William Primrose letter
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William Primrose letter

Descriptive Summary

Repository: Georgia Historical Society
Creator: Primrose, William, active 1830-1840.
Title: William Primrose letter
Dates: 1839
Extent: 0.05 cubic feet (1 folder)
Identification: MS 2437

Biographical/Historical Note

John M. Berrien (1781-1856) was a Savannah lawyer, solicitor general of the Eastern District, judge of the superior court of the Eastern District, federal judge, state senator, U.S. senator, attorney general of the United States, trustee of the University of Georgia, a founder of the Georgia Historical Society and its first president, president of the Georgia branch of the Society of the Cincinnati, regent of the Smithsonian Institution, and president of the American Bible Society. He was born at Rockhill, near Princeton, in New Jersey. At the end of the American Revolution his father moved the family to Georgia. Berrien was educated at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), from which he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1796 at the age of fifteen. During the War of 1812 he was a captain in the Chatham Light Dragoons and later a colonel in the First Georgia Cavalry, though he saw no action. He was in the U.S. Senate from 1825 to 1829. He became attorney general of the United States in the Jackson administration in 1829, but, along with other cabinet members, resigned in 1831 as a result of a falling out with the president over the Peggy Eaton affair. He returned to Savannah to engage in law practice, was reelected to the U.S. Senate in 1841, and served until 1852. He again returned to Savannah and resumed his law practice. He, along with William Law, made up the law firm of Berrien and Law in Savannah. He married, first, Eliza Anciaux, and, at her death, married Eliza C. Hunter. Berrien County is named for him.

James Dundas (1788-1865) was born in Alexandria, Virginia, settled in Philadelphia, became a banker there, was president of the Pennsylvania Bank, and president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

Clements S. Miller ( ? -1841?), has not been positively identified, but is probably the person of that name listed on various web sites who was a member of the Philadelphia Bar, edited digests of ordinances of the city of Philadelphia, and is buried in Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia.

Henry Pratt (1761-1838) was born in Philadelphia, became a shipping merchant, and amassed a large fortune in money and lands. His house, Lemon Hill, still stands in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, and is maintained as a house museum. It is on property Pratt bought from Robert Morris. Pratt married, successively, Frances Moore, Eliza Dundas, and Susannah Care.

William Primrose (fl. 1830s-1840s) apparently lived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In the 1830s and 1840s he represented and investigated the land claims of the creditors of the failed North American Land Company, in Georgia and elsewhere. He is probably the William Primrose mentioned in Taylor v. Benham, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 233, 12 L.Ed. 130 (1847) as having married Eliza Taylor, daughter of Samuel Taylor, in 1836.

George Simpson (1759-1822) was born in Philadelphia and served in the American Revolution, after which he became a banker. He was successively one of the chief officers of the Bank of North America, the First Bank of the United States, and the Bank of Stephen Girard, all in Philadelphia. He is buried in St. Paul’s Courtyard, South Third Street, in Philadelphia.

Edward Lloyd Thomas (1785-1852) was a Methodist minister and surveyor of public lands in Georgia. He was the nephew of Levin Wailes. Levin Wailes was sent to Georgia in 1792 by Robert Morris to represent the latter’s interests in lands there. He brought his extended family, including Thomas, with him. Thomas lived in Athens, Georgia and, later, Oxford, Georgia. He married Mary Stewart Hogue. He laid out the towns of Salem, Oxford, and Columbus, in Georgia, and surveyed the Georgia-Alabama boundary in 1826. His house, built in Oxford in 1837, still stands. He and his wife are buried in the public cemetery nearby.

At the close of the American Revolution, to encourage immigration into the state, Georgia created a land grant system that made lands easily obtainable. At the same time, the state government was too weak to rigorously enforce the land granting provisions, such as they were. Being easy to exploit, the system resulted in the Pine Barrens Frauds, which were carried out by dishonest land jobbers beginning in the later 1780s and moving into high gear during 1793 and 1794. The operations produced fraudulent grants for millions of acres, many of which were nonexistent lands.

Robert Morris of Philadelphia was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution. He along with two partners, John Nicholson and James Greenleaf, expected a flood of immigration into the United States in the coming years, which would greatly increase the demand for and the value of land. As a result, they bought up millions of unimproved acres throughout the country, a large portion of them Georgia Pine Barrens Fraud grants. They purchased the Georgia grants, and similar grants in other states, unwittingly believing them to be genuine. They borrowed huge sums of money and sold shares to fund the purchases. In 1795 they combined the assets to form the North American Land Company.

