Land Speculation of the 1830s

The Midwest

William Leggett, A Collection of the Political Writings of William Leggett, New York: Taylor and Dodd, (ed.)Theodore Sedgwick, Jr., Volume 2, pp. 83-85. Appeared on September 14, 1836. in the New York Evening Post.

A traveller, once, in Indiana, on setting out early one morning from the place where he had passed the night, consulted his map of the country, and finding that a very considerable town called . . . Vienna . . . occupied a point on his road but some twelve or fifteen miles off, concluded to journey as far as that place before breakfast. Another equally extensive town ... was laid down at a convenient distance for his afternoon stage; and there he proposed halting for the night. He continued to travel at a good round pace until the sun had attained a great height in heaven, and until he computed that he had accomplished more than twice or thrice the distance which he proposed to himself in the outset.... Still he saw no town before him, even of the humblest kind, much less such a magnificent one as his map had prepared him to look for. At length, meeting a solitary wood-chopper emerging from the forest, he accosted him, and inquired how far it was to Vienna. "Vienna!" exclaimed the man, "why you passed itfive and twenty miles back: did you not notice a stick of hewn timber and a blazed tree beside the road? That was Vienna." The dismayed traveller then inquired how far it was to the other place, at which he designed passing t he night. "Why you are right on that place now," returned the man; "it begins just the other side of yon ravine, and runs down to a clump of girdled trees which you will see about a mile further on the road." "And are there no houses built?" faltered out the traveller, who began to suspect that, as the song says-"The heath this night must be his bed."

"Oh, no houses whatsomever," returned the woodman; "they hewed and hauled the logs for a blacksmith's shop, but before they raised it the town lots were all disposed of in the eastern states, and every thing has been left just as you now see it ever since."

It is pretty much in the same way that things are left, at the present time, in this portion of the country. If any one should make a map of the lands lying within the compass of some thirty or forty miles from this city, and embrace in it all the improvements, projected as well as actually existing, the spectator, who does not know the true condition of the country, would be astonished at the appearance of dense population which it would present. Cities, towns and villages would be represented as lying scattered around him at every step. The intermediate slips of unoccupied ground would seem hardly large enough even to furnish pasture for the stray cattle of the surrounding towns, much less to supply their inhabitants with all the necessary products of agricultural consumption. We hear no more, now-a-days, of a farm being sold, as a farm, in the vicinity of the city. The land is all divided into lots of a hundred feet by twenty-five; and it would seem as if, in the visions of speculators, a dense city must soon extend from the Atlantic ocean to the lakes, and from the Hudson river to the borders of Connecticut.

Land Speculation in Chicago 1836

Harriet Martineau, Society in America, Volume 1, New York: Saunders and Otley, 1837, pp. 259- 261.

I never saw a busier place than Chicago was at the time of our arrival. The streets were crowded with land speculators, hurrying from one sale to another. A Negro, dressed up in scarlet, bearing a scarlet flag, and riding a white horse with housings of scarlet, announced the times of sale. At every street-corner where he stopped, the crowd flocked around him; and it seemed as if some prevalent mania infected the whole people. The rage for speculation might fairly be so regarded. As the gentlemen of our party walked the streets, storekeepers hailed them from their doors, with offers of farms, and all manner of land-lots, advising them to speculate before the price of land rose higher. A young lawyer, of my acquaintance there, had realized five hundred dollars per day, the five preceding days, by merely making out titles to land. Another friend had realized, in two years, ten times as much money as he had before fixed upon as a competence for life. Of course, this rapid money-making is a merely temporary evil. A bursting of the bubble must come soon. The absurdity of the speculation is so striking, that the wonder is that the fever should have attained such a height as I witnessed. The immediate occasion of the bustle which prevailed, the week we were at Chicago, was the sale of lots, to the value of two millions of dollars, along the course of a projected canal; and of another set, immediately behind these. . . . Whereas, wild land on the banks of a canal, not yet even marked out, was selling at Chicago for more than rich land, well improved, in the finest part of the valley of the Mohawk, on the banks of a canal which is already the medium of an almost inestimable amount of traffic. If sharpers and gamblers were to be the sufferers by the impending crash at Chicago, no one would feel much concerned; but they, unfortunately, are the people who encourage the delusion, in order to profit by it. Many a high-spirited, but inexperienced, young man; many a simple settler, will be ruined for the advantage of knaves.

Land Boom in the Old Southwest

Joseph Baldwin, The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1853, pp. 82-87.

This country was just settling up. Marvellous accounts had gone forth of the fertility of its virgin lands; and the productions of the soil were commanding a price remunerating to slave labor as it had never been r emunerated before. Emigrants came flocking in from all quarters of the Union, especially from the slaveholding States. The new country seemed to be a reservoir, and every road leading to it a vagrant stream of enterprise and adventure. Money, or what passed for money, was the only cheap thing to be had. Every cross-road and every avocation presented an opening, -through which a fortune was seen by the adventurer in near perspective. Credit was a thing of course. To refuse it-if the thing was ever donewere an insult for which a bowie knife were not a too summary or exemplary a means of redress. The State banks were issuing their bills by the sheet . . . ; and no other showing was asked of the applicant for the loan than an authentication of his great distress for money. Finance, even in its most exclusive quarter, had thus already got, in this wonderful revolution, to work upon the principles of the charity hospital. If an overseer grew tired of supervising a plantation and felt a call to the mercantile life, even if he omitted the compendious method of buying out a merchant wholesale, stock, house and good will, and laying down, at once, his bullwhip for the yard-stick-all he had to do was to go on to New-York, and present himself in Pearl-street with a letter avouching his citizenship, and a clean shirt, and he was regularly given a through ticket to speedy bankruptcy.

Under this stimulating process prices rose like smoke. Lots in obscure villages were held at city prices; lands, bought at the minimum cost of government, were sold at from thirty to forty dollars per acre, and considered dirt cheap at that. In short, the country had got to be a full antetype of California, in all except the gold. . . .

"Commerce was king"-and Rags, Tag and Bobtail his cabinet council. Rags was treasurer. Banks, chartered on a specie basis, did a very flourishing business on the promissory notes of the individual stockholders ingeniously substituted in lieu of cash. They issued ton for one, the one being fictitious. They generously loaned all the directors could not use themselves, and were not choice whether Bardolph was the endorser for Falstaff, or Falstaff borrowed on his own proper credit, or the funds advanced him by Shallow. The stampede towards the golden temple became general: the delusion prevailed far and wide that this thing was not a burlesque on commerce and finance. Even the directors of the banks began to have their doubts whether the intended swindle was not a failure. Like Lord Clive, when reproached for extortion to the extent of some millions in Bengal, they exclaimed, after the bubble burst, "When they thought of what they had got, and what they might have got, they were astounded at their own moderation."