust of the boundaries of the Indian territory.(61) Little of the truthfulness of these charges was ever known; the move to impeach Blount made little headway. A year later the Senate came to the conclusion that a senator was not impeachable.(62)

The Blount land practices are illuminated by understanding that the speculator of the period was caught in a vicious cycle. Especially after the speculative crash of the late 1790's, the Blounts were caught in a squeeze of their financial assets. Not having the cash necessary to purchase land outright prevented them from getting a clear title to many of the tracts for which they had obtained warrants. However, the Blounts could not rid themselves of the land by selling it until they had obtained full title. In the meanwhile, each time the taxes became due on the land being held, the Blounts risked the possibility of losing the land they had worked so hard to obtain by having it sold for the taxes due upon it.(63) One remedy was to have someone like Jonathan Strother, a close associate of the Blounts, attend the tax sales of the land and buy it up to have it later re-assigned to the Blounts.(64)

Some of the letters received by the Blount brothers were complaints about the methods being used in conducting surveys. Jonathan Price wrote to say that in Moore County the grants being issued were on lands for which almost no description was available to let one know where the grant was located.(65) This was against the law.

The internal workings of the Blount land business are somewhat revealed by a letter Thomas Blount wrote to his brother in January, 1794. This letter introduced John Hall to John Gray and asked that Hall be used as an agent for the land business, if John Gray was interested in getting involved. This was based upon expectation that they would be able to sell worthless land at premium prices.(66) The results of this introduction were palapable and interesting. John Hall wrote to John Gray by June, 1794 informing him that Robert Morris had purchased 200 acres of swamp land. Hall was alarmed because Morris was sending a surveyor to examine the land. Morris had purchased the land with the stipulation that it met the description Hall had given it. Hall urged Blount to "prepare the gentlemen's mind or the value of the land would fall precipitously."(67) Later developments showed that Morris refused to complete the transaction for any price.(68) Apparently the surveyor had made an undesirable report on the swamp lands. Morris believed the land needed improvement to the amount of a dollar an acre in order to be cultivated.(69)

Other difficulties surfaced in a letter between William Blount and John Gray. In September, 1795, William related how he had purchased Elijah Robertson's military lands at a cheap rate and now wanted to purchase Donelson's tracts on the Duck River. In order to obtain other lands he urged John Gray to deceive Elijah Robertson by making it appear that Robertson had never returned the surveys to the land office. In order to do this, William encouraged John Gray to bribe the secretary of the land office and "rub out" the names appearing on several land documents.(70)

John Gray Blount had another agent conducting his land sales from Philadelphia. David Allison, located there, sold 244,000 acres of Tennessee land in 1795. Most of it went for seventy cents an acre.(71) He tended to overextend himself. Earlier, in May 1794, Allison reported that an agreement he had entered into called for 500,000 acres of land, but that was more land than he held. Allison instructed the Blounts to purchase 29,000 acres and enter it in Allison's name. This was to be held for the payment of the purchase price. By arranging all of this, Allison was anticipating a profit of 12,000 dollars on a transaction selling land at about a quarter of a dollar an acre.(72)

In a short period, Allison had troubles. He eventually sent money to the Blounts to keep for him. Allison was expecting the government to impound his assets and wanted the Blounts to hold his money and use it to purchase back his lands when they were sold by the government.(73) Part of his disaster was simply caused by the panic of 1797. It was at this time that William Blount was also having his difficulties in Philadelphia and fled after forfeiting bond.(74) As a result of his problems, Allison pledged his undying loyalty to the Blounts for their assistance.(75)

It is hard to determine how powerful the Blounts were. In a list of acquaintances of John Steele, Thomas Blount is nicknamed "Cassius."(76) Presumably this must be an attempt at humor regarding the Blounts' fabled wealth. At one point, though, Allison had sent a request for 250,000 acres of territory lands. Even though these parcels were to be held in Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky as well as the Tennessee territory, some concept of the magnitude of the Blount land business is given by this information.(77) In 1794, evidence in a report of an entry-taker for the Cumberland showed that 313 entries transferred lands to David Allison and 197 transferred lands to John Gray Blount for a total of 326,000 acres.(78) The Blount holdings often grew in such increments.

