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Yazoo Land Fraud
About North Georgia

Introduction

Map of the 1794 Yazoo Land Act
Following the American Revolution in Georgia Georgia essentially claimed all land west of the state to the Mississippi River which included all of present-day Alabama, Mississippi, part of Florida's panhandle and part of Louisiana. The first Yazoo Act, passed in 1789, gave the land to three companies. The act fell through when the state demanded payment in gold or silver rather than currency (specie).

In 1794 the Yazoo Act resurfaced with many of the same participants. Four companies would buy the land from Georgia, then resell it to investors. Many of Georgia's top politicians were involved receiving bribes of money and land in exchange for their support.

Passage of the act pitted Georgia's two U. S. Senators, James Jackson and James Gunn against each other. Gunn, who received bribes although he could not vote, supported the 1794 Yazoo Land Act. Jackson, who swore to duel anybody involved in the Yazoo Land Fraud, resigned his seat in the Senate and returned to Georgia. He was elected to the Georgia house in 1975 and immediately began to dismantle the Yazoo Land Act.

In 1796 Jackson led the passing of the Rescinding Act, which nullified the Yazoo Land Act. He held hearings on the legislation, implicating most of the elected officials involved in the case and tried to have all records of the case destroyed. Finally, he worked to secede the claims against Georgia to the federal government in exchange for a promise to help remove the Creek and Cherokee from western Georgia.

Bourbon Act

In 1785, John Wood "purchased" a tract of land from the Choctaw Indians near the mouth of the Yazoo River. The South Carolina Yazoo Company was organized and the state of Georgia was petitioned to allow the creation of Bourbon County on the Mississippi River. Georgia wanted nothing to do with this plan. They did not have the will or resources to protect settlers on the east bank of the Mississippi, and weren't sure that the land was even theirs.


1789 Yazoo Land Act

In 1788 the state of Georgia laid claim to the Yazoo Lands west of the current state boundaries. This included present-day Georgia west of the Chattahoochee River, Alabama, Mississippi, and portions of Louisiana and Florida known as the Yazoo Lands because the Yazoo River flowed near its western borders. The U. S. Congress, however, declared that the land in question was part of British Florida and was ceded to the federal government in the Treaty of Paris (1783).

There were many obstacles with Georgia's claim. The Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaws and Cherokee were all present on the land claimed by the state and the U. S. Constitution gave control of relations with all Indians Nations to the United States. Spanish Florida also laid claim to a significant portion of the land.

Regardless of these minor title problems, on December 24, 1789 the Georgia legislature passed the 1789 Yazoo Land Act, in essence unilaterally seizing the territory. Three companies, the South Carolina Yazoo Company, The Virginia Yazoo Company, and the Tennessee Yazoo Company were to purchase more than 13 million acres from the state for $200,000. The South Carolina Company's bid was first to be received. When the bids of the Virginia Yazoo Company and Tennessee Yazoo Company came in they were much higher.

After the bill passed the senate, a forth company, the Georgia Yazoo Company added a bid, much higher than the other three Yazoo companies. Efforts to add the Georgia Yazoo Company to the 1789 Yazoo Land Act failed.

Patrick Henry (yes, that Patrick Henry) headed the Virginia Yazoo Company. According to Thomas Jefferson, it was Henry who came up with the idea of using Georgia treasury notes issued during the Revolutionary War that had little value to pay for the land. Georgia demanded payment in gold or silver, which the Yazoo companies could not do. Georgia repealed the legislation. Henry, however, made out like a bandit. The "worthless" Georgia paper he had been buying to pay the debt shot up in value when the United States agreed to assume the debt of the states.

Following a Cabinet discussion of the actions of the Yazoo Companies and the state of Georgia, on April 28, 1790 President George Washington expressed his disapproval of the actions of the State of Georgia, Patrick Henry and the Yazoo Companies in a letter to each of them.

1795 Yazoo Land Act

The desire for land and graft did not end with the First Yazoo Land Act. In Novemeber, 1794, former Georgia governor John Wereat approached the state about buying the land originally proposed for the South Carolina at the price agreed upon for the 1789 legislation. Four other companies quickly prepared similar proposal at significantly higher prices. The bill was passed and sent to Governor George Mathews who saw a number of flaws in the legislation.