Morris and his associates vastly overextended their land speculation enterprises, and immigration did not reach nearly the expected levels. On May 28, 1796 Greenleaf conveyed all of his shares in the company to Morris and Nicholson, contingent on Morris and Nicholson executing negotiable instruments of stated value at specified intervals to him as payment. On September 30, 1796 Greenleaf, as security for his affairs, executed two deeds that assigned the rights to the negotiable instruments to George Simpson, in trust. The first deed was for the security of Edward Fox; and the second was for the security of all persons that Greenleaf had given negotiable instruments to that were executed by Morris or Nicholson. This latter instrument was recorded in Deed Book 55, page 381, in the Philadelphia County records, and its terms, named for the page in the deed book where the deed was recorded, became known as the “381 Trust.”

Morris, Nicholson, and Greenleaf were rapidly approaching bankruptcy, and the notes were never paid. Simpson assigned his interest in the 381 Trust to Henry Pratt, Thomas Willing Francis, John Miller, Jr., John Ashley, and Jacob Baker, by a deed dated March 23, 1797. Greenleaf, Fox, Morris, and Nicholson executed a general deed on June 26, 1797 that conveyed their interests in the North American Land Company to the same persons. This deed became known as the “Aggregate Fund Deed.” Primrose mentions the deed from George Simpson to Henry Pratt, et al. in his letter to Dundas that is the subject of this description.

Morris and Nicholson went to debtors’ prison, and they, along with Greenleaf, filed for bankruptcy. Morris’s was the largest personal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Their land speculation fiasco, and similar smaller ones by others, were a significant factor in the Panic of 1796-97, and their financial difficulties were a major inducement for Congress to pass the federal Bankruptcy Act of 1801. Nicholson died in 1800, Morris in 1806, and Greenleaf in 1843. They lost control of the company, and in 1807 the stockholders voted that all business and concerns of the company would vest in trust in and be managed by Henry Pratt, John Ashley, John Vaughan, Robert Porter, and John Miller, Jr. Although nearly worthless, the assets of the North American Land Company were tossed around and litigated in many courts at all levels for most of the century.

On July 28, 1801 a commission of bankruptcy was issued by the federal court for the District of Pennsylvania against Morris. The commissioners met and received evidences of more than $3,000,000 owed by Morris. On December 8 of that year, at the instigation of the creditors, the commissioners executed an assignment of all the property and effects of Morris to other commissioners chosen by the creditors. Apparently the assignment was never accepted by the designated assignees; and there were no further proceedings, undoubtedly because it was believed Morris’s unencumbered property was insufficient to pay any more than the expenses of the proceeding.

In 1825 Morris’s son petitioned the federal court that the commission of bankruptcy be vacated and superseded. The petition was granted in 1830. On February 6, 1839, in an elaborate opinion, the federal court denied the petition of certain of Robert Morris’s creditors to reinstate the commission.

On April 30, 1838, John Vaughan and Robert Porter, surviving trustees and managers of the North American Land Company, conveyed all the assets, in trust, to Benjamin Tilghman, to convey the same to John Vaughan, Robert Porter, James Dundas, Henry Nixon, and Benjamin Kugler, in accordance with the terms of the 381 Trust. Tilghman did so by a deed dated May 1, 1838. It was at this point that William Primrose was sent on his mission to Georgia (where the bulk of the lands supposedly lay), and elsewhere, to establish claims to the lands and sell them.

Primrose’s attempts to establish the titles to thousands of acres of lands in favor of the trustees and creditors of the North American Land Company--lands that had been legitimately granted to and occupied by settlers for more than a generation--aroused much local indignation. The Savannah Daily Georgian of the period carried considerable editorial comment and a number of grand jury presentments that denounced Primrose and his actions. The Georgia legislature appointed a committee to investigate the matter. Primrose’s efforts ultimately failed because the land grants the claims were based on had been fictitious and fraudulent to begin with, most could not be located on the ground because of insufficient descriptions, and, at any rate, the statute of limitations for their recovery had long passed.

