The Yazoo Land Scandal and the Fall of Another American Hero

Ever heard of the Yazoo Land Scandal? It’s a little known part of U.S. history that involves bribery, a secret society of powerful men, the greed of former Revolutionary War hero Patrick Henry, and another loss of Native American land.

Map of the Yazoo Land Scandal, Round #1. Wikimedia Commons
Map of the Yazoo Land Scandal, Round #1. Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia offers this background on the Yazoo Land Scandal:

The origins of the Yazoo land scandal lay in the desire of the U.S. state of Georgia to firm up its territorial claims after the American Revolutionary War, and to supply a great demand for land to develop. The territory claimed by Georgia ran as far west as the Mississippi River, and included most of the present states of Alabama and Mississippi … (excepting only the coastal areas of those states). Some of this territory was claimed and occupied by Native Americans, and southern portions of the territory were also claimed by Spain as part of Spanish Florida.

It got the name Yazoo Territory because the Yazoo River was one of its borders.

Georgia’s claim to the land was weak, to say the least. Congress maintained this territory was part of the land the British ceded to the U.S. government in the Treaty of Paris. Further, according to the website AboutNorthGeorgia, the Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaws and Cherokee all lived on the land Georgia now claimed as its own, “and the U. S. Constitution gave control of relations with all Indians Nations to the United States.” Regardless of conflicting claims, the Georgia legislature passed the Yazoo Land Act, unilaterally seizing the territory in 1789.

Wherever millions of acres of land are at stake, can corruption be far behind? There were two separate schemes by men of wealth to buy it, the first failed, the second succeeded, with the help of political payoffs.

The following is a summary of the scandals taken from Wikipedia and AboutNorthGeorgia websites:

Around 1789, powerful men formed a secret society called the Combined Society. Its only purpose was to profit from land speculation. The Combined Society included the Virginia Yazoo Company, the South Carolina Yazoo Company and the Tennessee Yazoo Company. The head of the Virginia Yazoo Company was Patrick Henry of “Give me liberty, or give me death!” fame. In this case, he seemed more concerned about money than high democratic principles such as liberty.

The Combined Society worked to gain influence in the Georgia legislature. It eventually got legislation passed that allowed them to buy 20 million acres of land for a penny and acre. It appears it was Henry’s scheme that ultimately killed the deal. He wanted to pay for the land using Georgia treasury notes issued during the Revolutionary War — notes which had depreciated. The state of Georgia wanted to be paid in gold and silver. When the money wasn’t forthcoming, Georgia repealed the sale in 1792.

Ultimately, the actions of the Combined Society were exposed. Even President George Washington wrote letters to the state of Georgia, Patrick Henry, and the other Yazoo companies, expressing his disapproval for what they had done.

But that didn’t stop the speculators. No sir.

Round 2 of the land grab started in 1794. Four new companies were created to buy the land. Undaunted by the previous failure, they doubled their ambitions. This time, they got a deal to buy 40 million acres of land for less than 1.5 cents an acre. It turned out that many of the legislators who voted for the act were offered bribes or shares in the companies.

Again, when the corruption got exposed, heated public protests ensued. Georgia reformers succeeded in repealing the land sale. But some of the land had already been sold to unwitting land buyers. It triggered a lot of litigation. The issue of whether or not Georgia could legally revoke the land sale ended up in court. And the case eventually went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a landmark decision in Fletcher v. Peck, decided on this day in history, March 16, 1810, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Georgia could not rescind the bribe-infested land sale. The Court said the Georgia law was unconstitutional because it violated the Constitution’s Contracts Clause. It was the first time the Supreme Court ruled a state law unconstitutional.

According to Wikipedia: “The decision also helped create a growing precedent for the sanctity of legal contracts and hinted that Native Americans did not hold title to their own lands.” The court more fully fleshed out this legal doctrine more than a decade later in its ruling in Johnson v. M’Intosh, which put the Doctrine of Discovery into U.S. law.

The U.S. government eventually bought out the state of Georgia and took on the task of sorting out the land claims. Native American tribes eventually lost their land claims through a series of treaties in the 1820s. The legal term used was that their land claims were “extinguished.”

For more, here is an eight-minute YouTube video on the Yazoo Land Scandal.

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