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“Profits” and the Frontier Land Speculator

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 February 2011

Allan G. Bogue
State University of Iowa
Margaret Beattie Bogue
Iowa City, Iowa


From the days of the confederation through the nineteenth century, the frontier land speculator was a familiar figure in the United States. Perambulating foreigners recorded the activities of this gentleman, and land speculation was discussed in both Congress and in the editorial columns of Western newspapers. Many twentieth-century students of America's political and economic development have dealt in one way or another with frontier land speculation. They have depicted the land speculator at times as a sinister figure, corroding the morals of national or state legislators as the lawmakers endeavored to formulate land policy. Writers have sketched the antagonism between speculator and “actual settler.” Nor have they ignored the effect which the speculator had upon the social and economic development of the region in which he operated. Such commentators have contributed to a literature that has its share of colorful characters and even displays the occasional symbol: star-crossed Robert Morris entering debtors'

Copyright © The Economic History Association 1957

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1 Exact definition of the word “speculator” is difficult. Later in this article the word is used as it was in the newspapers of the Middle West during the mid- and late nineteenth century, where generally it denoted an individual who purchased large acreages of unimproved land, intending to sell after land values had risen sufficiently to make their sale remunerative and who was not interested in working the land as a personal enterprise or in building up a longterm tenant estate. Motivation becomes crucial, therefore, in identifying the speculator. But the student cannot always discover this. He is reduced to classifying as speculators those landholders whose motives he can discover to have been speculative and those who in all or in part of their land operations behaved in the same way as the members of the first group. Thus William Scully and Matthew Scott (infra) sold part of their original purchases in an unimproved condition; a portion is still owned by their descendants and farmed in tenancy. As far as we are concerned, the land which was sold represented speculation. The Davenports (infra) revealed in their correspondence that their intentions in Nebraska were purely speculative; yet they were willing to rent land as a means of defraying the cost of taxes and a way of enhancing the value of the land through the breaking which the tenants performed. The fact that they rented land for a time prior to its sale made them no less speculators. Local use of the term “speculator” during the nineteenth century was colored somewhat by whether or not the large landholder' was resident in the community where his land lay. Historians have pointed out that the settler who held but a quarter section or less might be just as speculative in intent as the large holder; on the other hand, some would classify the land-grant railroads as land speculators. Both the settler speculators and the railroads are excluded from consideration by this definition. It will be obvious from the text of the article that the speculator is considered to be a type of investor.

2 Sumner, W. G., Robert Morris (Cambridge: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1892), pp. 137–69Google Scholar; Oberholtzer, E. P., Robert Morris: Patriot and Financier (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903) pp. 335–57Google Scholar; Higgins, Ruth L., Expansion in New York with Special Reference to the Eighteenth Century (Columbus: The Ohio State University, 1931), pp. 116–33Google Scholar.

3 Evans, Paul Demund, The Holland Land Company. Buffalo Historical Society Publications, 28 (Buffalo: Buffalo Historical Society, 1924), 397427Google Scholar.

4 Scully's spade is mentioned by both Gates, Paul Wallace, Frontier Landlords and Pioneer Tenants (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1945), p. 36Google Scholar, and Socolofsky, Homer E., “The Scully Land System in Marion County,” Kansas Historical Quarterly, XVIII (November 1950), 337–75, see p. 338Google Scholar.

5 In The Age of Enterprise: A Social History of Industrial America (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1942), pp. 4Google Scholar, II, 39, 84, 107–8, 214, Thomas C. Cochran and William Miller gave some attention to this problem. Economists concerned with the problems of economic development have given little consideration to the effect which speculation in natural resources may have in conditioning economic growth.

6 A clue to the importance of land speculation in contributing to the concentration of capital in America during the nineteenth century is found in the list of 4,047 Americans, who were “reputed to be worth a million or more,” published by the New York Tribune in 1892. Of this group, 271 allegedly owed their fortunes to investment in some type of real estate and another 1,100 had derived their wealth in part from the same source; 34 per cent in all. Ratner, Sydney, New Light on the History of Great American Fortunes: American Millionaires of 1892 and 1902 (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, Inc., 1953)Google Scholar. The figures given here are based on the writer's analysis of the 1892 list, rather than on the recapitulation found on p. 90.

