Adirondack historians routinely state that Rhode Island merchant John Brown obtained clear title to a 210,000 acre tract of land when he paid $33,000 at a Court of Chancery mortgage foreclosure sale in December 1798. However, this transaction was not recorded in the Lewis County Clerk’s Office until February 22, 1804, more than five years later and five months after Brown’s death.
Two days later on February 24, the Assembly enacted Chapter 6, Laws of 1804 which affirmed that the Brown estate’s title to the tract could not be extinguished in any way “by reason or pretext of the alienism of any person to whom the said lands may have been conveyed” or “ by any conveyance prior to“ Brown’s 1798 payment.
John Brown’s anxiety over his title and his efforts to obtain this legislation while he was developing the tract at significant expense are evidence that his title was not perfected until 1804, the same year that two of his legal advisers fought a deadly duel.
In his July 1859 article describing the John Brown’s Tract, Thomas B. Thorpe wrote that “Tradition, strange as it may seem, is already at fault and contradictory as to the particulars which attended the original purchase. Who sold it, and who made the title, and what was originally paid, are things to be exhumed only by laborious and non-compensating research”. Fortunately, research on the “particulars” would be completed by the 1980s with the publishing of two books, one by Henry A. L. Brown and Richard A. Walton on John Brown’s efforts and the other, an unlikely Adirondack history resource, Volume IV of a series detailing Alexander Hamilton’s law practice edited by Julius Goebel, Jr. and Joseph H. Smith. This volume describes the Macomb Purchase and details John Julius Angerstein’s purchase and his subsequent loss of the tract.
Charles Broadhead’s circa 1797 Macomb Purchase map displays the Angerstein Tract and its acreage. Those histories mentioning Angerstein and later cited, such as Donaldson’s, claim he merely held the tract briefly as security. Thorpe’s assessment was correct.
Since the John Brown’s Tract is contained within Tracts 5 and 6 of the Macomb Purchase, our story will be confined to this portion of that historic purchase made during an era when our young Nation and its merchants were generally cash-poor. Promissory notes, supported by the credit, confidence and reputation of the provider, were customarily exchanged when conducting business. Also relevant to our subject, non-citizens were not allowed to own New York lands unless specifically permitted by legislation. Without it, aliens who acquired title were considered to have obtained land for the benefit of the state and escheatment proceedings could occur to transfer title accordingly.
One result of the Revolution was that New York owned millions of unsettled, unalloted lands previously owned by the English Crown or Native Americans, including the unexplored northern wilderness in the western region of the state. In order to attract settlement and revenue sources, the state enacted in 1786 legislation for the “speedy sale” of lands to be administered by a land commission that included officials such as the Governor and Attorney General. Lands were to be sold at public auction in townships of 64,000 acres, subdivided in 640 acre lots and five of every 100 acres were to be reserved for public highways. In March 1791, this act was amended directing the commissioners to make any terms with purchasers judged to be in the state’s best interests.
Alexander Macomb, former fur trader and supplier of the Crown’s western posts and a legislator when the bill passed, applied in May 1791 to purchase an estimated 3,635,200 at 8 pence an acre, amounting to over ₤121,000, payable in equal annual installments at the end of the next six years. The acreage was divided into 6 Tracts estimated to be 640,000 acres each. Macomb would receive a patent for each Tract when payment was made. Lacking other bids, the land commission approved the application on June 22, 1791. While Governor George Clinton was criticized for the large purchase at a price considered low, Attorney General Aaron Burr escaped the controversy by being absent for the above meeting.
Sharing interest with Macomb in this largest individual sale of state lands in history were Daniel McCormick, rich from the sale of war prizes, and William Constable, successful tea merchant and a leading financier for international commerce. By January 1792, the three partners had accomplished the first three payments ahead of schedule and Macomb received a patent for the estimated 1,920,000 acres in Tracts 4, 5 and 6. The partners were required to determine the actual acreage by survey at their expense. Already in London, William Constable began arranging sales of the lands. The partners determined to sell enough lands to recoup the payments, holding the remainder to sell later, profiting from the expected rise in land values as settlement occurred. Constable also hoped to obtain funds for the remaining tracts by offering loans secured by mortgages on the lands.
