TNGenWeb Project

By Daniel Byron Dovenbarger, ©

{ Page 104 }



In a relatively short period, the land lying between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers changed from virgin wilderness to the recorded and titled tracts of white settlers. Many a hill and hollow which only had known the occupancy of scattered Indians and wildlife was crossed by surveyors dragging chains and equipment and settlers arriving with their belongings. Between 1780 and the time Tennessee became a state, a most intensive period of measuring, buying, and selling land occurred. The process continued, of course, after this. For Middle Tennessee, however, the first rush of settlers and speculators was over. In the process, laws had been passed to organize the transformation, and these laws were broken. Fortunes had been made, and fortunes had been lost. Men who had been insignificant and poor had become lawmakers, while men like the Blounts retained prestige and power. Somehow the rampant speculation which occurred made all this possible. For a period, speculation grew, creating a new western state and shaping the men who would mold that state's future. Ramifications of the period of Tennessee's speculation carried even beyond the state's borders and influenced the course of the young nation.

The laws North Carolina had established to regulate the distribution and parcelling of the Tennessee lands attempted to control speculation and protect the rights of pre-empting settlers. It is somewhat surprising, then, to realize that violations of those laws made men and their fortunes which were admired and emulated by those very settlers. It now appears impossible to document the extent of the illegalities of the land business, but there is sufficient evidence to show that many illegalities occurred. Men like John Sevier, William Polk, the Blount brothers, Donelsons, and Robertsons--the heroes of early Tennessee--were made by their practices which are at least touched with illegality. The denouncement of the early speculative era in Tennessee's history left many of these men wealthy and in positions of power. This pattern of speculation would re-enact itself during much of the 1800's, but the first speculative period had been the most rapid, and apparently the least controlled by law. The birth of Tennessee, through speculation, had come to a close.

The speculation which followed the ratification of the United States Constitution contracted rapidly after 1795. The collapse of many speculative schemes and the imprisonment of many formerly prominent people had damaged severely the reputation of the speculative trade. Also, contempt for land-jobbers had grown to such proportions that politicians, unlike in the earlier days, began to avoid any connection with the doubtful practices associated with land speculation. This was aided, of course, by the fact that more secure methods of investment were opening.(1) The magic that surrounded the land business in its early days slipped away.

Much of the land that had been obtained for the biggest land dealers was gradually re-appropriated by the states as taxes became due. Other tracts of land became the property of creditors. According to one authority, very few speculators could retain possession of land long enough to complete the long process of piecemeal disposal.(2) In the meanwhile, the speculators made sufficient profit on the land they did manage to sell.

Unlike the aristocratic land holders in Europe, the speculators here did not seek status by holding land.(3) The speculators who had crowded into the market early almost invariably wanted to dispose of their holdings in the shortest possible time, but the extensive plans laid to entice settlers from the Old World to come and raise the price of lands did not meet success. Although migration continued throughout this period, the newcomers were hardly eager to move into a wilderness they neither understood nor were equipped to cultivate.(4)

In offering a final analysis of the situation in North Carolina that affected land speculation and land laws reaching into Tennessee, it is important to understand what sort of men became speculators. Apparently almost any frontiersman could become a speculator if that appealed to him. It helped, too, to have an accommodating morality. Often frontier speculators would be extremely useful to the newly created western communities. They would offer help to the new immigrants and give them substantial aid. New settlers would often turn to these local surveyors to indicate where good land was for a homesite. The result is the understandable image of hero that many of the early speculators and surveyors obtained in the frontier Tennessee communities. These men who acted as speculators made small fortunes, but once created, the fortunes tended to enter other fields of investment. Most often the benefits which speculation brought to the pioneer speculator translated into political and social power. What this study has revealed suggests that a deeper look at the origins of political power in Tennessee is needed. Men such as Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk in a later period grew out of a tradition of speculative wealth turning itself into political action. What impact did this have on such men?

The first type of speculators, described above, came from the pioneer stock of a new region. Often these men were surveyors. This enabled them to slide easily into the business through the work they did with land. There were other types of speculators too. This group often seemed to be more interested in developing new communities than acquiring huge profits. These men were loosely connected with the frontier and bought and sold land rapidly, usually at low profit. Even so, this group prospered.

The most hated group of speculators were those who remained in the east and merely used others to control their lands in the west. These men operated on financial bases from the eastern seaboard and ran huge networks of information to control their land empires. They were hated as schemers who deprived the local populations of cheap land.(5)

The Blounts, who have figured so prominently in this study of Tennessee lands, laws and speculation, were an interesting mixture of the various types of speculators. There at times seemed to be a real element of public service in the way they anticipated the opening and developing of the western territory. On the other hand, as in the case of William Blount, this interest was always offset by their concern for their financial increase. Blount was eager for the governorship of the Territory South of the River Ohio because of his enormous landholdings in the area. He wrote to a friend, John Steele, who helped secure his appointment, "The appointment itself is truly important to me, more so . . . than any other in the Gift of the President . . . my western lands had become so great an object to me that it has become absolutely necessary that I should go to the Western Country to secure them and perhaps my Presence might have enhanced their value."(6)

William Blount's concern for his land was perhaps understandable. His willingness to utilize public office to create substantial personal benefits is less so. Apparently the reason the original cession of North Carolina had been suggested was to avoid taxation based upon land wealth. The cession was rejected by speculators who needed the state laws of the period in order to obtain title to the land. The second and successful cession of the western lands was agreeable only because by then the speculators could see some real benefits to be gained from separation from North Carolina; most of the western land had been granted to them.(7)

