On January 7, 1795, George Mathews – then the governor of Georgia – signed into law a “great cancerous abomination.” With the stroke of a pen, Mathews not only doomed his own political career, but touched off a contentious spark that ultimately resolved itself in the creation of two states, a Supreme Court case, and the cession of all of Georgia’s western domains.
I speak of course of the Yazoo Land Fraud. This update lies a little bit outside the blog’s usual domains – humorous accounts from north Alabama history – and instead ventures into something more macro in scope, the creation of the Mississippi Territory from Georgia’s western claims.
After the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, it soon became apparent that many states claimed large portions of their neighbors; or that overlapping claims to various frontiers threatened to tear apart the tentative cooperation and coherence of the young republic.
Most of the land in the United States during the Revolutionary War and afterwards in 1783 consisted of these aforementioned overlapping claims. For instance, both New Hampshire and New York claimed the modern state of Vermont, and both willingly ceded this land to the federal government – allowing Vermont to enter the union as a state in 1791. However, one state refused to give up its trans-Appalachian territories. A single state saw the sweeping tide of land reform and simply shrugged. *
That state was Georgia.
Georgia complicated matters not just with its mulish insistence that the original colonial charter, a document from 1732 granting Georgia lands all the way to the Pacific Ocean, be honored by the new nation. No, that would be too simple for the 18th century; instead Georgia’s western claims overlapped not just with South Carolina but also the Spanish Empire.
Thus any settlement of these claims prior to the 1796 Treaty of San Lorenzo, which solved the territorial and trade issues between the United States and Spanish America, carried with it no less than the prospect of provocation and potential war with a foreign nation.
Now Georgia, as the spiritual antecedent of the Deep South, acted with the according amounts of diplomacy and restraint on this issue by immediately establishing a short-lived county on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Bourbon county, Georgia, existed from 1785-1788, and served little purpose other than to upset the local Spanish governors and prove a drain on resources. Although the Georgia legislature rescinded Bourbon county’s charter after only three years of settlement; the site eventually became Natchez, the capital of the Mississippi Territory, in 1798. After the failed Bourbon county business other Americans soon took an interest in speculating about Georgia’s western lands.***
In 1789, the Georgia legislature attempted to sell its western territory to various land speculation companies for around $200,000. Unfortunately these companies only possessed the nearly worthless Continental currency circulated by various states during the American Revolution and Georgia only wanted to see that cold hard gold.**
Not until 1795, did Georgian legislators make their third attempt to sell massive amounts of land in exchange for bribes whilst simultaneously setting the stage to spark a border war with Spain. The 1795 sale effectively surrendered most of modern Alabama and Mississippi for about $500,000.00, or about a cent and a half an acre. Although a treaty of friendship between the United States and Spain soon emerged, and the disputed territories ceded to the United States, news of the treachery in Augusta soon trickled down to the rest of the state.
Which is when the entire state of Georgia lost its collective shit.
Upon hearing of the Yazoo Fraud, James Jackson, then serving as a Senator from Georgia – immediately resigned his position in the United States Congress, left Philadelphia, traveled back to Georgia, and got elected a member of the Georgia state legislature running entirely on an anti-Yazoo land sales campaign.
The Yazoo conspirators failed to take into account that 1796 was an election year and after the ink dried on the ballots almost none of them remained in office. The Georgia state legislature, and newly elected governor Jared Irwin, set about righting these tremendous wrongs. They cancelled all the original land sales, and accepted some cash help from the government in paying off the incurred debts.
These efforts culminated in a symbolic burning of every copy of the original act enabling Yazoo land sales. The Yazoo Fraud entered the popular imagination of Georgians young and old, and the heroics of the anti-Yazoo crusaders and associated duplicity of the Yazoo speculators began to grow in scale with every retelling.
Absalom Chappell, in his 1874 text about the history of Georgia, recounts a story about James Jackson, the aforementioned former Senator, burning the first copy of the Yazoo Act “with fire drawn from heaven… by a sun-glass.” Although Chappell’s history tends to rely heavily on dramatic wording, for example his insistence on referring to the Mississippi River as the Father of Floods, there’s a level of ingrained cultural hatred that must be obtained before a popular myth recounts how a man literally used the fires of heaven to destroy a document. This is not mere hyperbole and grandstanding, this is a great example of how much everyone in Georgia hated the Yazoo sales.
Unfortunately, many of the speculators already sold their claims to other buyers. This compounded the problem and resulted in several layers of claimants, many of whom refused to accept a buyback scheme and insisted on Georgia giving up the loot. In an effort to resolve the claims, Georgia ceded much of the land originally contested in the Yazoo fraud to the federal government, which organized the most southern portions of it into the Mississippi Territory.
Of course, not all of the land originally sold to speculators resided inside the newly minted territory, and people sued the state until Georgia completely washed its hands of the affair with the Compact of 1802, an agreement finally delineating the Georgia border and adding the remainder of the former western lands to the Mississippi Territory.
Eventually the Supreme Court handled the matter with the decision of Fletcher v. Peck in 1810, which ruled the 1796 cancellation of Yazoo land sales unconstitutional; thereby setting the precedent that federal courts might strike down state laws.
Had Georgia simply waited another year, or been more open in its speculation process, then the Yazoo Fraud would not have occurred and this blog might have a much dumber name – something like “Wacky West Georgian Tales” springs to mind. Instead, the shortsighted greed of a few not only reshaped Georgia state politics, but effectively birthed both Alabama and Mississippi and laid the conceptual framework for greater federal involvement in local legal processes.
*Although I’ve always been curious how Connecticut intended to enforce its territorial claims to parts of modern day Ohio.
**Fun fact, the Virginia Yazoo Company was headed by Patrick Henry, the “give me liberty or give me death,” guy. Which is kind of nice.
***Funner fact, one of these speculators was James Wilson. Who, to my knowledge, is the only Supreme Court justice to be imprisoned. He failed to pay his debts after getting involved in another land speculation scheme and spent a few years chilling in debtors’ prison, while remaining a justice of the highest court in the land, because the Early Republic was a crazy place.