7 See Redlich, Fritz, History of American Business Leaders: A Series of Studies, I (Ann Arbor: Edwards Brothers, Inc., 1940), 2122Google Scholar; Dorfman, Joseph, Thorstein Veblen and His America (New York: The Viking Press, 1935), p. 350Google Scholar; Veblen, Thorstein, Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution (New York: The Viking Press, 1939 ed.), p. 334Google Scholar. The negative quality of the land speculator's role is so often stressed that it is well to remember that he did make a positive contribution at times. After Congress struck the credit provisions from the land laws in the revision act of 1820, the impecunious settler could still purchase land on time from the speculator. Although they often carried it with poor grace, the speculators in the Middle West bore a substantial share of the tax burden as new communities developed. Particularly was this the case within the limits of those railroad land grants in which the alternate sections were settled by homesteaders enjoying immunity from taxation until they fulfilled the residence requirements of the homestead laws. When the speculator purchased from the land-grant railroads he sometimes helped these corporations to realize a return from their grants more quickly than otherwise would have been the case, thereby assisting in the construction of transportation facilities. The returns obtained by the land speculator may be regarded to an extent, therefore, as a reward for services rendered. An incidental dividend from speculation may well have stemmed from the fact that actual settlers frequently could not afford to purchase farms large enough to make economic units in the commercial agriculture of the nineteenth century. Where speculators held land nearby such farmers could build up their holdings without squeezing neighbors off the land. Specific instances to the contrary, of course, can be presented in contradiction of these generalizations.

8 Strangely enough there has been little effort made to study regional land values on a historical basis, although such work would be highly useful. In his One Hundred Years of Land Values in Chicago (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1933)Google Scholar Homer Hoyt blazed a good many interesting trails for the student who follows this approach.

9 Schafer, Joseph, Wisconsin Domesday Book.: Town Studies, I (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1924)Google Scholar; Wisconsin Lead Region: Wisconsin Domesday Book., General Studies iii (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1932)Google Scholar; A Yankee Land Speculator in Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Magazine of History, viii (June 1925), 377–92Google Scholar; The Social History of American Agriculture (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1936), pp. 2326Google Scholar.

10 Schafer, Wisconsin Domesday Book: Town Studies, 1, p. 10, including f.n. 5.

11 Schafer, Wisconsin Lead Region, pp. 148–54.

12 Gates, Paul Wallace, The Wisconsin Pine Lands of Cornell University: A Study in Land Policy and Absentee Ownership (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1943), p. 85Google Scholar, f.n. 48.

13 Russell, Mattie, “Land Speculation in Tippah County 1836–1861,” Master's Thesis, University of Mississippi, 1940Google Scholar. Chapman, Edwin W., “Land Speculation in Tate County 1836–1861,” Master's Thesis, University of Mississippi, 1942Google Scholar. Silver, James W. summarized these studies in “Land Speculation Profits in the Chickasaw Cession,” The Journal of Southern History, X (February 1944), 8492Google Scholar.

14 Russell, “Land Speculation in Tippah County,” p. iv; Chapman, “Land Speculation in Tate County,” p. ii.

15 Russell, “Land Speculation in Tippah County,” p. 72. The quoted phrase is on p. 73. See also Chapman, “Land Speculation in Tate County,” pp. 65–66.

16 Gates, Paul Wallace, “The Role of the Land Speculator in Western Development,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, LXVI (July 1942), 314–33, especially p. 332Google Scholar; Frontier Landlords and Pioneer Tenants, pp. 2–3.

17 Gates, The Wisconsin Pine Lands of Cornell University, p. 243.

18 Paul Wallace Gates to Margaret Bogue, June 24, 1955.

19 Diller, Robert, Farm Ownership, Tenancy, and Land Use in a Nebraska Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941), p. 20Google Scholar.