Constable initially failed to attract purchasers due not only to the unknown quality of the lands, but also to the difficulty of attracting English investors when alien landownership was prohibited. Though Macomb failed to obtain legislation for foreign ownership of Tract lands, Aaron Burr, now a U.S. Senator, provided Macomb an opinion that while aliens could not own the land, aliens could own mortgages on property and foreclose as successfully as a citizen. Macomb immediately forwarded this information across the ocean to Constable.
Macomb soon lost heavily from financial connections to speculator William Duer whose March 1792 collapse would enable creditors to attach Macomb’s land holdings. Consequently, Macomb immediately petitioned that the state transfer his application rights to Tracts 1, 2 and 3 to Daniel McCormick. On June 6, 1792, Macomb transferred title of Tracts 4, 5 and 6 to Constable. Macomb was soon in debtors’ prison.
In June 1792, Constable sold 25,000 acres of Tract 6 which later would be known as Inman’s Triangle. Then he learned that his Paris agent James D. LeRay de Chaumont found a group of investors who agreed to purchase the remaining lands in the three Tracts. However, the French monarchy’s collapse stalled these plans for the “La Compagnie de New York”. Shortly after, Samuel Ward, a New York merchant in London, and William S. Smith, son-in-law of John Adams, offered to assume the French contract. In December, Constable, Ward and Smith signed an agreement to be mutually concerned with selling the three Tracts, with Constable also conveying temporarily the unsold acreage in Tracts 5 and 6 to Ward.
At the end of December 1792, Ward sold 400,000 acres of Tracts 5 and 6 to Thomas Boylston. In January at Paris he negotiated a replacement contract with the French group for 200,000 acres in Tract 5, conveyed to Peter Chassanis in April 1793 by Constable, that would become Castorland. Returning to England, Ward made two more sales a month apart, one for a tract later known as the Brantingham Tract and the other to John Julius Angerstein of Lloyd’s of London.
John Julius Angerstein was not cash poor. Angerstein was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, settled in London around 1749, engaged as a merchant and eventually owned shares in the slave trade in Grenada, using its profits to acquire a significant art collection. While owning slaves, he also served on a British committee for the “Black Poor” with strong abolitionist goals. He was chairman of Lloyd’s of London from 1790 to 1796 and a major player in its rise as an international insurer. When he died in 1823, his art collection formed the nucleus for Britain’s National Gallery which used his 100 Pall Mall personal gallery for its headquarters until the National Gallery was built in Trafalgar Square. Angerstein was portrayed in the 1936 film Lloyd’s of London, Tyrone Power’s first major movie.
On March 8, 1793, Angerstein signed an agreement with Constable and Ward to purchase 200,000 acres (plus 10,000 acres reserved for highways) carved from the eastern parts of Tracts 5 and 6. Angerstein paid ₤10,000 sterling (no notes) for one-half title conveyed immediately and held the other half in trust for Ward with an option to purchase it for ₤11,000 by February 16, 1794, ₤11,500 if purchased by August 16, 1794. The agreement required that Ward obtain passage within twelve months of an alien landholding law approving Angerstein’s ownership. If legislation was not passed, Constable agreed to purchase the tract, repay Angerstein his initial payment with interest, Ward would then repay Constable for the interest paid Angerstein and both Angerstein and Ward would convey title to Constable.
Witnessing the Assembly’s rejection of similar petitions in early 1794, Ward did not seek Angerstein’s enabling legislation and assumed Angerstein would want to sell the tract. Both Ward and Smith held Angerstein powers of attorney. Smith informed Ward in June 1794 that James Greenleaf, experienced in profiting from loans for speculative investments, was interested in the Angerstein Tract. Ward was now concerned about the mechanics of a sale, i.e., whether Angerstein can convey an illegitimate title. He suggested that Constable cancel the deed. In September, Ward informed Constable that Aaron Burr thought the Angerstein deed could be “taken up” by using Angerstein’s power of attorney and reconveying to Constable without Angerstein’s name being mentioned. Constable was unconvinced by Ward’s letter and sought legal advice from attorney Daniel McKinnen in New York, who often used Alexander Hamilton for counsel.