Scope and Content Note

This collection consists of a letter written from Savannah on March 28, 1839 by William Primrose to James Dundas of Philadelphia. Primrose was sent to Georgia by Dundas and others in the Philadelphia area who were creditors and trustees of the bankrupt North American Land Company, to establish titles to lands allegedly owned by the company in Georgia. The alleged titles derived from Pine Barrens Frauds grants of the 1790s and constituted one-sixth of the area of the state. Primrose states that in pressing the claims he had gotten into a “hornets nest.” The U.S. marshals he employed to serve writs on those in possession of the lands had been “repulsed” and “the Settlers are up in arms & threatten death and destruction to all who may go on the ground.” He states that it may be necessary to get the governor of Georgia and the president of the United States involved to enforce the claims. Primrose refers to “The deed from George Simpson to Henry Pratt & others” which, as explained more fully below, placed most of the assets of the North American Land Company in the hands of the original creditors of the company, subject to certain articles. Primrose mentions “My council [counsel]”, referring to the law firm of Berrien & Law of Savannah, made up of John M. Berrien and William Law, who he had employed for legal representation. Primrose also mentions Edward Lloyd Thomas, the most noted Georgia surveyor of the time, who he employed to superintend the surveys of the lands.

Index Terms

Berrien, John Macpherson, 1781-1856.
Dundas, James, 1788-1865.
Land speculation--Georgia.
Law, William, 1793-1874.
Letters (correspondence)
Miller, Clements S., d. 1841.
North American Land Company.
Pratt, Henry, 1761-1838.
Public land sales--Georgia.
Simpson, George, 1759-1822.
Thomas, Edward Lloyd, 1785-1852.

Administrative Information

Custodial history

R.J.M. Antiques of Boston, Massachusetts.

Preferred citation

William Primrose letter, MS 2437, Georgia Historical Society, Savannah, Georgia.

Acquisition info.

Purchase made possible with funds from Farris W. Cadle and an anonymous donor, 2012.


Access restrictions

Collection is open for research.

Publication rights

Copyright has not been assigned to the Georgia Historical Society. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Division of Library and Archives. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the Georgia Historical Society as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the researcher.


Bayley v. Greenleaf, 20 U.S. (7 Wheat.) 46, 5 L.Ed. 393 (1822). In re Morris, Crabbe 70, 17 Fed. Cas. 785 No. 9,825 (D.C. E.D. Penn., 1837). Vaughan v. Barclay, 6 Wharton 392 (Penn. 1841). Commonwealth v. Primrose, 2 Watts & Serg. 407 (Penn. 1841). Moss's Appeal--Halsey's Appeal, 43 Penn. St. Rep. (7 Wright) 23 (1862). Estate of the North American Land Co., 60 Penn. St. Rep. (10 P. F. Smith) 247 (1869). North American Land Company's Estate, 83 Penn. St. Rep. (2 Norris) 493 (1877). Allison, Joseph, Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia. "Exceptions to Auditor's Report in the Matter of the 381 Trust." In The Philadelphia Reports Containing Decisions Published in the Legal Intelligencer, During 1873, 1874, 1875. Edited by Henry Edward Wallace. Volume 10, pages 297-305. Philadelphia: J. M. Power Wallace, 1879. Online at http://books.google.com/. Arbuckle, Robert Dean. Pennsylvania Speculator and Patriot: The Entrepreneurial John Nicholson, 1757-1800. University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975. Cadle, Farris William. Georgia Land Surveying History and Law, Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1991. Pages 85-107. Chernow, Barbara Ann. Robert Morris, Land Speculator, 1770-1801. Dissertations in American Economic History. New York: Arno Press, a New York Times Company, 1978. Online at http://books.google.com/. "Death of James Dundas." New York Times, July 6, 1865, page 4, column 6. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/1865/07/06/news/death-of-james-dundas.html. "John Macpherson Berrien." In John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, volume 2, pages 683-84. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Goff. John Hedges. "Edward Lloyd Thomas, Surveyor." Emory University Quarterly 18, no. 2 (Summer 1962): 107-19. Morris, Robert. Account of Robert Morris' Property. [Philadelphia:] King & Baird, Printers, No. 9 Sansom Street, c. 1800. Online at http://archive.org/details/accountofrobertm00morr, and other web sites. "Henry Pratt" and "George Simpson." In Henry Simpson, The Lives of Eminent Philadelphians Now Deceased. Collected from Original and Authentic Sources "¦ Illustrated with Forty-Four Fine Engravings. Pages 820-21, 890-93. Philadelphia: William Brotherhead, 1859. Online at http://books.google.com/. Terrell, James E. "William Law." In Volume 20, The Savannah Biographies, Special Collections, Lane Library, Armstrong Atlantic State University, Savannah, Georgia, May, 1991. Online at http://library.armstrong.edu/Law_William.pdf.