History of the Great American Fortunes - Gustavus Myers - ebook

History of the Great American Fortunes ebook

Gustavus Myers



Originally published in 1910, a primary source for the business and development of American power in the nineteenth century. Originally published in 1910, a primary source for the business and development of American power in the nineteenth century.

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Gustavus Myers


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Copyright © 2016 by Gustavus Myers

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The noted private fortunes of settlement and colonial times were derived from the ownership of land and the gains of trading. Usually both had a combined influence and were frequently attended by agriculture. Throughout the colonies were scattered lords of the soil who held vast territorial domains over which they exercised an arbitrary and, in some portions of the colonies, a feudal sway.

Nearly all the colonies were settled by chartered companies, organized for purely commercial purposes and the success of which largely depended upon the emigration which they were able to promote. These corporations were vested with enormous powers and privileges which, in effect, constituted them as sovereign rulers, although their charters were subject to revision or amendment. The London Company, thrice chartered to take over to itself the land and resources of Virginia and populate its zone of rule, was endowed with sweeping rights and privileges which made it an absolute monopoly. The impecunious noblemen or gentlemen who transported themselves to Virginia to recoup their dissipated fortunes or seek adventure, encountered no trouble in getting large grants of land especially when after 1614 tobacco became a fashionable article in England and took rank as a valuable commercial commodity.

Over this colony now spread planters who hastened to avail themselves of this new-found means of getting rich. Land and climate alike favored them, but they were confronted with a scarcity of labor. The emergency was promptly met by the buying of white servants in England to be resold in Virginia to the highest bidder. This, however, was not sufficient, and complaints poured over to the English government. As the demands of commerce had to be sustained at any price, a system was at once put into operation of gathering in as many of the poorer English class as could be impressed upon some pretext, and shipping them over to be held as bonded laborers. Penniless and lowly Englishmen, arrested and convicted for any one of the multitude of offenses then provided for severely in law, were transported as criminals or sold into the colonies as slaves for a term of years. The English courts were busy grinding out human material for the Virginia plantations; and, as the objects of commerce were considered paramount, this process of disposing of what was regarded as the scum element was adjudged necessary and justifiable. No voice was raised in protest.


But, fast as the English courts might work, they did not supply laborers enough. It was with exultation that in 1619 the plantation owners were made acquainted with a new means of supplying themselves with adequate workers. A Dutch ship arrived at Jamestown with a cargo of negroes from Guinea. The blacks were promptly bought at good prices by the planters. From this time forth the problem of labor was considered sufficiently solved. As chattel slavery harmonized well with the necessities of tobacco growing and gain, it was accepted as a just condition and was continued by the planters, whose interests and standards were the dominant factor.

After 1620, when the London Company was dissolved by royal decree, and the commerce of Virginia made free, the planters were the only factor. Virginia, it was true, was made a royal province and put under deputy rule, but the big planters contrived to get the laws and customs their self-interest called for. There were only two classes—the rich planters, with their gifts of land, their bond-servants and slaves and, on the other hand, the poor whites. A middle class was entirely lacking.

As the supreme staple of commerce and as currency itself, tobacco could buy anything, human, as well as inert, material. The labor question had been sufficiently vanquished, but not so the domestic. Wives were much needed; the officials in London instantly hearkened, and in 1620 sent over sixty young women who were auctioned off and bought at from one hundred and twenty to one hundred and sixty pounds of tobacco each. Tobacco then sold at three shillings a pound. Its cultivation was assiduously carried on. The use of the land mainly for agricultural purposes led to the foundation of numerous settlements along the shores, bays, rivers, and creeks with which Virginia is interspersed and which afforded accessibility to the sea ports. As the years wore on and the means and laborers of the planters increased, their lands became more extensive, so that it was not an unusual thing to find plantations of fifty or sixty thousand acres. But neither in Virginia nor in Maryland, under the almost regal powers of Lord Baltimore who had propriety rights over the whole of his province, were such huge estates to be seen as were being donated in the northern colonies, especially in New Netherlands and in New England.