In the meantime, Ward and Smith, using Angerstein’s power of attorney, sold the Angerstein Tract to Aaron Burr on September 22, 1794 for ₤50,000, a ₤5,000 note payable in 60 days and the balance in three installments at six month intervals. Informing Constable of the sale, Ward wrote that he informed Angerstein that they had sold his land.
Burr presumed that William Smith was a 25% partner in his purchase and soon learned that Smith was bowing out with the initial payment soon due. Burr now needed an exit from the contract. In November he provided three options to Ward: Burr could propose to the state legislature to begin escheatment proceedings to transfer the tract to the state (threatening loss to both Angerstein and Ward); Burr might pay ₤40,000 for the land and work for a bill perfecting his title; or Burr would pay ₤1,000 for Ward to cancel Burr’s contract and the current note due.
Ward countered by reducing the price to ₤24,000, ₤12,000 paid partly now and the rest by January 1, 1796 and then ₤12,000 paid to Angerstein in London by July 1796. Smith would convey the land using Angerstein’s power of attorney and Ward would provide a quitclaim should Angerstein’s title need be hidden. As proposed, Burr believed the strategy would properly convey the property to him. However, Ward required that Burr partner with James Greenleaf for the first ₤12,000 payment (Burr later paid $10,000 cash on it) and, for the July 1796 amount due Angerstein, Greenleaf gave a note which Ward persuaded Burr to co-sign. The deed was made out to Greenleaf only, but Burr’s exposure was considerably less than in the original purchase. However, if Greenleaf defaulted on the note, Burr was required to also pay to Angerstein a ₤24,000 penalty. A final agreement, dated December 15, 1794, not only consolidated the agreements for the above terms, but also cancelled the deeds executed by Angerstein (1793) and Burr (9/22/1794) and stipulated that Greenleaf and Burr shared all risks of title tied to those conveyances.
Apparently, Ward felt that his inability to earlier sell Greenleaf other promised Macomb Purchase lands would be satisfied by providing Greenleaf the majority interest in the Burr transaction. Also, Ward may have felt Greenleaf to be a better risk than Burr for the payments. But in London, Angerstein was naturally unhappy with Ward’s news about the sale of the Angerstein Tract. Though he had paid half of the purchase price in sterling in 1793, he would now be the last to receive payment and only if the note signed by Burr and Greenleaf was honored.
Now, John Brown of Providence enters our story. During 1795, Greenleaf’s financial dealings in Federal City (D.C.) lands and other speculations turned sour. Attempting to acquire revenue sources and commodities to sell to meet his mounting debts, Greenleaf mortgaged what he called the Greenleaf tract to Philip Livingston on July 29, 1795 for $31,050. Then, John Francis, son-in-law and partner of John Brown, arrived in New York to sell 420,000 lbs. of tea stored in Brown & Francis’s Providence warehouse. Francis signed a sales contract with Greenleaf dated July 30, 1795 amounting to $157,500, notes payable in three equal $52,500 installments in 6, 9 and 12 months. Requiring additional security for Greenleaf’s notes before releasing the tea, John Francis received mortgages on two properties, one being a second mortgage on the Angerstein (Greenleaf) Tract to secure the third installment. On November 4, 1796, John Francis died. John Brown, with Francis’ brother Thomas, would encounter repeated delays and additional expenses trying to obtain payment from Greenleaf over the next two years.
A year after (May 1796) learning of the Angerstein Tract sale, Angerstein asked the Philadelphia agent for the House of Baring merchant firm, Alexander Baring, to review the series of sales contracts for his Tract and gave him his power of attorney. Two months later, Greenleaf defaulted on the note payable to Angerstein. Greenleaf’s notes on other debts (Brown) were not being met and Burr was now liable for the ₤24,000 ($80,000) default penalty. After waiting nine months for payment, Angerstein filed suit in the state’s Supreme Court in March 1797. Alexander Hamilton served as counsel for Angerstein’s attorney Daniel McKinnen.
