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A Story of George Washington's Times

Written by Charles RoysterAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Charles Royster

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On Sale: December 08, 2010
Pages: 640 | ISBN: 978-0-307-77329-6
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

From historian Charles Royster--winner of the Francis Parkman, Bancroft, and Lincoln prizes--comes the history of one of eighteenth-century America's most fantastic land speculation deals: William Byrd's scheme to develop 900 square miles of swamp on the Virginia-North Carolina border and create fabulous wealth for himself and other shareholders, including George Washington.

Royster scrupulously follows the paper trail through the byways of transatlantic deal-cutting, providing a rare view of early American economic culture.  Elegantly written and impressively researched, The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company is an eye-opening account of greed, folly, and venture capitalism in the revolutionary era.

Excerpt

Elizabeth Wirt was pregnant in the summer of 1803. Her husband feared for her life. Too many women died in childbirth; he had lost his first wife. To distract his mind, he began a series of lighthearted, faintly satirical sketches describing Virginia and Virginians. Though he came from Maryland, William Wirt tried to make himself an eminent Virginian in law, in politics, and in letters. He had joined an informal college of wit-crackers whose dean was St. George Tucker in Williamsburg. His friends wrote verse and essays. So would he.

Wirt called his pieces The Letters of the British Spy, pretending they had been found in a boardinghouse. Readers knew Wirt was the author. Still, a catchy title and a pose of British condescension toward provincials helped attract notice as these sketches appeared first in newspapers, then, before the end of the year, in a small book. It was published after Elizabeth Wirt gave birth to a girl.

The spy's first letter, written in Richmond, included a short account of how that city at the falls of the James River, capital of the state, had been planned long ago by the man who then owned the site. William Byrd served the spy's purpose as a striking example of unequal ownership of property in Virginia. Dead for sixty years, he was a figure of romance from past days of heroic adventure. The spy described Byrd's service in 1728 with commissioners and surveyors running a boundary line between Virginia and North Carolina. Not far west of the sea their course lay through the Great Dismal Swamp, "an immense morass" of "black, deep mire, covered with a stupendous forest." Wirt crammed his paragraph with lurid color: beasts of prey, endless labor, perpetual terror, and, wildest of all, nighttime filled with "the deafening, soul chilling yell" of unnamed hungry animals. On such a night, William Byrd received a visit from "Hope, that never failing friend of man." He planned the city of Richmond, to be erected on land he owned.

For readers who might wonder how the spy knew all this, Wirt added a footnote citing Byrd's manuscript account, preserved by his descendants in the family home at Westover. Mary Willing Byrd, widow of William Byrd's son, still practiced, with the help of her daughter and granddaughters, the hospitality of an earlier time. A guest was welcome to read a folio volume, bound in vellum, containing the work Byrd had talked of publishing but had continued to revise and rewrite in two versions: History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina Run in the Year of Our Lord 1728 and The Secret History of the Line. The volume included his accounts of two other expeditions: A Progress to the Mines in the Year 1732 and A Journey to the Land of Eden: Anno 1733. A reader could sit in the parlor on a chair covered in crimson silk damask, lifting his eyes from the page to high, wainscotted walls hung with portraits in black and gilt frames and to intricate, symmetrical rocaille plasterwork on the ceiling. Or a visitor might stay in a guest room and glance from William Byrd's writings to a painting above the fireplace, a naked Venus, lying asleep on her right side -- the work of Titian, the family said. Windows opened onto terraced gardens leading down to the James River, onto the walled garden where the body of William Byrd lay buried, and onto a separate library, which once had held Byrd's thousands of volumes. In hot weather a traveler from the North lay on a sofa by the curiously carved balustrade of the big staircase in the central hall, catching any breeze that blew between the ornate stone pilasters of the north and south doorways. Reading the manuscript, he found Byrd to be "a sly joker," whose work "tickled me in some of my susceptible parts."

The family at Westover also preserved other writings by William Byrd. While in England, he had published A Discourse Concerning the Plague, though he had left his name off the title page, putting instead: "By a Lover of Mankind." This scholarly pamphlet drew upon his wide reading to assemble vivid descriptions of the extent and the physical effects of the plague since ancient times. How could "this dismal distemper" be avoided? He endorsed traditional measures such as temperance, repentance for sins, and abstinence from "immoderate Venery." But he concluded that those seeking the utmost security ought to surround themselves at all times with tobacco -- "this powerful Alexipharmick," "this great Antipoison." He told them to carry tobacco in their clothes, hang bundles of it in their rooms and around their beds, burn it in their dining rooms while eating, chew it, smoke it, take it as snuff. "Tobacco being itself a poison, the effluvia flowing from it, do, by a similitude of parts, gather to them the little bodies of the pestilential taint, and intirely correct them." Virginians escaped the plague because they produced and consumed tobacco. The plague had grown rare in England as use of tobacco spread. It was, Byrd wrote, "our sovereign antidote." Thus Virginians offered a benefit to humanity, or at least to that large portion of mankind who did not get a joke.

