Notable Phelps Family Members
Oliver Phelps, Land speculator, Judge, Congressman
Oliver Phelps (1749-1809) was a great land speculator(1) . A native of Windsor, young Phelps came to Suffield, Connecticut, apprenticed to a local merchant and later became a tavern keeper in Granville, Mass. As Deputy Commissary of the Colonial army during the Revolution, he supplied troops and was commended by General Washington. The connections he thus established aided his efforts in forming a syndicate with Nathanial Gorham for the purpose of buying large tracts of land on speculation.
|Oliver Phelps — Land speculator, Judge, Congressman|
Phelps and Gorham contracted to buy 6,144,000 acres in what is now eastern New York State, but what was then Massachusetts. The purchase price was $1 million. Phelps journeyed west to supervise land surveys and to arrange acceptable terms with the Senecas for the purchase of the eastern half of their lands.
"A first attempt to convene a council at Geneva failed, and Phelps paid a visit to Indian Allan on the Genesee before proceeding to Buffalo Creek where a large council was convened on July 4th. A goodly number of chiefs gathered there to hear Phelps explain the nature of his claim to their lands. It was not at all clear just what he had bought from Massachusetts since the Indians considered themselves to be the rightful owners of that land. But it was somehow made evident to the chieftains that, since they had been the allies of the defeated British, and since their lands had been surrendered in the peace treaty of 1783, the tribes could only expect to retain their lands on the sufferance of the United States."
"For nearly 2,600,000 acres of rich land lying between Lake Seneca and
the Genesee River, Oliver Phelps offered the niggardly sum of £2,lOO
in New York currency! The price paid to the Indians for Manhattan
Island was extravagant compared to this!"
"Before he returned to New England that fall, Oliver Phelps engaged a group of surveyors to lay out townships on a rectangular pattern over all the broad estate. A site at the outlet of Canandaigua Lake was chosen for the land office and the chief town, and an order was given for the erection there of a log-house during the winter."(2)
After meeting the Senecas on July 4-8, 1788, at Buffalo Creek, Phelps and Gorham ended up with 4,940,000 acres of the tract. This land ownership briefly made Oliver one of the largest land owners in the United States. Gorham and Phelps could not make regular payments. Land sales did not keep pace with payments due Massachusetts for the pre-emption rights. In 1790, about two-thirds of the land reverted to the Commonwealth.
By 1789 he had returned to Suffield, bought the Hatheway House where he opened one of the first land offices in America (and another in Canandaigua, N.Y.).
Phelps retained extensive holdings in the infant Ontario County. He maintained an interest in its affairs - and in further land speculations. He was elected First Judge of Ontario county (1789-1793). After additional entanglements in western real estate ventures which resulted in "personal embarrassment" and, for a time, the prospect of debtor's prison, Phelps settled down to permanent residence in Canandaigua in 1802. A popular figure in the country he had opened for settlement, he was honored as a Democrat (i.e., Jeffersonian Republican) with his single term in congress, and returned to Canandaigua afterwards to live out his years.
At the time of the Western Reserve purchase (some 3,300,000 acres), Phelps was also negotiating for land in Georgia, West Virginia and Maine, and considered to be the largest land holder in the country.
Although he was a founder and large stock holder in the Hartford National Bank and Trust Co., about 1800 his financial troubles became acute because of the effect of changing money values on mortgages held on the tracts of land sold and a depressed land market. Forced to sell his Suffield home, Phelps moved to Canandaigua, N.Y., where he built a grist mill and endowed an academy. He was appointed the first judge of Ontario County and between 1803 and 1805 he served in Congress. Although a man of great ability and broad vision, Oliver Phelps was ahead of his time. He tried to help settlers who could not fulfill their contracts, but he was doomed to poverty and died in 1809 in debtor’s prison.
His memory is honored in Canandaigua, where the inscription on his tombstone reads: “Enterprise, Industry, and Temperance cannot always ensure success but the first of these will be felt by Society.”
From the Biographical Directory of the United States CongressPhelps, Oliver, a Representative from New York; born in Poquonock, Hartford County, Conn., October 21, 1749; completed preparatory studies; engaged in mercantile pursuits in Granville, Mass., in 1770; during the Revolution was deputy commissary in the Continental Army and served until the end of the war; settled in Suffield, Mass.; member of the State house of representatives 1778-1780; member of the constitutional convention in 1779 and 1780; served in the State senate in 1785; member of the Governor’s council in 1786; assisted in the organization of the Phelps & Gorham syndicate in 1788 and acted as the representative of that company in the exploration of the Genesee country in western New York; first judge of Ontario County, N.Y., 1789-1793; moved to Canandaigua, N.Y., in 1802; elected as a Republican to the Eighth Congress (March 4, 1803-March 3, 1805); died in Canandaigua, N.Y., February 21, 1809; interment in West Avenue Cemetery.
(1) From Suffield Library, June 2003