John Nicholson

Signer Robert Morris' business partner, John Nicholson, gets hoodwinked in one of America's first land frauds, purchasing an entire county in Georgia one and a half times over!  An archive of notarized deeds, each bearing a notarization endorsed by Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Mifflin, documenting a complex series of land transactions involving numerous prominent Philadelphians, including Signer James Wilson.

An important archive of 17 large manuscript documents, approximately 65 pages in total, each measuring approximately 21" x 28", being official copies of deeds executed in Pennsylvania between January 26 and September 19, 1795. Obtained at the request of John Nicholson in November of 1795 after purchasing over 600,000 acres of land in Montgomery County, Georgia. Affixed to each copy is a certification signed and in the hand of notary public, Peter Lohra. Affixed to each of the notarizations, is a signed certification from Governor Thomas Mifflin certifying Lohra's qualification as a notary: 17 Partly Printed Documents Signed "Tho Mifflin" as Governor of Pennsylvania, 1 page, 16" x 13", Philadelphia, November 7 & 28, 1795, with four of the documents countersigned by Alexander James Dallas (1759-1817) "A. J. Dallas" as Secretary of the Commonwealth. Expected folds and creases with some separations, together with some marginal losses (most not affecting text), and occasional marginal toning. 

In the early 1790s, a group of speculators, taking advantage of lax regulation of land warrants and surveys in the State of Georgia, began perpetrating what became known as the Pine Barrens Land Fraud. Previously operating in South Carolina, the group bribed county judges and surveyors to issue them warrants for enormous tracts of land in the sparsely-settled wilderness of central Georgia that far exceeded the total amount of land available. The epicenter for their activity was Montgomery County, a thinly populated region dominated by a vast pine barren. In that county alone, speculators managed to have warrants issued for 2,664,000 acres - in a county, which only consisted of 407,000! 

By the end of 1794, most Georgians had become aware of the fraudulent nature of the surveys, forcing the speculators to go further afield to dispose of their questionable titles. They found ready customers in Philadelphia where Robert Morris, James Greenleaf and John Nicholson were in the midst of a spending orgy, gobbling up millions of acres of frontier land. In early 1795 the three had established the North American Land Company, which at its formation, already included 2.3 million acres of Georgia land in its vast portfolio. (Observations on the North American Land Company... London, 1796, p. 39) 

The present archive concerns six large tracts in Montgomery County, Georgia totaling 638,000 acres. They were all sold, sight unseen, in early 1795 to several prominent Philadelphians including Signer of the Declaration of Independence James Wilson (1742-1798), noted physician Dr. Thomas Ruston (1742-1811), and merchant Abraham Dubois (c. 1751-1807). According to the documents, the original titles had been granted by the State of Georgia to Richmond Dawson, Joseph Cooper and Thomas Cooper, all of who were members of the original group perpetrating the Georgia fraud. After passing through several hands, all of the tracts documented in the archive were purchased on September 19, 1795 by notorious land speculator John Nicholson. 

As a means of stemming land fraud, which by the late 1780s had already grown into a significant problem, Georgia had limited land grants to 1000 acres each. Speculators easily circumvented this law by simply itemizing each grant on the deed. In a copy of a deed from Thomas Ruston to Signer James Wilson, the original grantee, Richmond Dawson of Georgia held title to a tract which consisted of thirty-five distinct tracts, of "one Thousand Acres Each..." The combined tracts were only vaguely defined. A typical description reads,: "…being on Waters of the River Ocone in the County of Montgomery in the State of Georgia Beginning at a pine and running thence by Vacant Land North Forty five Degrees, East Seven Hundred Chains to a Pine, thence by unknown Land North Forty Degrees West Five Hundred Chains to a pine, thence by Vacant Land, South Forty five Degrees, West Seven Hundred Chains to a Pine, and thence by unknown Land South Forty five Degrees East five Hundred Chains to the place of Beginning Containing Thirty five Thousand Acres" The surveys were often performed hurriedly (many of the tree marks placed by surveyors were found high on the trunks indicating that they were done on horseback), and sometimes not at all (Farris W. Cadle, Georgia Land Surveying History and Law, 1991, p. 89). 

Not only was the land subject to overlapping and fraudulent surveys, speculators also misled purchasers as to its quality. Many of the early deeds made references to trees that did not grow in the region which made the land appear more fertile than the sandy pine scrub that existed there. In August 1794, the French minister to the United States warned his countrymen to the danger of a "crowd of speculators... who survey poor or barren land, which are either in possession of their rightful owners, or out of the limits of the United States..." He added that the "imposters sell their pretended lands to merchants, who resell them... to Mr. Robert Morris, and he again to French families, who have come, or who design to Emigrate, to this country." (Cadle p. 102) Morris denied the charge that the Georgia grants were fraudulent. However when agents from the North American Land Company travelled to Georgia to inspect the property, they quickly realized the true nature of the warrants. Morris, facing immenent bankruptcy, resolved to hold on to the warrants, vowing to sell them "in the same way as they had bought them" (Cadle, p.103). Already overextended, and with few places left to dispose of the lands, Morris perpetuated the fraud, claiming to prospective purchasers that the tracts were covered in "Timber [that] is convenient to saw Mills & navigable waters, the Lumber more valuable than any other & always commanding Ready Money at the port of Export." (Robert Morris to Marshall, November 10, 1795 quoted in Barbara Ann Chernow, Robert Morris Land Speculator 1790-1801, 1978, p. 187). 

What makes the transactions documented in this archive even more intriguing is that by September 1795, Nicholson was fully aware of the fraudulent nature of these grants. Despite the fact that he had purchased with Morris over 2 million acres in Georgia already, he continued to purchase more land (Observations on the North-American Land-Company…1796, p. 39). As documented in this archive, In one day (September 19, 1795), Nicholson swooped up one and a half times the entire land area of Montgomery County, Georgia! And he didn't stop there. Whether the tracts documented in this archive ever became part of the North-American Land Company's portfolio is not known, they very well may have just ended up as Nicholson's personal property. It would matter little in the end: both Nicholson and Morris were on the verge of bankruptcy and it was only a matter of time until their creditors caught up with them. As for the fraudlent land warrants, they bedeviled the Georgia courts for many decades as defrauded purchasers attempted to assert their claims and land owners fought over overlapping and/or nonexistent boundaries. 

Nearly all of the individuals identified as purchasers and/or sellers of these tracts, like Morris and Nicholson, eventually ran into financial trouble as well. Dr. Ruston was a tenant in the "Debtor's Apartments" around the same time as Robert Morris. Signer James Wilson also served a brief stint in debtor's prison in Burlington County, New Jersey in 1798. (Gerard J. St. John, "James Wilson: A Forgotten Father" The Philadelphia Lawyer, Winter 2004, Vol. 66, No. 4). 

This archive is a valuable resource for anyone studying early American business history and the first American land bubble, vividly demonstrating how even the most seasoned and experienced merchants could get caught up in speculative manias. Once caught up in the action, even Nicholson, already up to his eyeballs in debt, could not resist diving in even deeper.


Item: 58311

Price: $25,000.00
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