In its intense aim to settle New Netherlands and make use of its resources, Holland, through the States General, offered extraordinary inducements to promoters of colonization. The prospect of immense estates, with feudal rights and privileges, was held out as the alluring incentive. The bill of Freedoms and Exemptions of 1629 made easy the possibility of becoming a lord of the soil with comprehensive possessions and powers. Any man who should succeed in planting a colony of fifty “souls,” each of whom was to be more than fifteen years old, was to become at once a patroon with all the rights of lordship. He was permitted to own sixteen miles along shore or on one side of a navigable river. An alternative was given of the ownership of eight miles on one side of a river and as far into the interior “as the situation of the occupiers will permit.” The title was vested in the patroon forever, and he was presented with a monopoly of the resources of his domain except furs and pelts. No patroon or other colonist was allowed to make woolen, linen, cotton or cloth of any material under pain of banishment.

These restrictions were in the interest of the Dutch West India Company, a commercial corporation which had well-nigh dictatorial powers. A complete monopoly throughout the whole of its subject territory, it was armed with sweeping powers, a formidable equipment, and had a great prestige. It was somewhat of a cross between legalized piracy and a body of adroit colonization promoters. Pillage and butchery were often its auxiliaries, although in these respects it in nowise equalled its twin corporation, the Dutch East India Company, whose exploitation of Holland’s Asiatic possessions was a long record of horrors.


The policy of the Dutch West India Company was to offer generous prizes for peopling the land while simultaneously forbidding competition with any of the numerous products or commodities dealt in by itself. This had much to do with determining the basic character of the conspicuous fortunes of a century and two centuries later. It followed that when native industries were forbidden or their output monopolized not only by the Dutch West India Company in New Netherlands, but by other companies elsewhere in the colonies, that ownership of land became the mainstay of large private fortunes with agriculture as an accompanying factor. Subsequently the effects of this continuous policy were more fully seen when England by law after law paralyzed or closed up many forms of colonial manufacture. The feudal character of Dutch colonization, as carried on by the Dutch West India Company, necessarily created great landed estates, the value of which arose not so much from agriculture, as was the case in Virginia, Maryland and later the Carolinas and Georgia, but from the natural resources of the land. The superb primitive timber brought colossal profits in export, and there were also very valuable fishery rights where an estate bounded a shore or river. The pristine rivers were filled with great shoals of fish, to which the river fishing of the present day cannot be compared. As settlement increased, immigration pressed over, and more and more ships carried cargo to and fro, these estates became consecutively more valuable.

To encourage colonization to its colonies still further, the States General in 1635 passed a new decree. It repeated the feudal nature of the rights granted and made strong additions.

Did any aspiring adventurer seek to leap at a bound to the exalted position of patroonship? The terms were easy. All that he had to do was to found a colony of forty-eight adults and he had a liberal six years in which to do it. For his efforts he was allowed even more extensive grants of land than under the act of 1629. So complete were his powers of proprietorship that no one could approach within seven or eight miles of his jurisdiction without his express permission. His was really a principality. Over its bays, rivers, and islands, had it any, as well as over the mainland, he was given command forever. The dispensation of justice was his exclusive right. He and he only was the court with summary powers of “high, low and middle jurisdiction,” which were harshly or capriciously exercised. Not only did he impose sentence for violation of laws, but he, himself, ordained those laws and they were laws which were always framed to coincide with his interests and personality. He had full authority to appoint officers and magistrates and enact laws. And finally he had the power of policing his domain and of making use of the titles and arms of his colonies. All these things he could do “according to his will and pleasure.” These absolute rights were to descend to his heirs and assigns.


Thus, at the beginning of settlement times, the basis was laid in law and custom of a landed aristocracy, or rather a group of intrenched autocrats, along the banks of the Hudson, the shores of the ocean and far inland. The theory then prevailed that the territory of the colonies extended westward to the Pacific.

From these patroons and their lineal or collateral descendants issued many of the landed generations of families which, by reason of their wealth and power, proved themselves powerful factors in the economic and political history of the country. The sinister effects of this first great grasping of the land long permeated the whole fabric of society and were prominently seen before and after the Revolution, and especially in the third and fourth decades of the eighteenth century. The results, in fact, are traceable to this very day, even though laws and institutions are so greatly changed. Other colonies reflected the constant changes of government, ruling party or policy of England, and colonial companies chartered by England frequently forfeited their charters. But conditions in New Netherlands remained stable under Dutch rule, and the accumulation of great estates was intensified under English rule. It was in New York that, at that period, the foremost colonial estates and the predominant private fortunes were mostly held.

