The Story of Cincinnati’s Criminal Founding Father

I knew the early history of Cincinnati involved some legal disputes about property claims but I just recently learned how fascinating the story is, that parts of Cincinnati were the subject of a land scam that probably remains the largest in American history. Long before the expression “and if you believe that I’ve got a bridge I’ll sell you” became popular, there was a guy named John Cleves Symmes and a huge chunk of Ohio called “the Miami Purchase.”

Symmes lived an extremely successful and well-regarded life before setting his sights on the West. He was a Justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court, had commanded several forts during the Revolutionary War, and had been a member of the Continental Congress. This meant that he knew a lot of powerful politicians and people of great means, and those connections helped him enter a contract with Congress to buy 2,000,000 acres of land between the Great Miami River and the Little Miami River, with the Ohio River serving as the southern boundary. The purchase price was to be a little under $1,500,000 – between 66 cents and 75 cents an acre. The terms called for him to pay an initial $200,000, have the land surveyed himself, pay an additional $200,000 after that, then pay the rest over the three subsequent years.

Because the federal government lacked funds, it issued “land warrants” to Revolutionary War soldiers. These were basically vouchers for land in unsettled western territories that were owned by the federal government. If you had a nice farm in Pennsylvania or a tavern in Rhode Island you didn’t really have any use for land in Indian territory, so the land warrants could be bought from war vets at a fraction of the theoretical value in land. This let Symmes pay an estimated 22 or 23 cents an acre for part of the land and the rest was going to be financed by wealthy investors. In a story that is still repeating itself today, Symmes didn’t let the fact that he lacked the adequate capital to develop his purchase stop him from making the purchase. In fact, he didn’t even let the absence of an executed contract stop him from leaving New Jersey to go start settling his 2-mill. acres. His behavior was so overly zealous that members of Congress thought he was staging a rebellion and taking the land by force. Congress ordered a general to arrest him before he reached Ohio. He resolved that little misunderstanding but it was only the first of his problems.

Symmes started selling land even before he left New Jersey. One of his early sales was to a guy named Benjamin Sites. He founded a settlement named Columbia in November 1788 and started selling off parts of it to settlers. Columbia, the second settlement in Ohio, eventually became incorporated into the City of Cincinnati and is now the neighborhood of Columbia-Tusculum.

When the first payment of $200,000 came due, Symmes only had $83,330, so he asked to re-negotiate his contract with the federal government. He wanted to cut the purchase down to 1-mill. acres, cutting 1-mill off of the top half of the original purchase. Congress agreed to reduce the acreage, but bulked at the boundaries. They told Symmes that he would have to divide the land east-west rather than north-south and declared that he no longer had any right to land along the Ohio River that was further than 20 miles east of the mouth of the Great Miami. The problem was that Symmes had already sold land outside of this boundary, including the entire settlement of Columbia. Not only had he sold it, but Sites surveyed it, divided it and re-sold it.

Symmes’ approach to this dilemma was to cover his ears and keep repeating to Congress, “I can’t hear you.” He kept selling land that he didn’t own because he thought that if he sold enough of it and the territory became settled enough, it would become politically unpalatable for Congress to kick people off “their land” and they would eventually agree to the terms Symmes wanted – even though they had already expressly rejected them.
Ultimately, Symmes couldn’t even fulfill the terms of his modified agreement. He eventually received clear title to only 311,682 acres, and he didn’t get that until 1794 – 7 years after he started selling the land. By the time he got clear title to any of the original territory, Symmes had already sold much of what is now the eastern neighborhoods of Cincinnati, the eastern half of Hamilton County, and a sizeable chunk of Warren County without what we lawyers technically refer to as “owning it.” When Ohio’s Governor St. Clair realized this, he had what eighteenth century doctors referred to, technically, as “a conniption fit.” St. Clair, who was simultaneously a governor and a military General, issued a proclamation to the inhabitants of Columbia in the summer of 1791. The proclamation delivered the bad news that they didn’t really own the land that they’d bought from a guy who bought it from a guy who didn’t own it, and went on to advise them that they were trespassing on federal land and that he intended to use military force to eject them.

Symmes also had a problem with surveys. The line from where surveys started was moved several times and multiple teams of surveyors did the work. This resulted in overlapping boundary lines – i.e. different people buying the same land.

Symmes was spunky. He didn’t let the little things in life like not owning the land he was selling get him down. In 1795 the Treaty of Greeneville was signed with the Native Americans who lived in Ohio. The increased safety that this brought caused the value of land to shoot up to $2.00 an acre. Not only did Symmes keep selling land that he didn’t own, but when the price of land shot up, he tried to enforce the terms of the original 2-mill. acre contract. Given the fact that he was known to be perpetuating massive fraud by then, it was a pretty optimistic move. (It didn’t work.)

The residents of Columbia were not forcibly kicked off of their land by the Governor and in 1799 the federal government gave them the “right of preemption.” This was the right to buy their land for $2.00 an acre — a little less than market-rate in 1799, but pretty steep for people who had already bought the land in good faith and had spent much of the previous decade trying not to starve and dodging arrows and tomahawks. In their great generosity, however, Congress did give these struggling farmers who dealt primarily in the exchange of goods an entire six months to come up with the cash.

Like today, the working people paid the price for white-collar greed run amok in Biblical proportion. Symmes was never prosecuted and the federal government never took any action against him. He did get sued though – a LOT! He spent the rest of his life in lawsuits trying to defend his intensions and visions and losing everything he had. He had to sell the land that he legitimately owned to pay judgments on land that he had sold without title. He died broke in Cincinnati on February 26, 1814.

John Cleves Symmes was buried in North Bend, Ohio, the town that he envisioned as the jewel of the Miami Purchase – a plan that also didn’t work out so well. If you visit his grave today on the anniversary of his death, legend says that if the day is quite enough and you listen closely, you can still here the people buried around Symmes saying, “what the Hell were you thinking?!” (OK, I made that last part up.)

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