It must be remembered that while holding all this property and carrying on large land transactions, the Blounts were operating under a law which technically limited the number of acres a person could hold. Richard D. Spaught wrote naively to the Blounts asking whether a person could hold more than one entry under the old state law or whether a single person could own more than five thousand acres in the western territory.(79) Spaught was correct in assuming that legally a person could not hold more than one entry or more than five thousand acres, but he was consulting the wrong people; the Blounts had violated both of these laws with impunity.

Another major figure in land speculation who often worked closely with the Blounts was Stockley Donelson. He has already been mentioned in connection with the Glasgow fraud trials. Under Glasgow, Donelson had been appointed surveyor for all North Carolina lands. According to some sources he was a primary figure in the various land frauds carried out then.(80)

In 1790, Stockley Donelson had helped issue warrants for 97,000 acres for the Blounts. As a surveyor, Donelson had been encouraged to locate lands, not with "haste, but advantage." At this same time, a suit from John Armstrong was pending against the Blounts for funds due the land office. The Blounts stressed to Donelson the need to keep the information regarding the land he was locating for them hushed. This would be facilitated, it was suggested, by starting rumors about the value of western lands in order to bolster speculation.(81)

At other times the Blounts were working hard to urge the government to extend the time for purchasers and locators to register and secure their lands. The frantic actions of the men working for the Blounts are heavily chronicled in the letters from such men as John Armstrong.(82) One almost humorous example of the technique employed is a request by David Allison to John Gray to buy swamp land at six cents an acre and then write a letter to Allison informing him that the land had been purchased for a dollar an acre. Allison would then try to sell the lands at that rate. This was an easy way to make a spectacular profit.(83)

Many efforts of the speculators were geared to raising the price of their lands by selling them to European settlers or speculators. At the time, maps were being published with glorious reviews of the western lands' fertility.(84) One of the agents employed by the Blounts in this business was Hugh Williamson, who has already been mentioned.(85) Williamson worked sporadically to sell lands to European purchasers. Sometimes plans were hatched to bring back pioneers on ships trading in Europe and make profits on both the ship transportation and the land sold to the pioneers once they had reached America.(86) Other agents, however, reported to the Blounts that efforts to sell twenty thousand acres in England had met with total failure.(87)

The nature of the Blounts' hold upon the land they claimed is clarified by the information Gabriel Ragsdale, a surveyor, imparted to the Blounts in 1796. He had tried to raise funds to pay taxes due on lands held by the Blounts but had been unsuccessful. The result was that the lands had already been advertised by the sheriff for sale.(88) The only alternative to losing the land was to pay the taxes immediately.

The Blount transaction of land without the owners' knowledge, mentioned earlier, was not a singular incident. This is indicated by a letter from Joseph Brown to the Blounts. A warrant had been issued in his name without his knowledge. He sought redress.(89)

Additional evidence of land padding practices surfaced in a letter from John Gray Blount to Robert Morris. Apparently Allison sold Morris 100,000 acres of land, but there was more land in the grant than warranted. This was attributed to the negligence of the surveyor, but Morris sold the 100,000 acres and retained the rest.(90)

By 1796, political pressure had resulted in new land laws being instituted in North Carolina. Although Tennessee lands were outside of North Carolina's jurisdictions at the time, it is enlightening to know that John Gray Blount introduced these bills. These laws had clauses beneficial to speculators.(91)

It was in 1796 that Allison was engaging most heavily in the process of "dodging." The land sales he made were not covered by actual acreage held and could not be covered until he obtained cash from the sale.(92) Other agents of the Blounts in northern cities sold swamp land.(93) The Blounts' troubles then were that sheriffs had begun to sell Blount land for nonpayment of taxes.(94) The Blounts, however, fared better than most speculators. David Allison went into bankruptcy in 1797. Two other well-known speculators, Robert Morris and George Nicholson, went to prison.(95)