For William Blount, his chief hope of the Territorial government was to hold down the taxation on lands he held.(8) For a period after the territory was entitled to an assembly, Blount refused to call one because he feared an increase in taxes might be voted. His fears were logical and well-founded, for when an assembly was finally proclaimed on January 1, 1794, change was coming. After meeting, the assembly did vote a tax increase: double the previous rate.(9)

Other activities which portrayed how employees of the state could use the laws to their advantage can be seen in the disposition of the 200,000-acre tract granted to Henderson and his Transylvania Company. This tract, located in present Claibourne County, was laid out by Stockley Donelson. Apparently Donelson constructed the grant to his own advantage. The lines bounding the property were erratic and carefully skirted some desirable lands in the region. These lands were probably acquired by Donelson or his friends.(10)

After carefully examining the nature of the material left from the days of the land grants, it is clear that no concisely documented statement of the extent of speculation and fraud that occurred can be made. That fraud and illegal actions did occur is no longer in question. The types of practices described in the Blount correspondence give adequate evidence of the practice of fraud. Although both Blounts in North Carolina were acquitted in a trial, it is clear they practiced land business in violation of North Carolina law.(11)

Within Tennessee, the heritage of the land laws and practices continued to make significant changes in the state's history. Theodore Roosevelt probably has provided one of the best analytical statements regarding the situation. "All the settlers in Tennessee, who had any ambition to rise in the world, were absorbed in land speculation . . . They were continually in correspondence with one another about the purchase of land warrants and about laying them out in the best localities."(12) This statement reflects the realities of the early society in Tennessee.

This study has revealed that the laws of North Carolina, while thorough and well intentioned, did not begin to cover the problems encountered in actual land registration and title-making for nearly eight million acres. One author has commented that, "It seems evident that those engaged in land speculation of the frontier used almost any sort of means to obtain title to new lands opened to settlement."(13) When such was the situation, laws promulgated far to the east without any western administration really had little hope of being followed. Practices blatantly illegal were sometimes caught by friends of the speculators before they became public, and deals or compromises were made in order to avoid litigation. It appears, moreover, that for many speculators and surveyors, the laws of North Carolina were of no importance. The men on the frontier and their employers in the east worried mainly about getting title to the lands. The bare requirements necessary to obtain a paper title were often the only regulations followed.

It has been admitted that the laws created a "beautiful system," but it was also well adapted to the land speculators. Loopholes completely voided the intention of the law to limit the number of acres any one person could claim. In addition to the problem of sheer defiance of the law limiting the number of acres held, men practiced forgery, padding, and dodging.(14) One reason this was perhaps less noticed and well documented than might be the case is that since land was so cheap, it was less expensive to ignore illegal activity than it was to prosecute it. All of this was compounded by the fact of the change in jurisdiction from North Carolina to the Territory and later the State of Tennessee. Conflicting parties within each of these units worked to obscure and hinder the investigations done during that time.

The significance of the present study of the land laws and speculation practices of Tennessee lands is that the full extent of speculation that occurred in violation of the law have been examined and documented. Little more can be done with the material left to us. Individual histories of pieces of property can be traced in the records of the Tennessee State Library, but no generalization of the material can now be made on a quantitative basis.

By concluding that no concrete proof documenting the magnitude of speculation is available, this study focuses attention upon the fact that speculation's tracks have been largely covered by the processes of time. The men, such as the Blounts, who engaged in speculation have left little besides their own letters to outline the charges, accusations, and testimonies indicating speculative practices. Private correspondence has proven the best remaining source for learning about speculation in Tennessee lands.

We have seen how the attempt to create order in the registration and entry of lands was frustrated by surveyors and speculators who could and did ignore the law. Many of these men's names and actions have disappeared, along with the wildness that was Tennessee when settlement began. The most important decisions affecting Tennessee were made in the closed conferences of speculators and surveyors and not in the assembly room of the North Carolina legislature. By manipulating the laws to their own need, speculators created fortunes and futures for themselves. Sometimes these fortunes disappeared as quickly as they had materialized; at other times the new positions these men found for themselves offered social and political power. It was while speculators were making fortunes and running into conflict with the land registration and survey laws that Tennessee was transformed from the unmeasured woodland it had been to the fields and farms of new, title-holding settlers.

Endnotes, Chapter V

(1) Aaron Morton Sakolski, The Great American Land Bubble (New York: Harper & Browthers Publishing Company, 1932), p. 53.

(2) Ibid., pp. 52-53.

(3) Ibid., p. 46.

(4) Ibid., p. 49.

(5) Carl S. Driver, John Sevier: Pioneer of the Old Southwest (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1932), P. 61.

(6) Samuel Cole Williams, "The Admission of Tennessee into the Union" (Nashville: The Tennessee Historical Commission, 1945) pp. 6-7. Driver, p. 51.

(7) Williams, pp. 6-7.

(8) Ibid., p. 6.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Samuel Cole Williams, Tennessee During the Revolutionary War (Nashville: The Tennessee Historical Commission, 1944), p. 226.

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

(12) Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West, 2 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1894), 2:360.

(13) Driver, p. 70.

(14) Ibid., p. 65.

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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Chapter II
Chapter III
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