Monday, September 7, 2009

Land Speculation and Lawlessness

This past July I presented some of my recent research on the history of the Lower Scioto Valley at an international conference, hosted by Dr. Matthew Ward at the University of Dundee in Scotland. The Conference was entitled, “From Borderland to Backcountry: Frontier Communities in Comparative Perspective” and the title of my talk was “Land Speculation, Lawlessness, and the Establishment of Seats of Government in Ohio’s Scioto Country, 1783-1807.” The conference captured the renaissance of international scholarly interest in Ohio Valley frontier history and brought together scholars from as far away as South Africa, Australia, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, including three other historians from state universities in Ohio (Cleveland State, Kent State, and Ohio State).

I’d like to thank Tim Scheurer, Dean of Arts & Sciences, and Shawnee State University’s Faculty Enrichment Fund Committee for funding the research and presentation. Martin McCallister of the Natural Areas and Preserves Division of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources also deserves special thanks for facilitating a “research” hike to Raven Rock.

Below is the introduction to my talk; excerpts from the paper will follow in future posts.


Land Speculation and Lawlessness on the North American Frontier

In the 1780s and 1790s, in the newly independent United States of America, Virginians possessed long-standing, as well as newly awarded land bounties, issued at various times as compensation for colonial or revolutionary era military service. Virginians looked to the Scioto Valey in south-central Ohio as their Promised Land, where their family’s fortunes were to be made and their independence and liberties secured. Many obstacles, however, stood in their way. First and foremost, the determination of the Shawnee (and other Ohio Indians) to maintain possession of their lands north and west of the Ohio river posed the most immediate hindrance to the designs of Virginia veterans and other land speculators who sought their fortunes in the Scioto Valley.

Only the extinguishment of Indian land claims to the region would allow for the legal (though not necessarily orderly) survey, sale, and settlement of the region. In frontier regions, where new administrative boundaries were being run and seats of government located, large land and town speculators, with the backing of yeoman farmers and other urban settlers, sought the powers of local, state, territorial, and national governments to secure their community’s fortunes and forward their own speculative ventures.

Land speculation’s role in the development of the American West has long been a subject of debate amongst historians. The western land jobber has been cited as a primary factor in the inequitable distribution of land, which stifled social mobility and frustrated economic development. The speculator, however, has also had his champions, those who view these businessmen as the main drivers of economic development. Still others have argued that large landowners had their speculative schemes frustrated by liberal federal land policies, which ensured that middling settlers could purchase smaller tracts of land at affordable prices and with generous credit options. Historians have been primarily interested in the speculators’ role in the development or frustration of democratic institutions and their role in the emerging national market economy. Although Woody Holton and others recent work has drawn scholarly attention to the role of Virginian land speculation in the Ohio Valley in generating conflict between Indians, colonists, and British officials, greater attention to the role speculation played in generating episodes of frontier violence and lawlessness is needed. Attention to the relationship between frontier speculative ventures and lawlessness suggests that Indian-settler violence, as well as settler-on-settler violence, sprang from a rapidly growing American population’s pursuit of personal gain, which manifested itself in a thirst for cheap, productive land.

Speculative ventures, large and small, in the Trans-Appalachian West combined with the weakness of governmental authority on the frontier to generate significant lawlessness and violence, and, paradoxically, the same interests in personal gain also led frontier settlers and eastern speculators to seek the powers of government in order to pass laws protecting and promoting their investments. The high stakes nature of frontier land and town speculations, however, meant that local, state, and national authorities found it difficult to always maintain law and order and restrain conflict to the orderly confines of governing institutions.

