Western Greene County nearly ruined one of America’s founding fathers.
Robert Morris is best known for signing the Declaration of Independence, helping to finance the Revolutionary War and for the university in Moon Township that bears his name.
But the wealthy Philadelphian’s land grab in unsettled southwestern Pennsylvania in January 1787 went bust, leaving him destitute and landing him in debtors’ prison near the end of his life.
Morris and many other land speculators purchased millions of acres in the western frontier wilderness sight unseen expecting to flip it for a quick buck, only to get stuck with undeveloped land and millions of dollars of debt.
According to land parcel records stored at the Cornerstone Genealogy Society in Waynesburg, Morris bought nearly 100 lots in southwestern Washington County – about nine years before the area became Greene County – during a one-week binge between Jan. 6 and 12.
“Obviously, they thought it was going to be, if not a metropolis, a much more heavily populated area than it became,” says David Cressey, president of the genealogy society.
Morris was a well-respected financial leader at the time, serving as the country’s superintendent of finance during the Revolutionary War and later a candidate to be the first Treasury secretary. Just four years after the end of the war and with the Morris selected to serve as a delegate in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to help craft the young country’s new constitution, there was great optimism about the riches that could be had in land speculation.
The 400-acre parcels Morris and other land speculators bought – including Daniel McFarland and John Hughes, just to name a couple – didn’t follow the rugged contours of the terrain with its winding streams and steep hills. Instead, the parcels were perfect squares that would be subdivided only decades later.
“It was so squared off because it wasn’t settlers claiming land for themselves,” Cressey says. “It was a land office for speculators.”
Land records show Morris owning nearly 41,000 total acres in Greene County, with parcels in modern-day Aleppo, Center, Gilmore, Jackson, Jefferson, Richhill and Spinghill townships. Curiously, Morris purchased no parcels in Morris Township, one of the original municipalities in Washington County.
“He backed the wrong horse and got in over his head,” Cressey says. “He borrowed money to secure these patents thinking he could sell them quickly. But he couldn’t do it. The loans came due and he couldn’t pay them.”
Across several states, Morris “gambled” in buying 8 million acres of land for the “fabulous sum” of nearly $3 million, according to the book “Tenmile Country and Its Pioneer Families” written by Howard L. Leckey. That, along with other dubious financial gambles, left him over-leveraged and unable to pay back his debts to creditors.
“It was his boundless faith in the future of America, which he foresaw long before others began to realize the potential greatness, that brought about his downfall,” Leckey writes in his book.
With so many parcels gobbled up by land speculators, potential settlers were driven away to live in more established areas near the rivers. That left Morris and others holding the bag. Even a fire sale to Edward Tilghman couldn’t keep Morris from entering a Philadelphia debtors’ prison in February 1798. He spent the next three years, six months and 10 days living in an “ugly whitewashed vault” on Prune Street, according to Lecky’s book.
George Washington is even said to have visited Morris while imprisoned.
“He knew fully well the value of his possessions and their speculation possibilities, but he went beyond his (credit) before the buyers appeared and in doing so opened the door of the Prune Street Gaol,” Lecky writes.
Morris was released from debtors’ prison in 1801 and spent the final five years of his life destitute. He died basically penniless May 8, 1806, at age 72 with no public ceremonies marking the founding father’s life. For reasons unknown, Morris filed his last will and testament in Greene County.
Cressey thinks the downfall of Morris shows the sharp contrast between how failed financial schemes were viewed during America’s infancy compared with today.
“You think of white-collar crime today. These guys move around billions of dollars, but don’t do any time,” Cressey says. “He’s one of the heroes of the American Revolution, not on the fighting side, but the financial side. He financed the revolution and provided for the soldiers, but because of his land speculation scheme that did not work out, he ended up in debtors prison in Philadelphia.”