Greenleaf authorized Burr in July 1797 to file an injunction to stay Angerstein’s suit in the Court of Chancery and to countersue Angerstein for lack of good title. Burr offered Angerstein an interest in Pennsylvania lands of which Baring soon learned Burr lacked sufficient title. The Angerstein v. Burr suit stalled during 1798 while Burr negotiated with Baring.
By 1798, John Brown, weary from repeatedly accommodating Greenleaf’s payment delays of the tea sale installments, determined to acquire the tract. He had learned in May 1797 that Philip Livingston filed foreclosure of the first mortgage in Court of Chancery. Brown had also obtained legal advice about the tract from Aaron Burr who probably informed him that Greenleaf’s title was good though a “British citizen” claimed Greenleaf’s title. Brown’s agents in New York hired Alexander Hamilton for matters concerning the Greenleaf mortgage.
Hamilton urged Brown to bring at least $30,000 cash to the Court of Chancery auction for Livingston’s mortgage scheduled for November 1798. Having received good reports about the tract from surveyor John Hammond, Brown was ready to obtain it. Brown bid $33,000, resulting in a deed from Livingston and the Court of Chancery to Brown for the Angerstein Tract dated December 29, 1798. Brown had Hamilton review the deed.
Negotiations with Baring deadlocked for over a year, Burr filed a countersuit against Angerstein in May 1799. Burr’s claims were he was unaware of any details regarding the original 1793 Angerstein purchase; he did not know Greenleaf when he cosigned the note for the Angerstein payment; and he was unaware of actions by Ward and Smith to eliminate Angerstein’s name from the deeds. Burr declared that escheatment proceedings were now begun to transfer the Angerstein Tract to the state. Without his knowledge (though discussed with Brown two years earlier), Greenleaf had mortgaged the tract to cover his debts. Burr now claimed that Angerstein being a British citizen meant Angerstein v. Burr lacked legal sufficiency. Burr’s injunction was granted. Hamilton quickly obtained removal of the injunction. Angerstein v. Burr proceeded to judgment in June and Angerstein was awarded ₤24,000 ($80,000) plus court costs.
Burr now negotiated with Baring’s attorney Charles Hare for reduced terms meeting the approval of both Hamilton and Angerstein. Offering proceeds from an engineered sale of Tioga County lands, Burr settled with Hamilton and Angerstein, who were probably tired of Burr’s delays, and the judgment was dismissed in February 1803. Angerstein would receive $40,000 from the sale.
As mentioned, escheatment proceedings for the Angerstein Tract were initiated during 1799. In early 1800, Hamilton also heard that Burr, while negotiating with Angerstein lawyers, continued efforts to discredit Greenleaf’s (thus Brown’s) title derived from Angerstein. Brown urged Hamilton to quickly petition the Assembly to perfect his title. In March 1800, Josiah Ogden Hoffman, Attorney General and a Burr associate, reviewed Brown’s petition forwarded from the legislature. Without reviewing its merits, Hoffman dismissed it as premature since escheatment was not completed. John Brown would not live to witness his petition’s approval.
On the national stage, the Presidential Election of 1800 was deadlocked in the Electoral College with Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr receiving the same vote totals. Hamilton worked to defeat Burr in the House of Representatives, citing Burr’s unsecured debts when criticizing Burr in early 1801, specifically the history of the Angerstein judgment. A year later, Burr’s changing opinions on the validity of Angerstein’s alien ownership as it met his needs was publicly described in James Cheetham’s widely distributed pamphlet on Burr’s “political character”.
John Brown died on September 20, 1803. In February 1804, Brown’s 1798 deed was finally recorded in Lewis County’s Clerk’s Office as Hamilton succeeded in having the Assembly approve Brown’s petition perfecting the tract’s title regardless of alien ownership or prior sales. It was then truly the John Brown’s Tract. Reacting to Hamilton’s comments about him supposedly made at a social event, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel on July 11, 1804 resulting in Hamilton’s death one day later.