Agreements were not always honored among the various men in the land business. This is demonstrated in a letter from Joseph Martin to John Gray Blount in 1796. Martin asked for help in settling land obligations. A suit threatened Martin unless he settled an obligation for 5,000 acres with Generals Henderson and Samuel Ramsey. Martin had entrusted certificates paying for the land and 15,000 acres located to Martin Armstrong. Armstrong had made private use of the land and the certificates. Martin now had to obtain land to fulfill his obligation to Henderson and Ramsey.(96)

How the Blounts would help is unclear, since they were partners with both Martin and John Armstrong. Both Armstrongs had been implicated as major culprits in the frauds that occurred.(97)

Part of the effort expended by the Blounts to acquire land dealt with military warrants. The Blounts would purchase up warrants from soldiers who put them on the market. The price of this land was usually low but could be doubled and tripled in resale. The Blounts' strategy at one point was to publish information of the end of the Indian wars in order to encourage immigration.(98) Occasionally, in addition to purchasing military warrants, it appears that land speculators would resort to forgery. In 1798 a commission called for punishment to curtail the flagrant practice of forging assignments. An example of this in relation to the Blounts occurred when Edward Jones informed John Gray Blount that military issued in Jones' name had instead gone to Mr. Reading Blount. Jones sought redress since he had never entered into such a transaction. He was willing to avoid public litigation on the matter.(99)

When the state of North Carolina was trying to investigate the matter of land fraud, some important people were becoming concerned about the issue in Tennessee. At least one plot, already referred to, was developed to destroy incriminating evidence. In March 1800, the General Assembly of Tennessee moved to thwart the investigative efforts of North Carolina before the Blount trials. In a letter to John Armstrong, the Tennessee Assembly informed him that his land-entry books were now the property of Tennessee. These volumes were later seized by Tennessee.(100) Henceforth, Tennessee would retain the records which would shed some light on the land practices carried out under North Carolina laws and surveyors. Unable to proceed in the investigation, Governor Ashe of North Carolina had to explain to his General Assembly why his efforts to obtain the books for an investigation had failed.(101)

The Board of Commissioners, appointed to investigate land frauds, listed types of frauds other than that which they claimed the Blounts committed. Their findings help us understand the speculation of the period. One practice had been to erase the names of a grantee on a warrant and fill in another name. Other grants, as has been mentioned, were simply issued blank in order for the grantee to obtain as much land as he desired. Still other grants issued on both duplicates and originals for different pieces of land.(102) It is not so clear today that the Blounts did not commit these practices. Their own letters tend to indicate that they did.

Other examples of fraud uncovered the part of surveyors in the whole process. It is in such instances that the carefully written laws of North Carolina appeared to be entirely superfluous to the activities of land transactions. In 1786 an example had turned up of a deed offering 300,000 acres for sale for 30,000 dollars. When another survey was carried out, only 133,874 acres were discovered to lie within the boundaries of the tract purchased.(103) Massive deceptions like this were apparently not uncommon. In this instance, the surprise is that there is no record of prosecution for this fraud. The reason was that such frauds often ended in compromise rather than litigation.

The most extreme situation involving such fraud is where a man offered 100,000 acres for sale and actually sold them. The problem was that he had never held title to the 100,000 acres at all.(104) In addition to selling what was not really owned or within a grant, the speculators sometimes colluded, as mentioned earlier, with surveyors to make profits through the practice of padding. The best example thus far uncovered came to light in 1822. A grant to Colonel Archibald Murphy on September 25, 1783 near Clarksville, Tennessee had been issued for 3,210 acres of land. A re-survey in 1822 revealed that the plot contained 7,263 acres. Some writers have attributed this discrepancy to error.(105) While in some circumstances this may have been the case, it more often had to be the deliberate action of the surveyor. The surveyors of that period could be most accurate if they desired to be so, and the provisions of the law provided for having help in order to be accurate. Chain-carriers, markers, and deputies were all provided in order to promote accuracy.

