4/19/13 - land fever in america

In today's selection -- in the years before the American Revolution, the population growth of the colonies was virtually exploding. British and colonial authorities could scarcely comprehend the meaning of the huge increase of people in search of land -- much less their mobility and restlessness. That growth brought unprecedented disruption, but it also brought many colonials unprecedented wealth through land speculation -- the "land fever" of the day being much like today's internet investing. Notably, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and other key Revolutionary figures were involved in "some of the most grandiose land schemes in modern history." But then the British intervened, placing a firm western boundary beyond which colonials were not allowed to purchase land -- because of a morass of issues including Indian rebellions, land ownership disputes, and a general desire to reserve the lands. That prohibition was one of the key items which, along with debtor issues, religious divisions, and -- famously -- taxation, caused the colonists to erupt into Revolution:

"In the middle decades of the eighteenth century ... the population of the North American colonies was ... virtually exploding -- and had been doing so almost since the beginning of the settlements. Indeed, the North American colonists continued to multiply more rapidly than any other people in the Western world. Between 1750 and 1770 they doubled in number, from 1 million to more than 2 million, and thereby became an even more important part of the British world. In 1700 the American population had been only one twentieth of the British and Irish populations combined; by 1770 it was nearly one fifth, and such farsighted colonists as Benjamin Franklin were predicting that sooner or later the center of the British Empire would shift to America. ...

"For nearly a century and a half the colonists had been confined to a several-hundred-mile-wide strip of territory along the Atlantic coast. But in the middle decades of the eighteenth century, the pressures of increasing population density began to be felt. Over-cultivated soil in the East was becoming depleted. Particularly in the Chesapeake areas the number of tenants was visibly growing. Older towns now seemed overcrowded, especially in New England, and young men coming of age could no longer count on obtaining pieces of land as their fathers had done. ...

"With the defeat of the French [in 1763], people set out in all directions, eager to take advantage of the newly acquired land in the interior. In 1759 speculators and settlers moved into the area around Lake Champlain and westward along the Mohawk River into central New York. Between 1749 and 1771, New York's population grew from 73,348 to 168,007. ... North Carolina increased its population sixfold between 1750 and 1775 to become the fourth-largest colony. ... By the early 1760s hunters and explorers such as Daniel Boone began opening up paths westward through the Appalachians. Settlers soon followed. ...

"British and colonial authorities could scarcely comprehend the meaning of this enormous explosion of people in search of land. The colonists, one astonished official observed, were moving 'as their avidity and restlessness incite them. They acquire no attachment to place: but wandering about seems engrafted in their nature; and it is a weakness incident to it that they should forever imagine the lands further off are still better than those upon which they are already settled.' Land fever infected all levels of society. While Ezra Stiles, a minister in Newport, Rhode Island, and later the president of Yale University, bought and sold small shares in places all over New England and in Pennsylvania and New York, more influential figures like Benjamin Franklin were concocting huge speculative schemes in the vast unsettled lands of the West. ...

"[After an Indian rebellion in the Ohio Valley in 1763, a British] demarcation line along the Appalachians that closed the West to white settlers was hastily and crudely drawn. ... [The accompanying] new [Indian] trading regulations and sites were widely ignored and created more chaos in the Indian trade than had existed earlier. So confusing was the situation in the West that the British government could never convince the various contending interests that the proclamation was anything more than, in the words of George Washington, who had speculative interests in western lands, 'a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians.' Scores of land speculators and lobbyists pressured the unsteady British governments to negotiate a series of Indian treaties shifting the line of settlement westward. But each modification only whetted the appetites of the land speculators and led to some of the most grandiose land schemes in modern history.

"In [a new act,] the Quebec Act of 1774, the British government finally tried to steady its dizzy western policy. This act transferred to the province of Quebec the land and control of the Indian trade in the huge area between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and allowed Quebec's French inhabitants French law and Roman Catholicism. As enlightened as this act was toward the French Canadians, it managed to anger all American interests -- speculators, settlers, and traders alike."


Gordon S. Wood


The American Revolution


Modern Library


Copyright 2002 by Gordon S. Wood


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