Friday, November 3, 2017

Settler Disputes with Land Companies and the Burr Conspiracy

A map showing ownership of parcels by various companies and individuals

Crawford County does not have much of a history of domestic strife. The county was largely unsettled during the time of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 never touched the county, and political conflict never erupted into violence as Bleeding Kansas did. There is, however, one instance of a domestic dispute that divided the region for nearly thirty years toward the end of the 1800s.

Land as Payment

In the aftermath of the Revolution, our fledgling nation suffered from a great deal of economic misery. The continental currency had suffered so much depreciation that it was worthless, and the same could be said for the bills of credit which were used by both the state and federal government to pay the soldiers of the continental army. Congress knew that they had to pay their debt to the soldier to prevent a rebellion starting for the same reason as the Newburgh Conspiracy which General Washington had prevented in 1783 at the conclusion of the war. Congress only had one thing to offer, and that was federal land in the newly acquired Northwest Territory, comprising what are now the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Even this vast amount of territory was not enough for the newly formed federal government to pay what was promised. Soldiers had been promised land in varying amounts determined by a man’s rank. Tracks of land between 2000 acres and 200 acres were paid to the individual, in the hopes that these soldiers would move to these fertile frontier lands. The government even removed parcels of land that were known to be infertile from being used as payment, surveyed the land, and made every attempt to assist soldiers in resettling on their new land. There was only one small problem, however. The land promised to the soldiers also happened to be land owned by over a dozen different native american tribes, all of which responded to what was effectively a foreign invasion with expected force.

The Soldiers and Speculators

Though what is now known as the Northwest Indian War had no official battles within the borders of Pennsylvania, the natives of the area still defended their land with vigor. In addition, the area was practically wilderness. This made the land unappealing to many soldiers, and so those many sold their land to speculators. The speculators were then subject to taxes which were greater than the value of what little the land produced, so the speculators chose to give up the useless land tin payment for taxes owed.

The Company Land Grab

With much of the land now back in the hands of the state, it was decided that these lands would be put up for sale for about seven pounds sterling per 100 acres. Land companies were organized by wealthy men and were given permission to purchase large swaths of the territory if these companies also funded and oversaw the construction of mills, roads, and other infrastructure needed in this frontier region. Such companies were the North American Land Company, the Pennsylvania Population Company, and the Holland Land Company. Those who ran and owned the companies became known as land barons.

Conflict and Political Division

The settlers of the region saw these large purchases of land as an infringement upon their land, though much of it was not legally theirs. The settlers still used this land, farmed it, and had developed parts long before the land had any official owner. Conflict between these two groups was inevitable. When it did occur, the battlelines were drawn between the Federalist elite who owned the best land and ran the land companies, and the settlers and Democratic-Republicans on the other. The settlers, who came to be called the ‘intruders’ by the land companies, published slanderous articles about mistreatment the settlers experienced at the hands of the agents of the land company. Graphic depictions of women and children being evicted in the dead of night were spread in local papers, which the supporters of the land companies boycotted in response.

Image result for the burr conspiracy
The duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr which sparked the idea of the Burr Conspiracy

Mobs, Accusations, and Conspiracies

This conflict truly split the community. The companies and those associated with them saw the intruders as nothing more than squatters refusing to obey the law. The settlers saw the companies as villains who treated the honest people of the frontier unfairly and cruelly. Mobs were led, effigies were hung or beaten in front of the family members of the effigy’s model. Accusations of conspiracy, whether in a plot to blow up buildings containing land ownership documents by the settlers or of local Federalists being involved in the so-called Burr Conspiracy. These accusations were aimed at the leadership of the two groups, with David Mead and Henry Hurst being accused of the gunpowder plot, and both several companies as a whole as well as their agents were accused of entertaining suspected emissaries from Burr. Nothing came of these accusations, no trials or otherwise. It would take until the end of the War of 1812 for these issues to be settled.

The Dying of the Conflict and the Subject of Blame

At the end of the War of 1812, social stratification remained, but no longer did a fire burn in the settlers to resist the companies. Though there were abuses of power by the land barons, they did contribute  a great amount to the settlers of the region. At the same time, these abuses often came at the expense of their assigned mission, to accommodate and assist settlers in the development of the region. Even after conflict had reached its end, the politics of the region and the land itself was divided between the rich and poor, with the best land being owned by the wealthy. The settlers had violated the law by settling in the region, as it was declared that no one was to settle in the area until the area was free from natives and thus no longer constituted native land. In addition, others truly were squatters. Such conflicts are inevitable, but it can be hoped that the lessons of such times can teach the necessities of both equity and respect for the law.


1885. History of Crawford County Pennsylvania. Chicago: Warner, Beers, & Co.

Ilisevich, Robert, D. 2008. Remembering Crawford County: Pennsylvania's Last Frontier. Charleston: The History Press. 

bout the Author

Kyle Dilts is a rising senior at Allegheny College. He is majoring in history and environmental science, and is also a member of the Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society. Kyle is a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh, and has always been fascinated by the history of western Pennsylvania. He is currently an intern at the Crawford County Historical Society where he helps manage the organization’s social media. He hopes that this experience will further his education on the history of western Pennsylvania, and that he will prove to be an asset to the Historical Society.

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