The extent of some of those early estates was amazingly large. But they were far from being acquired wholly by colonization methods.

Many of the officers and directors of the Dutch West India Company were Amsterdam merchants. Active, scheming, self-important men, they were mighty in the money marts but were made use of, and looked down upon, by the old Dutch aristocracy. Having amassed fortunes, these merchants yearned to be the founders of great estates; to live as virtual princes in the midst of wide possessions, even if these were still comparative solitudes. This aspiration was mixed with the mercenary motive of themselves owning the land from whence came the furs, pelts, timber and the waters yielding the fishes.

One of these directors was Kiliaen van Rensselaer, an Amsterdam pearl merchant. In 1630 his agents bought for him from the Indians a tract of land twenty-four miles long and forty-eight broad on the west bank of the Hudson. It comprised, it was estimated, seven hundred thousand acres and included what are now the counties of Albany, Rensselaer, a part of Columbia County and a strip of what is at present Massachusetts. And what was the price paid for this vast estate? As the deeds showed, the munificent consideration of “certain quantities of duffels, axes, knives and wampum,” which is equal to saying that the pearl merchant got it for almost nothing. Two other directors—Godyn and Bloemart—became owners of great feudal estates. One of these tracts, in what is now New Jersey, extended sixteen miles both in length and breadth, forming a square of sixty-four miles.

So it was that these shrewd directors now combined a double advantage. Their pride was satisfied with the absolute lordship of immense areas, while the ownership of land gave them the manifold benefits and greater profits of trading with the Indians at first hand. From a part of the proceeds they later built manors which were contemplated as wonderful and magnificent. Surrounded and served by their retainers, agents, vassal tenants and slaves, they lived in princely and licentious style, knowing no law in most matters except their unrestrained will. They beheld themselves as ingenious and memorable founders of a potential landed aristocracy whose possessions were more extended than that of Europe. Wilderness much of it still was, but obviously the time was coming when the population would be fairly abundant. The laws of entail and primogeniture, then in full force, would operate to keep the estates intact and gifted with inherent influence for generations.

Along with their landed estates, these directors had a copious inflowing revenue. The Dutch West India Company was in a thriving condition. By the year 1629 it had more than one hundred full-rigged ships in commission. Most of them were fitted out for war on the commerce of other countries or on pirates. Fifteen thousand seamen and soldiers were on its payroll; in that one year it used more than one hundred thousand pounds of powder—significant of the grim quality of business done. It had more than four hundred cannon and thousands of other destructive weapons. Anything conducive to profit, no matter if indiscriminate murder, was accepted as legitimate and justifiable functions of trade, and was imposed alike upon royalty, which shared in the proceeds, and upon the people at large. The energetic trading class, concentrated in the one effort of getting money, and having no scruples as to the means in an age when ideals were low and vulgar, had already begun to make public opinion in many countries, although this public opinion counted for little among submissive peoples. It was the king and the governing class, either or both, whose favor and declarations counted; and so long as these profited by the devious extortions and villainies of trade the methods were legitimatized, if not royally sanctified.


A more potentially robust aristocracy than that which was forming in New Netherlands could hardly be imagined. Resting upon gigantic gifts of land, with feudal accompaniments, it held a monopoly, or nearly one, of the land’s resources. The old aristocracy of Holland grew jealous of the power and pretensions of what it frowned upon as an upstart trading clique and tried to curtail the rights and privileges of the patroons. These latter contended that their absolute lordship was indisputable; to put it in modern legal terminology that a contract could not be impaired. They elaborated upon the argument that they had spent a “ton of gold” (amounting to one hundred thousand guilders or forty thousand dollars) upon their colonies. They not only carried their point but their power was confirmed and enlarged.

Now was seen the spectacle of the middle-class men of the Old World, the traders, more than imitating—far exceeding—the customs and pretensions of the aristocracy of their own country which they had inveighed against, and setting themselves up as the original and mighty landed aristocracy of the new country. The patroons encased themselves in an environment of pomp and awe. Like so many petty monarchs each had his distinct flag and insignia; each fortified his domain with fortresses, armed with cannon and manned by his paid soldiery. The colonists were but humble dependants; they were his immediate subjects and were forced to take the oath of fealty and allegiance to him.