21 Carlson, Theodore L., The Illinois Military Tract: A Study of Land Occupation, Utilization and Tenure. Illinois Studies in the Social Sciences, XXXII, 2 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1951), 41Google Scholar.

22 Carlson, The Illinois Military Tract, p. 57 and supporting f.n. 63.

23 Evans, The Holland Land Company, p. 435.

24 Cowan, Helen I., Charles Williamson, Genesee Promoter: Friend of Anglo-American Rapprochement. Rochester Historical Society Publications, XIX (Rochester: The Rochester Historical Society, 1941), 293Google Scholar.

28 Roosevelt, Theodore, The Winning of the West (Homeward Bound Edition, New York: The Review of Reviews Co., 1910), IV, 220Google Scholar; Turner, Frederick Jackson, The United States, 1830–1850: The Nation and Its Sections (New York: H. Holt and Company, 1935), pp. 292–93Google Scholar; Fish, Carl Russell, The Rise of the Common Man: A History of American Life, VI (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1946 print.), 130Google Scholar; Kirkland, Edward C., A History of American Economic Life (3rd ed., New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1951), p. 137Google Scholar; Abrams, Charles, Revolution in Land (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1939), p. 14Google Scholar; Hacker, Louis M., The Triumph of American Capitalism: The Development of Forces in American History to the End of the Nineteenth Century (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940), pp. 210–14, 323, 327, 329Google Scholar; Sakolski, A. M., The Great American Land Bubble: The Amazing Story of Land-Grabbing, Speculations, and Booms from Colonial Days to the Present Time (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1932Google Scholar); Sheldon, Addison E., Land Systems and Land Policies in Nebraska: Publications, Nebraska State Historical Society, XXII (Lincoln: The Society, 1936)Google Scholar; Livermore, Shaw, Early American Land Companies, Their Influence on Corporate Development: Publications, Foundation for Research in Legal History, Columbia School of Law, Goebel, Julius Jr., editor (New York: The Commonwealth Fund, 1939)Google Scholar.

26 Silver, “Land Speculation Profits,” p. 92.

28 The student interested in calculating such returns is reminded that compound interest tables do exist, that a formula for calculating compound interest is available, and that, depending upon the nature of the data, calculus may yield short cuts. The work, however, was complicated by the fact that many of the returns ranged beyond the limit of conventional tables. Also, it was hoped to present the results in part as in Tables II and IV, which necessitated calculating the investment in a particular tract of land at the end of a number of years prior to the eventual sale. Income prior to the date of sale further complicated computation. Because of these considerations and the fact that the same cost figures and tax rate often applied to a sizable number of tracts it was found most' convenient, if rather cumbersome, to construct tables year by year. A number of rates were applied to the cost data and then the sale price was checked against these tables in the appropriate year to find the rate which gave a sum (purchase price, plus taxes, interest, and other costs minus income) equal to the sale price. One of the several accountants and statisticians consulted characterized this method as composed of equal parts of brute strength and ignorance, but agreed that it would give accurate results. At least two refinements in method would have produced more elegant figures. In the first place, interest rates could have been compounded semiannually rather than annually, which would have had the effect of lowering the rates slightly. Second, the rate of return on individual tracts could have been worked past the decimal point (figures beyond the decimal point in the four tables presented here were derived in the process of averaging the returns from individual tracts). It was decided that the extra calculations involved would not improve the results sufficiently to repay the time taken to make them. Others working in this same area may decide differently.

29 These means were obtained by multiplying the sale prices by the rate of interest which they returned and dividing the sum of the products by the sum of the sale prices.

30 Biographical sketches of Matthew T. Scott, Jr., are found in Pickett, George B., A Short Sketch of the Life and Character of Matthew Thompson Scott of Bloomington, Illinois (Bloomington: privately printed, 1891)Google Scholar; Bateman, Newton and Selby, Paul, editors, Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Christian County, I (Chicago: Munsell Publishing Company, 1918), 472Google Scholar; Transactions of the McLean County Historical Society, II (Bloomington: The Society, 1903), 664–67Google Scholar.

