A remarkable map of northwestern New York State, documenting the most successful of the great American land speculations of the late 18th century… organized by a Swiss financier and funded by the Holland Land Company.
In 1791 speculator Robert Morris of Philadelphia obtained control of essentially all of New York State west of the Genesee River—some 3,750,000 acres in all. In 1792-93 he flipped most of the tract to the Holland Land Company, a syndicate of Dutch investors represented here by their general agent Theophile Cazenove of Geneva. The investors did not actually receive title until the 1797 Treaty of Big Tree, in which the Senecas relinquished their claims to the land in return for a cash payment and the creation of several reservations. It is worth noting that this European involvement was hardly unusual: There was at the time little capital available in the United States, while the dislocations caused by revolutions in France and Saint Domingue induced many Europeans to place their money abroad.
The holdings of the Holland Land Company were extraordinarily well situated, fertile and well watered and offering access to Canada via the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River via the Allegheny and Ohio, and the Chesapeake Bay via the Susquehanna. More important still, the land was on the western edge of the Mohawk River watershed, a vital route for westward emigration and, should a canal ever come to fruition, a conduit to New York City via the Hudson River. To render it attractive to settlers, however, the Company was compelled to invest enormous sums in infrastructure, including not merely roads but schools, mills, stores and the myriad of other services required on the frontier.
One of the first orders of business was of course a survey, and to oversee this mammoth endeavor Cazenove engaged Joseph Ellicott, brother of United States Surveyor General Andrew Ellicott. Ellicott was tasked with surveying the Holland Purchase and subdividing it into six-mile-square townships, the standard township size since the Land Ordinance of 1785. Assisted by his brother Benjamin and a huge team of over a hundred men, he completed the work in 1800. He then opened the Company’s main sales office in Batavia, with secondary offices scattered throughout the purchase.
Unfortunately for the Company sales came slowly at first, most of them on credit; in 1801 for example, $26,343,54 of land was sold, generating a measly cash flow of $625.14. (Furstenberg, p. 28) It was only in 1840 that all the land was sold off, and a few years later the Company was dissolved. However the region ultimately thrived, in no small part due to the completion of the Erie Canal through Company land in 1825.
This terrific map is a summation of Ellicott’s monumental survey, first issued in 1801 in time to support sales of Holland Company land. It shows the principal meridians, ranges and townships laid down by the Ellicotts; the Indian reservations set aside by the Treaty of Big tree; and the extensive road network, most of which must have been constructed at Company expense. The region’s many watercourses are depicted in minute detail, a matter of essential importance for would-be settlers or speculators selecting land tracts for purchase. At the eastern end of Lake Erie is a miniature plan of “New Amsterdam,” which was later selected as the western terminus of the Erie Canal and became the nucleus of modern-day Buffalo.
Offered here is the second state of the map, issued in 1804. According to Vail “The same engraved plate was greatly improved in the second edition [sic] by the addition of numerous roads, the village of Batavia, local headquarters of the purchase, and of the date 1804 following the dedication.” It is said to have been reissued in 1829, though I have not seen such an example.
Nestler calls this map “Probably the most important map of western NY when Buffalo was still known as New Amsterdam, and when land companies were luring settlers to this new frontier.” Ellicott’s work was certainly the most accurate and detailed map of the area produced to date. His work was sufficiently esteemed by Simeon DeWitt that the latter made heavy use of it for his seminal 1802 Map of the State of New York.
Nestler, Bibliography of New York State Communities, p. 109. OCLC #27032951 et al. Phillips, Maps of America, p. 292. Rumsey #3712. Streeter #892 (see #890 for 1st state). Vail, “The Lure of the Land Promoter” (University of Rochester Library Bulletin, vol. XXIV, no.2&3.) Background on the Holland Land Company from Francois Furstenberg, “An Economic Interpretation: Reflections on European Investment in the Post-Revolutionary American Backcountry” (paper prepared for “Foreign Confidence: International Investment in North America, 1700-1860,” a conference held in Philadelphia, Oct. 11-12, 2012). David Y. Allen’s “How Simeon De Witt Mapped New York State” offers helpful background on the relationship between Simeon De Witt and Joseph Ellicott and the two men’s maps.