In the old country the soil had long since passed into the hands of a powerful few and was made the chief basis for the economic and political enslavement of the people. To escape from this thralldom many of the immigrants had endured hardships and privation to get here. They expected that they could easily get land, the tillage of which would insure them a measure of independence. Upon arriving they found vast available parts of the country, especially the most desirable and accessible portions bordering shores or rivers, preëmpted. An exacting and tyrannous feudal government was in full control. Their only recourse in many instances was to accept the best of unwelcome conditions and become tenants of the great landed functionaries and workers for them.


The patroons naturally encouraged immigration. Apart from the additional values created by increased population, it meant a quantity of labor which, in turn, would precipitate wages to the lowest possible scale. At the same time, in order to stifle every aspiring quality in the drudging laborer, and to keep in conformity with the spirit and custom of the age which considered the worker a mere menial undeserving of any rights, the whole force of the law was made use of to bring about sharp discriminations. The laborer was purposely abased to the utmost and he was made to feel in many ways his particular low place in the social organization.

Far above him, vested with enormous personal and legal powers, towered the patroon, while he, the laborer, did not have the ordinary burgher right, that of having a minor voice in public affairs. The burgher right was made entirely dependent upon property, which was a facile method of disfranchising the multitude of poor immigrants and of keeping them down. Purchase was the one and only means of getting this right. To keep it in as small and circumscribed class as possible the price was made abnormally high. It was enacted in New Netherlands in 1659, for instance, that immigrants coming with cargoes had to pay a thousand guilders for the burgher right. As the average laborer got two shillings a day for his long hours of toil, often extending from sunrise to sunset, he had little chance of ever getting this sum together. The consequence was that the merchants became the burgher class; and all the records of the time seem to prove conclusively that the merchants were servile instruments of the patroons whose patronage and favor they assiduously courted. This deliberately pursued policy of degrading and despoiling the laboring class incited bitter hatreds and resentments, the effects of which were permanent.




While this seizure of land was going on in New Netherlands, vast areas in New England were passing suddenly into the hands of a few men. These areas sometimes comprised what are now entire States, and were often palpably obtained by fraud, collusion, trickery or favoritism. The Puritan influx into Massachusetts was an admixture of different occupations. Some were traders or merchants; others were mechanics. By far the largest portion were cultivators of the soil whom economic pressure not less than religious persecution had driven from England. To these land was a paramount consideration.

Describing how the English tiller had been expropriated from the soil Wallace says: “The ingenuity of lawyers and direct landlord legislation steadily increased the powers of great landowners and encroached upon the rights of the people, till at length the monstrous doctrine arose that a landless Englishman has no right whatever to enjoyment even of the unenclosed commons and heaths and the mountain and forest wastes of his native country, but is everywhere in the eye of the law a trespasser whenever he ventures off a public road or pathway.” By the sixteenth century the English peasantry had been evicted even from the commons, which were turned into sheep walks by the impoverished barons to make money from the Flemish wool market. The land at home wrenched from them, the poor English immigrants ardently expected that in America land would be plentiful. They were bitterly disappointed. The various English companies, chartered by royal command with all-inclusive powers, despite the frequent opposition of Parliament, held the trade and land of the greater part of the colonies as a rigid monopoly. In the case of the New England Company severe punishment was threatened to all who should encroach upon its rights. It also was freed from payment for twenty-one years and was relieved from taxes forever.


The New England colonies were carved out into a few colossal private estates. The example of the British nobility was emulated; but the chartered companies did not have to resort to the adroit, disingenuous, subterranean methods which the English land magnates used in perpetuating their seizure, as so graphically described by S. W. Thackery in his work, “The Land and the Community”. The land in New England was taken over boldly and arbitrarily by the directors of the Plymouth Company, the most powerful of all the companies which exploited New England. The handful of men who participated in this division, sustained with a high hand their claims and pretensions, and augmented and fortified them by every device. Quite regardless of who the changing monarch was, or what country ruled, these colonial magnates generally contrived to keep the power strong in their own hands. There might be a superficial show of changed conditions, an apparent infusion of democracy, but, in reality, the substance remained the same.