The Virginia Military District, established in 1784

Thanks to the influence of Virginians in the Confederation Congress, the veterans of Virginia, along with allied land speculators, succeeded first in securing their prior land claims north of the Ohio River through the creation of the Virginia Military District (VMD) in 1784. The cession of Virginia’s larger land claims in the region and the federally guaranteed reservation of millions of acres of lands in an Ohio VMD unleashed the speculation of thousands of Virginians and generated a new round of lawlessness and disorder. Virginians and their allies would go on to harness the powers of the new federal government to officially extinguish Indian land claims in the region. Federal troops with the assistance of frontier state militia forces defeated the Shawnee and other Indian nations, forcing, at the barrel of a gun, the cession of their lands in southern Ohio. It was then, in the 1790s, that speculation-related struggles over new administrative boundary lines and seats of government began to generate still another stage of lawlessness and disorder in frontier Ohio.

Although lawlessness and violence are found in all societies and eras of history, scholars studying the development of the United States have long cited lawlessness and its offspring – violence – as a central characteristic of frontier life. Indeed, a central part of the telling of the story of western settlement has been the violent struggle to establish the supremacy of law and the authority of civil government.

Nathaniel Massie, Pioneer Land Speculator

Let us start with Nathaniel Massie, the largest land and town speculator in the Virginia Military District. The VMD had been promised to Virginians who had fought in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Virginians had signed up and fought against the British and their Indian allies for various reasons, but one of these was in order to establish land speculations on lands that were still controlled by Ohio Indian nations. Through their representatives, Virginians agreed to give up much of their larger claim to lands in the trans-Appalachian West in exchange for clear titles to claims in the Scioto Country. And they did this at a time when the Indians of the region had not yet ceded these lands to the new United States of America.

Nathaniel Massie (1763-1813)

In 1783, at the age of nineteen, Nathaniel Massie set off for Kentucky in search of his fortune. With the assistance of his influential father -- a large slave and plantation owner, Anglican vestryman, captain of the militia, and a Justice of the Peace in Goochland County, Virginia – Massie would eventually secure a clerk’s position in the office of Gen. Richard C. Anderson, the Surveyor-General for Virginia military lands in the Appalachian west. Operating out of the Louisville, Kentucky area, Massie would soon join in the surveying of Virginian lands in the Scioto Valley.

After the 1784 cession, but before the new American government had established peace treaties and land cessions with the Indian nations of Ohio, squatters from Virginia and other eastern states began settling on the northern side of the Ohio River, at the mouths of the various tributaries of the Ohio River. Federal troops were dispatched to ward off the squatters and burn down any of their buildings in an effort to secure peace negotiations with the Shawnee, who still inhabited and claimed the Scioto country as theirs. In 1785, American Indian Commissioners threatened a handful of Shawnee leaders with the “destruction of your women and children” if they would not sign a treaty extinguishing Shawnee land claims in southern Ohio. Moluntha, an aged civil chief, prevailed upon his fellow Shawnee to accept the treaty; in fear of their destruction, they signed what became known as the Treaty of Ft. Finney. Colin Calloway has written that many of the Shawnee “who did not attend the conference were outraged by the terms, scorned those who accepted them, and repudiated the treaty.” A year later, in 1786, after what Americans considered Shawnee violations of the treaty, a militia force from Kentucky crossed the Ohio destroyed Shawnee villages and killed the peaceful Shawnee leader Moluntha. Then, the following year, in June of 1787, acting on intelligence that pointed to an impending Indian raid into Kentucky, three hundred Kentuckians, under the command of Col. Robert Todd, invaded the Scioto Country in search of marauding bands of Shawnee warriors. Todd’s forces briefly engaged a group of Indian warriors on Paint Creek, leading many Indians to evacuate the larger Lower Scioto Valley.

Indian resistance to the American settlement of southern Ohio continued; the Ft. Finney peace treaty lay in Moluntha’s grave and a state of war now largely existed between the United States and an alliance of Indians nations who no longer or who had never recognized the legitimacy of the Ohio land cession treaties.