Mathews wanted the state to have more land set aside for its needs (he called them "reservations"). He also wanted more money and multiple companies. The legislature returned a bill that sold Mississippi and Alabama to four companies of private investors for the sum of 1.5 cents per acre of land.

This time the state of Georgia required 20% of the owed to be deposited with the state with the rest due before November 1, 1795. Other requirements included the land could not be sold to a foreign government, Indian claims to the land had to be extinguished by the federal government and the state was not responsible for peace with the Indians. The land was free from taxation until it was inhabited.

Among the Georgians involved in the legislation that received compensation were James Gunn, Matthew McAllister, the federal attorney for Georgia, Robert Goodloe Harper, and Thomas P. Carnes. Of the legislators who voted for the act only one was found that would not reap some monetary reward. Governor George Mathews, who vetoed the original legislation also came out quite nicely. Others who made significant money were John Sevier, William Blount, William Stith, and James Wilson, a sitting member of the Supreme Court.

The bill was passed in the house and senate, then sent to Governor George Mathews for signing. Mathews unexpectedly vetoed the bill, saying the compensation for the land was too little and that Georgians were not fairly represented. After consulting with the governor the bill was modified slightly and returned to Mathews, who signed it into law on January 7, 1795. Shortly after Mathews signed the bill the legislative term came to an end.

Protests

As word of the Yazoo Land Act reached the state, protests erupted. "Legislative corruption" is what a Liberty County, Georgia grand jury called it. From Columbia County, Georgia, William H. Crawford spoke with Governor Mathews indicating his unhappiness.

Both President George Washington and the U. S. Senate condemned the land grants. A thinly veiled threat appeared in the Augusta Chronicle on March 28, 1795 calling the Yazoo Land Act a "hellish fraud" and threatening to "search the state to find out rascals who will sell them tracts."

On May 3, 1795, a previously scheduled convention met in Louisville, Georgia to consider changes to the state constitution. Although it did name Louisville as the new state capitol, the convention was so perplexed about the Yazoo Land Fraud that it did little else but issue a statement condemning the fraud and calling for a new convention. U. S. Senator James Jackson, an Revolutionary War hero, returned to Savannah on July 7, 1795 and penned a series of articles under the nom de plume "Scillius."

On October 30, 1795, Chatham County urged him to lead the anti-Yazoo fight. Three days later Jackson was elected to the Georgia house. On February 13, 1796 the Jackson-led state legislature passed The Rescinding Act declaring the Yazoo Act invalid. That day the members took every copy of the act they could find and destroyed them on the steps of the Capitol.

Aftermath

While studying how to go about reversing the Yazoo Act a committee (chaired by James Jackson) held the land grants were brought about by an illegal act (bribery) and the actual lands granted by the state of Georgia had been previously granted by the federal government to the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes.

On the day the Rescinding Act was passed James Greenleaf sold claims to speculators in Boston and New York who organized the New England Mississippi Land Company. The company had obtained an legal opinion that the Rescinding Act was illegal.

In 1798 Congress authorized the President to come to an agreement with Georgia on its western land. In 1802, under Thomas Jefferson, six distinguished men, James Madison, Albert Gallatin, and Levi Lincoln for the United States and James Jackson, John Milledge and Abraham Baldwin for Georgia met to work out the details for Georgia to cede its western lands. They agreed that the United States would assume title to all land west of the Chattahoochee River in exchange for $1,250,000.

At the time the United States realized there was a legal problem with the land. Anybody that legally purchased land prior to the Rescinding Act could hold that the Rescinding Act violated the contract rule of the Constitution. To handle such claims, Georgia and the United States agreed to set aside 5 million acres of the Yazoo lands. A cross-party faction in Congress, known as the Tertium Quids, successfully blocked the legislation.


Not everybody agreed with James Jackson on the Yazoo Land Act. He was repeatedly assaulted and entered into duels. He died in 1806 at the age of 50.


Georgia History
Articles about North Georgia history and the state in general. This section is currently being developed. For more information on Georgia History, please see The Civil War in Georgia

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