This was nowhere more lucidly or strikingly illustrated than after New Netherlands passed into the control of the English and was renamed New York. Laws were decreed which seemed to bear the impress of justice and democracy. Monopoly was abolished, every man was given the much-prized right of trading in furs and pelts, and the burgher right was extended and its acquisition made easier.

However well-intentioned these altered laws were, they turned out to be shallow delusions. Under English rule, the gifts of vast estates in New York were even greater than under Dutch rule and beyond doubt were granted corruptly or by favoritism. Miles upon miles of land in New York which had not been preëmpted were brazenly given away by the royal Governor Fletcher for bribes; and it was suspected, although not clearly proved, that he trafficked in estates in Pennsylvania during the time when, by royal order, he supplanted William Penn in the government of that province. From the evidence which has come down it would appear that any one who offered Fletcher his price could be transformed into a great vested land owner. But still the people imagined that they had a real democratic government. Had not England established representative assemblies? These, with certain restrictions, alone had the power of law-making for the provinces. These representative bodies were supposed to rest upon the vote of the people, which vote, however, was determined by a strict property qualification.


What really happened was that, apparently deprived of direct feudal power, the landed interests had no difficulty in retaining their law-making ascendancy by getting control of the various provincial assemblies. Bodies supposedly representative of the whole people were, in fact, composed of great landowners, of a quota of merchants who were subservient to the landowners, and a sprinkling of farmers. In Virginia this state was long-continuing, while in New York province it became such an intolerable abuse and resulted in such oppressions to the body of the people, that on Sept. 20, 1764, Lieutenant-Governor Cadwallader Colden, writing from New York to the Lords of Trade at London, strongly expostulated. He described how the land magnates had devised to set themselves up as the law-making class. Three of the large land grants contained provisions guaranteeing to each owner the privilege of sending a representative to the General Assembly. These landed proprietors, therefore, became hereditary legislators. “The owners of other great Patents,” Colden continued, “being men of the greatest opulence in the several American counties where these Tracts are, have sufficient influence to be perpetually elected for those counties. The General Assembly, then, of this Province consists of the owners of these extravagant Grants, the merchants of New York, the principal of them strongly connected with the owners of these Great Tracts by Family interest, and of Common Farmers, which last are men easily deluded and led away with popular arguments of Liberty and Privileges. The Proprietors of the great tracts are not only freed from the quit rents which the other landholders in the Provinces pay, but by their influences in the Assembly are freed from every other public Tax on their lands.”

What Colden wrote of the landed class of New York was substantially true of all the other provinces. The small, powerful clique of great landowners had cunningly taken over to themselves the functions of government and diverted them to their own ends. First the land was seized and then it was declared exempt of taxation.

Inevitably there was but one sequel. Everywhere, but especially so in New York and Virginia, the landed proprietors became richer and more arrogant, while poverty, even in new country with extraordinary resources, took root and continued to grow. The burden of taxation fell entirely upon the farming and laboring classes; although the merchants were nominally taxed they easily shifted their obligations upon those two classes by indirect means of trade. Usurious loans and mortgages became prevalent.

It was now seen what meaningless tinsel the unrestricted right to trade in furs was. To get the furs access to the land was necessary; and the land was monopolized. In the South, where tobacco and corn were the important staples, the worker was likewise denied the soil except as a laborer or tenant, and in Massachusetts colony, where fortunes were being made from timber, furs and fisheries, the poor man had practically no chance against the superior advantages of the landed and privileged class. These conditions led to severe reprisals. Several uprisings in New York, Bacon’s rebellion in Virginia, after the restoration of Charles II, when that king granted large tracts of land belonging to the colony to his favorites, and subsequently, in 1734, a ferment in Georgia, even under the mild proprietary rule of the philanthropist Oglethorpe, were all really outbursts of popular discontent largely against the oppressive form in which land was held and against discriminative taxation, although each uprising had its local issues differing from those elsewhere.

In this conflict between landed class and people, the only hope of the mass of the people lay in getting the favorable attention of royal governors. At least one of these considered earnestly and conscientiously the grave existing abuses and responded to popular protest which had become bitter.