In the wake of Todd’s Campaign, the first official land surveys in the Virginia Military District were completed in the late summer and fall of 1787. At this time, it appears that Massie conducted his first surveys at the confluence of Paint Creek and the Scioto River, the future site of his greatest town-speculation, the city of Chillicothe. In July 1788 Congress suspended the surveying of the VMD over the objections of Virginia’s congressional delegation. The suspension had the backing of New England and New Jersey land speculators, who had invested capital in lands on either side of the VMD – the Symmes Purchase area centered around Cincinnati in the west and the Ohio Associates’ Purchase centered around Marietta in the east. The surveying and sale of lands in the VMD undermined the financial interests of those speculators involved with Symmes and the Ohio Associates, as well as the new Federal Government, which sought much needed revenue in the sale of Western lands.

After three years, the surveying suspension was lifted in August 1790. The surveying activities of the Virginians, along with other encroachments on to lands claimed by Ohio Indian nations, would then become the primary cause of Indian attacks on American surveyors and settlers in the late 1780s and early 1790s. The Indian raids involved extreme physical violence, hostage taking, and horse thefts, which, in turn, generated a series of military operations against the Indian inhabitants of the larger Ohio Country.

View from Raven Rock, Scioto County, Ohio (June 2009)

In March 1790, four months before Congress re-opened the VMD, a band of Shawnee and Cherokee warriors set up camp near the mouth of the Scioto River. From their lookout atop Raven Rock on the West Side of the Scioto’s mouth, the warriors could look up and down the Ohio River for a dozen miles. The vantage point gave the Indian warriors time to set up ambushes at the confluence of the Scioto and Ohio Rivers. Much property was taken and numerous men, women, and children were killed or taken captive (some accounts place the number over 100).

In response to these and other “provocations” in the larger Northwest Territory, the Washington administration would order federal military operations against the Indians of the Northwest Territory in the 1790s. The first major campaign launched against the Ohio Indians by the new federal government was aimed at eliminating the Indian threat in the Scioto Valley and at its mouth, to ensure the safety of American settlers headed to Ohio and Kentucky and beyond, down into the Mississippi Valley. In April 1790, in a largely forgotten campaign, Secretary of War Henry Knox authorized a military operation against the Indians at the mouth of the Scioto. Led by Gen. Josiah Harmar, the first Federal campaign into the Scioto Country did not lead to any great victory or defeat. By the time US forces arrived in the Scioto Valley, the Indian warriors had abandoned their position and retreated from the area.

Attacks at the Mouth of the Scioto appear to have stopped following Harmar’s Scioto Campaign, thus clearing the way for Virginia surveyors and speculators to enter the VMD. In April 1791, a group of immigrants, drawn largely from Kentucky, established the first American settlement in the VMD. The settlement, planned and organized by Nathaniel Massie, originally entailed a stockade and was known as Massie’s Station. Under what they believed to be the constant threat of Indian attack, Massie and his associates launched clandestine surveying parties deep into the Scioto Valley. As more settlers arrived, Massie would survey lots and plat a town; nearby lands would be cleared for farming. Massie’s Station would become the town of Manchester.

While Massie and his assistants surveyed the VMD, a confederation of Indian nations fought a series of battles with the forces of the US Army and regional state militiamen. The culmination of this fighting came in 1794 at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, where American forces under the command of General Anthony Wayne defeated the Indian alliance. Many of the future settlers of the Scioto Country saw service in these campaigns and when the peace had been secured they and thousands of others from Virginia and other eastern states descended upon the Scioto Valley like a host of locusts.

Some Virginians, however couldn’t wait for the treaty to be negotiated and signed. In their minds, after Fallen Timbers, all that was left undone was the legal rigmarole of a peace treaty council. Much of the best lands in the VMD had not yet been surveyed. Future town sites had not yet been platted. During the lengthy council, which was held at Ft. Greenville in western Ohio, all sides in the conflict had proclaimed a truce. The peace process, however, was nearly derailed when Virginian surveyors led by Nathaniel Massie violated this truce.


  1. Hey Prof, do you Know of any of the early surveyors with the initials; either "GHB" or "GBH"?

  2. Very nice blog! I came across this through Andrew Gibson's page. I've always been interested in surveying, especially after I took a map reading course. My girlfriend's old house in KY has a deed made up of all meets and bounds. Thanks for sharing!