The Yazoo Land Fraud
Connolly, David H., The Journal of Southern Legal History
The Yazoo Land Fraud. By Helen Clark. Louisville, Ga.: Jefferson County Historical Society, c. 2009.
The publication of Helen Clark's 1948 master's thesis on the Yazoo Land Fraud by the Jefferson County Historical Society' is a compliment to the late author and reflects a genuine affection for someone who probably was the historical source for residents of Louisville and Jefferson County, Georgia. Clark's study is a brief account of the Yazoo fraud of 1795 and focuses tightly on the corruption ofland speculators and Georgia legislators, making the study more of a cautionary moral tale than an in-depth study of Georgia history during the Early National period. The quality of her terse study of the Yazoo scandal demonstrates solid analytical skills and insight.
Despite the Yazoo Land Fraud having been one of the biggest scandals of its time, with significant legal, political, and territorial repercussions for Georgia and the nation, it no longer receives much scrutiny or examination in American historiography. Mainly of interest to students of constitutional law and Georgia history, this event either does not appear in recent general U.S. history survey textbooks, or it is enmeshed in the context of another historical event or subject.1' The last detailed scholarly study devoted to the Yazoo Land Fraud and its impact was Peter Magrath's 1966 examination^ of the United States Supreme Court's 1810 decision in Fletcher v. Peck* in which the Marshall Court overturned Georgia's repeal of the sale on constitutional grounds.' The 2009 publication of Clark's master's thesis on the fraud invites historians, members of the legal profession, and those generally interested in Georgia or the Early National period to take another look at this episode.
In 1795 several groups of land speculators formed four separate companies or partnerships and petitioned the Georgia legislature for grants of land in the state's western territory. For a mere pittance, each of the four companies succeeded in acquiring millions of acres of state land in present-day Alabama and Mississippi. Once each land company had extinguished Indian title to the territory, it could be opened for sale and settlement, with a small percentage reserved exclusively for Georgia citizens. Georgia, saddled with an empty treasury and concerned over the stability of its frontier lands, would benefit from the income from the sale as well as the potential revenue and security brought about by the settling of territory held by Native Americans. An increase in the state's population through immigration to the frontier would then foster growth of Georgia's economy and boost its political standing in the new nation. These speculators, whom Clark describes as little better than "sharpers" motivated by greed, assured favorable legislative treatment of their proposals by offering shares or interests in the land to a number of state assemblymen.6 By all accounts, the legislators readily, if not eagerly, accepted the opportunity to participate in the speculation. As Clark reminds us, a number of nationally prominent individuals took part in the episode, including United States Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, along with many prominent Georgians, such as United States District Court Judge Nathaniel Pendleton and James Gunn, United States senator for Georgia.' Gunn, one of the major players in the event, purportedly threatened to whip legislators who hesitated to support the Yazoo legislation. Undoubtedly, the participants in the deal wanted to make a profit.*
This was not the first time the Yazoo lands had generated interest. Clark devotes a chapter of her thesis to the first Yazoo speculation of 1789, in which three companies, the South Carolina Yazoo Company, the Tennessee Company (whose chief organizer, Zachariah Cox, managed to become the assistant clerk of the Georgia House of Representatives), and the Virginia Yazoo Company (whose members included Patrick Henry), sought to purchase portions of the western territory. …