This official was the Earl of Bellomont. Scarcely had he arrived after his appointment as Captain-General and Governor of Massachusetts Bay, New York and other provinces, when he was made acquainted with the widespread discontent. The landed magnates had not only created an abysmal difference between themselves and the masses in possessions and privileges, but also in dress and air, founded upon strict distinctions in law. The landed aristocrat with his laces and ruffles, his silks and his gold and silver ornaments and his expensive tableware, his consciously superior air and tone of grandiose authority, was far removed in established position from the mechanic or the laborer with his coarse clothes and mean habitation. Laws were long in force in various provinces which prohibited the common people from wearing gold and silver lace, silks and ornaments. Bellomont noted the sense of deep injustice smouldering in the minds of the people and set out to confiscate the great estates, particularly, as he set forth, as many of them had been obtained by bribery.

It was with amazement that Bellomont learned that one man, Colonel Samuel Allen, claimed to own the whole of what is now the state of New Hampshire. When, in 1635, the Plymouth Colony was about to surrender its charter, its directors apportioned their territory to themselves individually. New Hampshire went by lot to Captain John Mason who, some years before, had obtained a patent to the same area from the company. Charles I had confirmed the company’s action. After Mason’s death, his claims were bought up by Allen for about $1,250. Mason, however, left an heir and protracted litigation followed. In the meantime, settlers taking advantage of these conflicting claims, proceeded to spread over New Hampshire and hew the forests for cleared agricultural land. Allen managed to get himself appointed governor of New Hampshire in 1692 and declared the whole province his personal property and threatened to oust the settlers as trespassers unless they came to terms. There was imminent danger of an uprising of the settlers, who failed to see why the land upon which they had spent labor did not belong to them. Bellomont investigated; and in communication, dated June 22, 1700, to the Lords of Trade, denounced Allen’s title as defective and insufficient, and brought out the charge that Allen had tried to get his confirmation of his, Allen’s, claims by means of a heavy bribe.


“There was an offer made me,” Bellomont wrote, “of £10,000 in money, but I thank God I had not the least tempting thought to accept of the offer and I hope nothing in this world will ever be able to attempt me to betray England in the least degree. This offer was made me three or four times.” Bellomont added: “I will make it appear that the lands and woods claimed by Colonel Allen are much more valuable than ten of the biggest estates in England, and I will rate those ten estates at £300,000 a piece, one with another, which is three millions. By his own confession to me at Pescattaway last summer, he valued the Quit Rents of his lands (as he calls ‘em) at £22,000 per annum at 3d per acre of 6d in the pound of all improv’d Rents; then I leave your lordships to judge what an immense estate the improv’d rents must be, which (if his title be allowed) he has as good a right to the forementioned Quit Rents. And all this besides the Woods which I believe he might very well value at half the worth of the lands. There never was, I believe, since the world began so great a bargain as Allen has had of Mason, if it be allowed to stand good, that all this vast estate I have been naming should be purchased for a poor £250 and that a desperate debt, too, as Col. Allen thought. He pretends to a great part of this province as far Westward as Cape St. Ann, which is said to take in 17 of the best towns in this province next to Boston, the best improved land, and, (I think Col. Allen told me) 8 or 900,000 acres of their land. If Col. Allen shall at any time go about to make a forcible entry on these lands he pretends to (for, to be sure, the people will never turn tenants to him willingly) the present occupants will resist him by any force he shall bring and the Province will be put to a combustion and what may be the course I dread to think.”...

But the persistent Allen did not establish his claim. Several times he lost in the litigation, the last time in 1715. His death was followed by his son’s death; and after sixty years of fierce animosities and litigation, the whole contention was allowed to lapse. Says Lodge: “His heirs were minors who did not push the controversy, and the claim soon sank out of sight to the great relief of the New Hampshire people, whose right to their homes had so long been in question.”

Similarly, another area, the entirety of what is now the State of Maine, went to the individual ownership of Sir Fernandino Gorges, the same who had betrayed Essex to Queen Elizabeth and who had received rich rewards for his treachery. The domain descended to his grandson, Fernando Gorges, who, on March 13, 1677, sold it by deed to John Usher, a Boston merchant, for £1,250. The ominous dissatisfaction of the New Hampshire and other settlers with the monopolization of land was not slighted by the English government; at the very time Usher bought Maine the government was on the point of doing the same thing and opening the land for settlement. Usher at once gave a deed of the province to the governor and company of Massachusetts, of which colony and later, State, it remained a part until its creation as a State in 1820.

