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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

Pre-Emption Rights

Dallas Bogan on 13 September 2004
The following is taken from Dallas Bogan's book, "The Pioneer writings of Josiah Morrow."
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

To Lands Between the Miami Rivers
Granted by Congress.

John Cleves Symmes Sold Large Tracts of Land For Which
He Could Give No Title and Congress Granted Relief to Many Worthy Settlers by Passing Pre-Emption Law.

April 16, 1908

In this series of articles on the public land tracts of Warren County we have given accounts of the Virginia Military Lands east of the Little Miami, Symmes Purchase between the Miamis, the Military Range and the Ministerial Lands, the last two being within the tract patented to Symmes. There remains for our consideration the large tract between the Miamis which Judge Symmes contracted to purchase but for which he received no deed from the government.
This large tract was marked on the map of the land tracts of Warren County, heretofore printed in the Star, "Congress Lands," because they were sold directly to purchasers at land offices established by Congress and the price of the lands and the terms of sale were prescribed by acts of Congress. While there have been many million acres sold in this manner, the tract now under consideration is of peculiar interest because the failure of Judge Symmes to pay for it and his ability to give deeds for lands within it to those who had made contracts with him gave a large number of worthy pioneers serious trouble.

Symmes Makes Unauthorized Sales.

By Symmes contract for the purchase of one million acres he was required to make payment for the land within three years from the time the tract was surveyed and its boundaries marked. The last installment of the purchase money became due in 1792 and at that time he was unable to make the required payment and on his own petition Congress authorized the president to grant him a patent for as much of the land as he was able to pay for. The northern boundary of the tract patented to him ran only a mile north of Lebanon and Symmes had already sold large quantities of land north of this line. In fact his sales had extended as far up the country as Dayton.
Not only so, but after receiving his patent he continued to sell land beyond its limits, confidently relying on his ability to obtain another patent on making further payment to the government. But he was never able to obtain another grant and for years the courts of the North West Territory and of the state of Ohio were plagued with law suits growing out of contracts which Symmes was unable to carry out. To make contracts for the sale of lands in different parts of a large region when he could at most only have a hope of obtaining a title to a portion of it shows that Judge Symmes was not a fit man to be placed at the head of one of the greatest land speculations ever gotten up in this country. His want of prudence and judgment in the management of a great enterprise brought both upon himself and those who trusted in his representations financial embarrassment and troublesome litigation which continued many years. It is proper, however, here to record the opinion of Judge Burnet, an able lawyer who was familiar with the whole history of the Miami purchase, that Symmes honestly believed that he had a right to demand of Congress another grant on the payment of the price stipulated in his contract of 1788.
Rufus King, in his History of Ohio, records the fact that the unhappy controversies growing out of his land speculation caused Judge Symmes to leave in his will an imprecation upon his countrymen for their ingratitude, but, the historian adds, these troubles were in truth at- attributable to his own want of judgment or method in matters of business.

Purchases Become Uneasy.

While Symmes was engaged in contracting for the sale of tracts north of his patent doubts arose as to his right to make such contracts. Some of the purchasers were men of intelligence and means, but rumors were about which caused some of those who had paid for their purchases in whole or in part to become uneasy, and Symmes was asked to take steps to secure those who had paid him large sums of money. This he could not do and some of them then proposed to make an application to Congress for relief. Symmes dissuaded them from this attempt, saying it might defeat the claims he would make for another grant of land.
In the autumn of 1796 Symmes went to Congress sitting at Philadelphia to obtain another patent for land. He was accompanied by Judge Jacob Burnet and a vain effort was made to induce the government to accept money and make another grant at the former price. Symmes spent the whole winter at Philadelphia in urging his claim upon Congress, but at last it was found that there was not the most distant hope of success. He returned to his home in the spring without accomplishing anything to help those who had bought lands of him outside of his patent and he was compelled to leave them to seek the best remedy in their power.
It is easy to see why Congress was unwilling to make a further grant to Symmes under his first contract. The government argued that Symmes had forfeited all right to his contract by his failure to make payments and that the land already patented to him was a final adjustment of the claim. Besides this the allowance of his claim would be inequitable and unjust to other purchasers of the public lands. The last Congress had passed a law providing for the sale of the public lands in the Northwest Territory and it had been stipulated that no part of these lands should be sold for less than $2.00 per acre. If Symmes claim had been allowed he would have obtained some of the most fertile lands in the whole territory for 66 cents per acre.
It was at this time that Symmes went to Philadelphia to urge upon Congress a new grant of land at the low price fixed upon eight years before, a great tide of immigration had begun to flow into the Northwest Territory. No part of the territory received a larger share of this immigration than the Miami country. It was the year after Wayne's treaty of peace. Stories of the wonderful fertility of the Miami country had reached the older states. Jerseymen and Pennsylvanians and Virginians floated down the Ohio to find homes on the Miamis, and the lands between these rivers were increasing in value more rapidly than those of any other part of the territory. It seems clear that the government was right in refusing to grant more land to Symmes at the old price.

Unfortunate Complications.

Judge Burnet has recorded his belief that Symmes never despaired of ultimate success in securing another grant until his final repulse in the winter of 1796-7. Prior to this time, in addition to his contracts for sales, he had granted to individuals and company's pre-emption rights to large tracts in consideration of their assuming to pay to the government the original contract price. These holders of pre-emption rights had sold out at an advance in smaller tracts to others who also engaged to pay the government price.
Only seventeen days after Wayne's treaty of peace Governor St. Arthur St. Clair, Gen. Jonathan Dayton, Gen. James Wilkinson and Col. Israel Ludlow contracted with Symmes for the purchase of the seventh and eighth ranges between Mad river and the Little Miami and in November, 1795, the town of Dayton was laid out in this tract. On the first day of April, 1796 the first settlers of Dayton arrived to make their homes in a town the original proprietors of which had no valid title to the ground on which it was to be built. The towns of Franklin and Waynesville were laid out by men whose only title to the town plats were contracts with Symmes.
A large part of the country between the Miamis north of Symmes's patent had been contracted for and was claimed either by speculators or settlers. Many of these claimants were in possession and residing on and improving their lands. Towns had been laid out and settlements made in them, mills had been built and orchards planted and the country as far north as Dayton was dotted with clearings. The men who had paid for their lands either in whole or in part and had labored in clearing and improving them, now found that they were not only without valid titles but liable to be dispossessed at any moment.

Congress Grants Relief.

The unfortunate situation of these disappointed men called for relief and that relief could be obtained by Congress. Memorials setting forth their condition and asking for relief were presented to Congress. In 1799 Congress passed an act giving to all persons who had contracts with Symmes for lands outside of his patent pre-emption to the lands they had contracted for, on paying the government price of $2.00 per acre; that is, they were given the preference over all others on paying the government price of the public lands. This was all that Congress could equitably do for them. While some were thus required to pay twice for their lands, they were enabled to save the improvements they had made and to get good titles on paying the government price of unimproved land. Congress passed later acts indulging the innocent purchasers from Symmes, granting them liberal terms of payment of the government price of the land, and thus hundreds of worthy families were saved from ruin and were enabled to pay their annual installments from the products of their farms. Many pioneers in the northern part of Warren County and also in the southern parts of Montgomery and Greene obtained titles to their farms under the pre-emption acts, a large number of the patents being signed by Thomas Jefferson.

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This page created 13 September 2004 and last updated 28 September, 2008
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