31 Compiled from the Federal cash and military bounty warrant entry books, Danville and Vandalia, Illinois Land Districts, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

32 Compiled from the Deed Records, McLean and Livingston counties, and from the deeds in the Matthew T. Scott Collection, Collection of Regional History, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

33 For a detailed discussion of the Matthew T. Scott land business during the nineteenth century see Bogue, Margaret Beattie, “Patterns from the Sod: Land Use and Tenure in the Grand Prairie, 1850–1900,” Doctoral Dissertation, Cornell University, 1955, pp. 154–99Google Scholar.

34 History of Tazewell County, Illinois … (Chicago: Chas. C. Chapman & Co., 1879), p. 703Google Scholar.

35 Compiled from the Deed Records, Iroquois County, Illinois.

36 For a discussion of the Wilson land and cattle business see Margaret Beattie Bogue, “Patterns from the Sod,” pp. 82–83, 122–23.

37 Bateman, Newton and Selby, Paul, editors, Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Champaign County (Chicago: Munsell Publishing Company, 1905), II, 675Google Scholar; Richmond, Mable E., Centennial History of Decatur and Macon County (Decatur: The Decatur Review in cooperation with the Decatur and Macon County Centennial Association, 1930), pp. 272–73Google Scholar.

38 Compiled from the Federal cash entry books, Danville, Illinois, Land District, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

39 Compiled from the Federal cash entry books.

40 The National Cyclopedia of American Biography …, XI (New York: James T. White & Company, 1901), 504Google Scholar.

41 Compiled from the Federal cash entry books.

42 For a more detailed discussion of the factors that influenced the size of speculative returns in Illinois see Beattie Bogue, “Patterns from the Sod,” pp. 200–77.

43 A considerable collection of correspondence and business records relating to the Davenports' business ventures is available in the Collection of Regional History, Cornell University. The basic record, in so far as the Nebraska land investments are concerned, is an account book, labeled “Fannie Davenport Ledger,” and referred to in other records and correspondence as “the land book.”

44 Bogue, Allan G. has discussed the mortgage investments of the brothers in Money at Interest: The Farm Mortgage on the Middle Border (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1955), pp. 775Google Scholar.

45 Mr. C. Ashley Ellefson assisted in the computation of the data that are summarized in Tables HI and IV.

46 The soil surveys of Seward, Dodge, Wayne, and Madison counties are to be found in the Field Operations of the Bureau of Soils, 1914, pp. 2253–88; 1916, pp. 2071–2119; 1917, pp. 1957–2002; 1920, pp. 201–48, published by the United States Department of Agriculture, the Nebraska Soil Survey cooperating. Those of Pierce and Lancaster counties appeared under the same auspices as Soil Survey Reports, Series 1928, No. 9, and Series 1938, No. 15. See also Garey, L. F., “Factors Determining Type-of-Farming Areas in Nebraska,” University of Nebraska College of Agriculture Experiment Station, Bulletin 299 (Lincoln, 1936)Google Scholar, and “Systems of Farming and Possible Alternates in Nebraska,” Ibid., Bulletin 309 (Lincoln, 1937)Google Scholar.

47 Allan G. Bogue, Money at Interest, p. 61, Table 4.

48 Macaulay, Frederick R., Some Theoretical Problems Suggested by the Movement of Interest Rates, Bond Yields and Stock. Prices in the United States Since 1856. Publications of the National Bureau of Economic Research, No. 33 (New York: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1938)Google Scholar, Table 3, p. 33 et seq., and Table 4, p. A. 108 et seq.

49 Cowles, Alfred 3rd. et al. , Common Stock. Indexes, 1871–1937 (Bloomington: Principia Press, Inc., 1938)Google Scholar, Series Ya, p. 372 et seq., and Series R, p. 404 et seq.