These were two notable instances of vast land grants which reverted to the people. In most of the colonies the popular outcry for free access to the land was not so effective. In Pennsylvania, after the government was restored to Penn, and in part of New Jersey conditions were more favorable to the settlers. In those colonies corrupt usurpations of the land were comparatively few, although the proprietary families continued to hold extensive tracts. Penn’s sons by his second wife, for instance, became men of great wealth. The pacific and conciliatory Quaker faith operated as a check on any local extraordinary misuse of power. Unfortunately for historical accuracy and penetration, there is an obscurity as to the intimate circumstances under which many of the large private estates in the South were obtained. The general facts as to their grants, of course, are well known, but the same specific, underlying details, such as may be disinterred from Bellomont’s correspondence, are lacking. In New York, at least, and presumably during Fletcher’s sway of government in Pennsylvania, great land grants went for bribes. This is definitely brought out in Bellomont’s official communications.


Fletcher, it would seem, had carried on a brisk traffic in creating by a stroke of the quill powerfully rich families by simply granting them domains in return for bribes.

Captain John R. N. Evans had been in command of the royal warship Richmond. An estate was his fervent ambition. Fletcher’s mandate gave him a grant of land running forty miles one way, and thirty another, on the west bank of the Hudson. Beginning at the south line of the present town of New Paltry, Ulster County, it included the southern tier of the now existing towns in that picturesque county, two-thirds of the fertile undulations of Orange County and a part of the present town of Haverstraw. It is related of this area, that there was “but one house on it, or rather a hut, where a poor man lives.” Notwithstanding this lone, solitary subject, Evans saw great trading and seignorial possibilities in his tract. And what did he pay for this immense stretch of territory? A very modest bribe; common report had it that he gave Fletcher £100 for the grant.

Nicholas Bayard, of whom it is told that he was a handy go-between in arranging with the sea pirates the price that they should pay for Fletcher’s protection, was another favored personage. Bayard was the recipient of a grant forty miles long and thirty broad on both sides of Schoharie Creek. Col. William Smith’s prize was a grant from Fletcher of an estate fifty miles in length on Nassau—now Long Island. According to Bellomont, Smith got this land “arbitrarily and by strong hand.” Smith was in collusion with Fletcher, and moreover, was chief justice of the province, “a place of great awe as well as authority.” This judicial land wrester forced the town of Southampton to accept the insignificant sum of £10 for the greater part of forty miles of beach—a singularly profitable transaction for Smith, who cleared in one year £500, the proceeds of whales taken there, as he admitted to Bellomont. Henry Beekman, the astute and smooth founder of a rich and powerful family, was made a magnate of the first importance by a grant from Fletcher of a tract sixteen miles in length in Dutchess County, and also of another estate running twenty miles along the Hudson and eight miles inland. This estate he valued at £5,000. Likewise Peter Schuyler, Godfrey Dellius and their associates had conjointly secured by Fletcher’s patent, a grant fifty miles long in the romantic Mohawk Valley—a grant which “the Mohawk Indians have often complained of”. Upon this estate they placed a value of £25,000. This was a towering fortune for the period; in its actual command of labor, necessities, comforts and luxuries it ranked as a power of transcending importance.

These were some of the big estates created by “Colonel Fletcher’s intolerable corrupt selling away the lands of this Province,” as Bellomont termed it in his communication to the Lords of Trade of Nov. 28, 1700. Fletcher, it was set forth, profited richly by these corrupt grants. He got in bribes, it was charged, at least £4,000. But Fletcher was not the only corrupt official. In his interesting work on the times, George W. Schuyler presents what is an undoubtedly accurate description of how Robert Livingston, progenitor of a rich and potent family which for generations exercised a profound influence in politics and other public affairs, contrived to get together an estate which soon ranked as the second largest in New York state and as one of the greatest in the colonies.

