The Day of the Speculator
IN THE BOOM PERIOD that followed the War of 1812 and ended in the Panic of 1819, the American people were seized by a veritable land craze. Alabama and Mississippi were particularly affected. At the sales at Huntsville, Alabama, in 1818, the land sold beyond all calculations: forty-two townships brought the government five million dollars,1 or a little over five dollars an acre. Since the minimum price of land was two dollars an acre, the average price was more than two and one-half times the minimum; and some agricultural land sold for thirty to seventy-eight dollars per acre. But frontiersmen, eager to advance their own interest, would not allow the United States to conduct a fair auction at which the land would be sold at its true value. General John Coffee, a land buyer, stated that a group of speculators, bent on obtaining the land for a fraction of its worth, had sent men out on the different roads leading to Huntsville to meet incoming strangers and solicit them to join a company that was being formed to buy as much land as possible, supposedly for the benefit of all. They proposed to "run down small capitalists or such as would not join their company." Learning of this scheme, the register, receiver, and surveyor general felt they should protect the interests of the United States and keep the company from securing the land for the minimum price, which was much below the real value. Accordingly, they sought counsel from the attorney general of the territory on the legality of stopping the sale. The attorney general did not believe it could be stopped legally, and therefore the register, to protect the interests of the United States, bid on the land and ran it up to a high figure, making the speculators pay a just price.
Much of the land sold for twenty dollars an acre and up, and land intended for nonagricultural purposes -- such as townsites -- sold at even higher figures. Half of one quarter-section sold for $150 an acre and the____________________