The practice of dodging has also been described as a method of operation for land speculators. In such a situation the land "jobber" would sell land in excess of what he owned to buyers in Europe. He would then use the money he had obtained from the sale to purchase at extremely low rates the land necessary to validate the transaction. Usually, the difference was between a selling price of a dollar an acre in Europe and a purchase price of a few cents an acre by the land jobber.(106)

At this time, the center of speculative activity in America was Philadelphia. Individuals who were holders of large tracts of land for speculation could maintain agents there to promote their land sales. The opposite could be true too. Men living in Philadelphia often hired locators on the distant frontier and operated a speculative empire without ever leaving the comforts of the eastern seaboard. Such practices did a great deal to enhance the possibilities of fraud, villainy, and deceit.(107)

Part of the strength of the speculation being carried on was the result of the stability created by the ratification of the United States Constitution. Confidence in the new government tended to swell land values while encouraging investment in long-range profit-making opportunities.(108) Such speculation carried out in the United States was of a distinct sort. It was fostered by an attitude looking for the rapid turnover of the land purchased. Virtually none of the largest land-holders were interested in keeping large tracts of land.(109) The belief that speculation in land would result in massive profits stemmed from the theory that land values would rise amazingly fast through increased immigration and population growth within the states. Furthermore, the need of the eastern states, like North Carolina, to pay off debts accumulated during the Revolutionary War required a policy of easy land sales. As one writer put it, "private land speculation grew out of public poverty."(110) By the time Tennessee had become a state in the Union, William Priet, a foreigner traveling in the United States, could comment, "Were I to characterize the United States, it would be by the appelation of the land of speculations."(111)

Speculation was not always, however, an easy method of creating a fortune. As seen in the case of the Blounts of North Carolina, problems abounded for the speculators, not the least of which was being constantly in violation of the state laws. One historian has written that although "land speculations have given rise to great fortunes in America, they have also been the cause of total financial ruin and disasterous bankruptcy."(112)

Endnotes, Chapter IV

(1) Edythe Johns Whitley, Davidson County Pioneers (Nashville: n.p., 1965), pp. 4-7. See also Betty Goof Cook Cartwright and Lillian Johnson Gardiner, comps., North Carolina Land Grants in Tennessee 1778-1791 (Memphis: n.p., 1958).
(2) Cartwright, p. iii.

(3) Nashville, Tennessee, Tennessee State Library and Archives, North Carolina Land Grants Collection, Film E-5, p. 6.

(4) Nashville, Tennessee, Tennessee State Library and Archives, Early Land Records Collection, preface.

(5) Nashville, Tennessee, Tennessee State Library and Archives, Early Land Records Collection, Group 5.

(6) Joseph Schafer, Superintendent, Calendar of the Tennessee and King's Mountain Papers of the Lyman Draper Collection of Manuscripts (Madison, Wisconsin: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1929), 9DD29.

(7) R. Douglas Greenlaw, "Outline History of Maury County," Tennessee History Magazine, 3, Series 2(1935):147.

(8) Harriette Louisa Simpson Arnow, Flowering of the Cumberland (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1963), p. 22.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Aaron Morton Sakolski, The Great American Land Bubble (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishing Company, 1932), p. 13.

(11) Alice Barnwell Keith and William H. Masterson, eds., The John Gray Blount Papers, 3 vols. (Durham: Christian Printing Company, 1959), 3:255, n. 57.

(12) Ibid.

(13) Plummer Battle Kemp, "The Trial of James Glasgow and the Supreme Court of North Carolina," North Carolina Booklet 3, No. 1(May, 1903)6-8.
(14) Keith and Masterson, 3:101, n. 196.

(15) Walter Clark, ed., The State Records of North Carolina, 30 vols. (Goldsboro, North Carolina: Nas Brothers, 1886-1914), 18:335, 374.

(16) Henry McGilbert Wagstaff, ed., The Papers of John Steele,, 2 vols. (Raleigh: North Carolina Historical Commission, 1924), 2:673.

(17) Ibid., 2:673, n. 1.

(18) Keith and Masterson, 1:57.

(19) Ibid., 1:68.

(20) Ibid., 1:111-12.

(21) Ibid., 1:448.

(22) Ibid., 1:167-68.

(23) Harriette Louisa Simpson Arnow, Seedtime on the Cumberland (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1960), pp. 326-27.

(24) Ibid., p. 335.

(25) Keith and Masterson, 1:197.

(26) Ibid., 1:65, 195.

(27) Ibid., 1:279.

(28) Ibid., 1:364.

(29) Ibid., 1:464.

(30) Keith and Masterson, 1:430; see also Edward Albright, Early History of Middle Tennessee (Nashville: Branden, 1909), p. 136.

(31) Keith and Masterson, 1:457.

(32) Ibid., 1:455-56.

(33) Keith and Masterson, 2:135-38.

(34) Keith and Masterson, 1:507-8.

(35) Ibid., 1:499-500.

(36) Ibid., 1:506-7.

(37) Ibid., 1:541-2.

(38) Keith and Masterson, 3:225.

(39) Ibid., 3:102, n. 198.

(40) Ibid., 3:101, n. 197.

(41) Keith and Masterson, 2:661-2.

(42) Ibid., 2:654-5.

(43) Keith and Masterson, 3:596-97.

(44) Ibid., 3:377.

(45) Ibid., 3:386-88.

(46) Ibid., 3:595.

(47) Ibid.

(48) Ibid., 3:244, 247.

(49) Ibid., 3:582-85.

(50) Ibid., 3:336-37.

(51) Ibid., 3:398, n. 111.

(52) Ibid., 3:425, n. 154, 72, n. 68.

(53) Ibid., 3:385-86.

(54) Ibid., 3:600-1.

(55) Ibid., 3:599.

(56) Ibid., 3:565.

(57) Ibid., 3:63, n. 126.

(58) Ibid., 3:15-16.

(59) Ibid.

(60) Ibid., 3:15, n. 43.

(61) Ibid., 3:199.

(62) Ibid., 3:189, n. 135, 203, n. 13.

(63) Ibid., 3:xv-xvi.

(64) Ibid.

(65) Keith and Masterson, 2:363.

(66) Ibid., 2:342-3.

(67) Ibid., 2:412.

(68) Ibid., 2:433.

(69) Ibid., 2:496.

(70) Ibid., 2:592-96.

(71) Ibid., 2:499.

(72) Ibid., 2:390-91.

(73) Keith and Masterson, 3:222.

(74) Ibid., 3:770.

(75) Ibid., 3:251.

(76) Wagstaff, 2:860.

(77) Keith and Masterson, 2:474.

(78) Ibid., 2:431-32.

(79) Ibid., 2:427.

(80) Keith and Masterson, 3:87, n. 166.

(81) Keith and Masterson, 2:40-44.

(82) Ibid., 2:104-5.

(83) Ibid., 2:599-600.

(84) Ibid., 2:65, n. 112.

(85) Ibid., 2:278.

(86) Ibid., 2:73-76.

(87) Ibid., 2:80-81.

(88) Keith and Masterson, 3:101-2.

(89) Ibid., 3:207-8.

(90) Ibid., 3:167-68.

(91) Ibid., 3:126, n. 6.

(92) Ibid., 3, n. 97.

(93) Ibid., 3:43, n. 97.

(94) Ibid., 3:66.

(95) Ibid., 3:15, 16, n. 42, 2, n. 4, 7.

(96) Ibid., 3:115.

(97) Ibid., 3:115, n. 243.

(98) Keith and Masterson, 2:535-36.

(99) Keith and Masterson, 3:309.

(100) Ibid., 3:598.

(101) Ibid., 3:591.

(102) Ibid., 3:594, n. 23.

(103) Sakolski, p. 44.

(104) Ibid.

(105) William Henry Hoyt, ed., The Papers of Archibald D. Murphy, 2 vols. (Raleigh: North Carolina Historical Commission, 1914), 1:243.

(106) Sakolski, p. 36.

(107) Ibid., pp. 31-32.

(108) Ibid., pp. 30-31.

(109) Ibid., pp. 31-32.

(110) Ibid.

(111) Ibid., pp. 30-31.

(112) Ibid.

This paper is copyrighted by Daniel Byron Dovenbarger, 1981, 1999. All reproduction rights are reserved. This paper is used here with his kind permission.

This online version was typed by Jo Roe Carpenter and coded in HTML by Fred Smoot.

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