Livingston was the younger son of a poor exiled clergyman. In currying favor with one official after another he was unscrupulous, dexterous and adaptable. He invariably changed his politics with the change of administration. In less than a year after his arrival he was appointed to an office which yielded him a good income. This office he held for nearly half a century, and simultaneously was the incumbent of other lucrative posts. Offices were created by Governor Dongan apparently for his sole benefit. His passion was to get together an estate which would equal the largest. Extremely penurious, he loaned money at frightfully usurious rates and hounded his victims without a vestige of sympathy. As a trader and government contractor he made enormous profits; such was his cohesive collusion with high officials that competitors found it impossible to outdo him. A current saying of him was that he made a fortune by “pinching the bellies of the soldiers"—that is, as an army contractor who defrauded in quantity and quality of supplies. By a multitude of underhand and ignoble artifices he finally found himself the lord of a manor sixteen miles long and twenty-four broad. On this estate he built flour and saw mills, a bakery and a brewery. In his advanced old age he exhibited great piety but held on grimly to every shilling that he could and as long as he could. When he died about 1728—the exact date is unknown—at the age of 74 years, he left an estate which was considered of such colossal value that its true value was concealed for fear of further enraging the discontented people.


The seizure of these vast estates and the arbitrary exclusion of the many from the land produced a combustible situation. An instantaneous and distinct cleavage of class divisions was the result. Intrenched in their possessions the landed class looked down with haughty disdain upon the farming and laboring classes. On the other hand, the farm laborer with his sixteen hours work a day for a forty-cent wage, the carpenter straining for his fifty-two cents a day, the shoemaker drudging for his seventy-three cents a day and the blacksmith for his seventy cents, thought over this injustice as they bent over their tasks. They could sweat through their lifetime at honest labor, producing something of value and yet be a constant prey to poverty while a few men, by means of bribes, had possessed themselves of estates worth tens of thousands of pounds and had preëmpted great stretches of the available lands.

In consulting extant historical works it is noticeable that they give but the merest shadowy glimpse of this intense bitterness of what were called the lower classes, and of the incessant struggle now raging, now smouldering, between the landed aristocracy and the common people. Contrary to the roseate descriptions often given of the independent position of the settlers at that time, it was a time when the use and misuse of law brought about sharp divisions of class lines which arose from artificially created inequalities, economically and politically. With the great landed estates came tenantry, wage slavery and chattel slavery, the one condition the natural generator of the others.

The rebellious tendency of the poor colonists against becoming tenants, and the usurpation of the land, were clearly brought out by Bellomont in a letter written on Nov. 28, 1700, to the Lords of Trade. He complained that “people are so cramped here for want of land that several families within my own knowledge and observation are remov’d to the new country (a name they give to Pennsylvania and the Jerseys) for, to use Mr. Graham’s expression to me, and that often repeated, too, what man will be such a fool as to become a base tenant to Mr. Dellius, Colonel Schuyler, Mr. Livingston (and so he ran through the whole role of our mighty landgraves) when for crossing Hudson’s River that man can, for a song, purchase a good freehold in the Jerseys.”

If the immigrant happened to be able to muster a sufficient sum he could, indeed, become an independent agriculturist in New Jersey and in parts of Pennsylvania and provide himself with the tools of trade. But many immigrants landed with empty pockets and became laborers dependent upon the favor of the landed proprietors. As for the artisans—the carpenters, masons, tailors, blacksmiths—they either kept to the cities and towns where their trade principally lay, or bonded themselves to the lords of the manors.


Bellomont fully understood the serious evils which had been injected into the body politic and strongly applied himself to the task of confiscating the great estates. One of his first proposals was to urge upon the Lords of Trade the restriction of all governors throughout the colonies from granting more than a thousand acres to any man without leave from the king, and putting a quit rent of half a crown on every hundred acres, this sum to go to the royal treasury. This suggestion was not acted upon. He next attacked the assembly of New York and called upon it to annul the great grants. In doing this he found that the most powerful members of the assembly were themselves the great land owners and were putting obstacle after obstacle in his path. After great exertions he finally prevailed upon the assembly to vacate at least two of the grants, those to Evans and Bayard. The assembly did this probably as a sop to Bellomont and to public opinion, and because Evans and Bayard had lesser influence than the other landed functionaries. But the owners of the other estates tenaciously held them intact. The people regarded Bellomont as a sincere and ardent reformer, but the landed men and their following abused him as a meddler and destructionist. Despairing of getting a self-interested assembly to act, Bellomont appealed to the Lords of Trade: