The Pine Barrens Speculation and Yazoo Land Fraud
Until 1803 Georgia distributed land based on the "headright" system. Each head of family had the "right" to 200 acres of land for himself and 50 acres of land for each member of his family, up to 1000 acres. After the Revolutionary War a number of governors signed land grants of significantly greater amounts than the law allowed. These grants, most of which were signed by Governors George Walton, George Mathews, George Handley, Edward Telfair and Jared Irwin, served to fuel land speculation that would briefly put Georgia in the national spotlight. Governor Mathews granted a million and a half acres to a single man. In Montgomery County Richmond Dawson received grants of 987,000 acres, James Shorter received grants of 1,219,000 acres and Micajah Vassar received grants of 458,000 acres of land. These grants alone totaled 2,664,000 acres of land in a county with an area of only 407,680 acres of land. By the end of his term outstanding land grants totaled three times the amount of land available in Georgia.
In the early 1790's lands "rich in hickory and oak with streams..." were sold to investors caught up in the intense land speculation fever sweeping the country. From the descriptions the land would be suitable for farming. Actually the land was a pine barren that covered 4 counties. The Pine Barren Scandal was quickly overshadowed in 1795 by the Yazoo speculative land fraud. The Yazoo Land Fraud and the Pine Barren Speculation are two episodes of Georgia history that are not only frequently misunderstood but often merged.
The Yazoo Land Fraud began in 1785 with the organization of the Combined Society and the creation of Bourbon County Georgia. The Combined Society was a secret society those only purpose was "By means of certain influences brought to bear upon those in authority to obtain from the State(Georgia) large grants of land, either for immigration or for sale, in either case for the end of making a large sum of money out of the transaction". Bourbon County Georgia was located on the Mississippi and included the site of the future city of Natchez. Georgia appointed civil and judicial officers for Bourbon County but repealed the Bourbon County Act in 1788. The Combined Society faded away but the evil lingered on.
In 1789 three companies, The South Carolina Yazoo Company, The Virginia Yazoo Company, and the Tennessee Company formed to buy land from the Georgia Assembly. On the 21st of December 1789 Governor Telfair signed into law a bill selling 20,000,000 acres of land to the Yazoo Companies for $207,000. The deal fell through when the companies tried to pay in old, and in some cases worthless, currency. The Virginia Yazoo Company was headed by Patrick, if you can't give me liberty or death at least give me a big chunk of graft, Henry.
In 1794 four new Yazoo companies, the Georgia Company, the Georgia-Mississippi Company, the Upper Mississippi Company, and the Tennessee Company bribed and intimidated a bill through the assembly that sold them more than twice the amount of land for $500,000. It passed the house 19 to 9 on January 2, 1795, and the Senate 10 to 8 the following day and was signed into law by Governor Mathews on January 7, 1795. A bid of $800,000 with a $40,000 deposit in hard money by the Georgia Union Company was ignored. U. S. Senator James Gunn was a major stockholder in the companies, as were a number of Georgia legislators.
Public outcry at the bill and the methods used to pass it resulted in a major upheaval in Georgia politics. Later that year the electorate expressed its' dissatisfaction by voting most of the bill's supporters out of office. Reformers, led by U.S. Senator James Jackson, took office and the Act was rescinded on February 18, 1796. According to some sources he vowed to repeal Yazoo if it cost him his life and was prepared to call out and shoot every person involved in passing the act. All records of the bill and resulting sales except the one sent to President Washington were collected in front of the State Capital (then in Louisville) on February 21, 1796 and consumed by Holy Fire from Heaven summoned with the aid of a magnifying glass.
The state refunded
the money paid for the land, but some of the land had been resold to people
who refused the
money, preferring the land instead. The state did not recognize the claims
and the matter ended up in court. The United States accepted the transfer
of the Yazoo Land Fraud claims along with the cession of Georgia's western
claims in 1802. In 1810 the U.S Supreme Court struck down the reform act
as unconstitutional(Fletcher vs. Peck), ruling the state had infringed on
a valid contract.
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