Readers of Byrd's History of the Dividing Line noticed his suggestion that "a great Sum of Money" be invested to drain the Dismal Swamp and thereby make that land "very Profitable." Another, smaller manuscript in Byrd's neat, square handwriting took the form of a petition to the king. The unnamed petitioners sought a royal grant of the entire Dismal Swamp and all the unowned land within half a mile of any part of it, more than 900 square miles. To the petition Byrd added a description of the swamp and a proposal to drain it and make it fertile, able to yield vast crops of hemp. Byrd made it all sound easy. Form a new company to finance the project for ten years with a capital of L4,000. Start with ten slaves to dig ditches, fell trees, make boards and shingles, render pine tar, grow rice and corn and hemp, and tend cattle. With its own food and salable commodities the undertaking would partly "carry on itself." As fast as clearing and ditching advanced, buy more slaves, thereby accelerating progress. True, the swamp's "malignant vapours" would kill some slaves, but others would "Breed" and "supply the loss." Use profits from slaves' labor to defray expenses and purchase still more slaves. There could be "no doubt in the world" that, once the original capital had been invested, the Dismal Swamp would have become as good as any soil in Virginia, with at least three hundred slaves at work and "an incredible number" of cattle grazing and multiplying. "From all which we may safely conclude," Byrd wrote, "that each share will then be worth more than Ten times the value of the original subscription, besides the unspeakable Benefit it will prove to the Publick."

More than 900 percent profit in ten years, a "Bogg" rendered productive, a region rescued from the swamp's "noisome Exhalations," a system of canals connecting North Carolina's trade to Virginia's ports, and huge crops of hemp for cordage for Britain's merchant fleets and Royal Navy -- surely the Crown must make this grant and exempt the petitioners from the customary charges and quitrents. Yet "to remove all suspicion of Fraud," they would agree to pay if they did not drain the swamp in ten years. Of course, the Crown would extend their time if they met "unforeseen Difficultys." Byrd's manuscript closed with a few sentences on the sex lives and marriages of slaves, explaining the wisdom of "providing wives" who would keep men from "rambling abroad anights." At Westover, Mary Willing Byrd, then her daughter, Evelyn Byrd Harrison, at Brandon, and then her grandson, George Harrison, kept the little manuscript of William Byrd's petition for the Dismal Swamp with the folio volume of his other writings.

Some of William Wirt's friends and some of his colleagues among Virginia's lawyers were heirs or attorneys of men who had tried to carry out William Byrd's proposal long after Byrd's death. They had been among the leading men of their day; three were still living in 1803. Wirt had some tie to each of the early members of what was now called "the old Dismal Swamp Company." His best friends in Virginia -- William Nelson, Jr., St. George Tucker, and John Page, the wit-crackers of Williamsburg -- knew the company well. Judge William Nelson, Jr., Mary Willing Byrd's son-in-law, remained active in its affairs. His father, William Nelson, and his uncle, Thomas Nelson, had been two of the most powerful Virginians in the 1760s, when they had helped to found the company. St. George Tucker, professor of law at the College of William and Mary, gave legal advice to members of both the Farley family and the Meade family as they squabbled among themselves over estates and debts. The late Francis Farley, planter, councillor, and judge in the Leeward Island of Antigua, had been the first to try to carry out William Byrd's proposal. Farley's son moved to Virginia and became the husband of one of Byrd's granddaughters. David Meade had lived near the Dismal Swamp in the 1760s and had acquired, through his wife, the share once owned by her father, William Waters of the Eastern Shore and Williamsburg. Meade lived in Kentucky in 1803, pursuing his hobbies: landscape gardening and litigation. John Page was governor of Virginia, elected to that office in gratitude for his services during the American Revolution. Page needed its salary. Though his father, Mann Page, had given him land, slaves, a piece of the Dismal Swamp Company, and the largest, most ornate house in Virginia, he could not pay his own debts, let alone those of his father's estate.

Among William Wirt's colleagues in the law were Edmund Pendleton, Bushrod Washington, and John Wickham. Pendleton had administered the messy estate of Speaker John Robinson. The most powerful man in Virginia for many years, Robinson had a hand in money-making schemes of the 1760s; the founders of the Dismal Swamp Company prudently had made him a partner. Bushrod Washington, justice of the United States Supreme Court, was an executor of the estate of his uncle, George Washington. It still held a share in the Dismal Swamp Company, for which George Washington had done much service with high hopes long before. Young lawyers envied John Wickham, who made an ample income and lived a luxurious life. He sued Virginians in federal court on behalf of creditors in Britain at last able to collect old debts unpaid since colonial days. Most of these clients were merchants, and among them was one of the original partners of the Dismal Swamp Company, the baleful Samuel Gist in London. Nearing the age of eighty in 1803, Gist retained good health and a sharp mind. Rich and nominally retired, he still went into the City, walked on the Exchange, visited the subscribers' room at Lloyd's, and extracted money from Virginians and others.

Wirt felt fond of Francis Walker, genial, drunken son and heir of Dr. Thomas Walker. Dr. Walker had twice crossed and marked Virginia's west beyond the Allegheny Mountains. Leaders of the Cherokees, the Shawnees, and the Iroquois had known him well, to their cost. Had Virginia's land companies been a spiderweb, Dr. Walker would have been the spider. And he had shared George Washington's expectations for their Dismal Swamp Company. Wirt also knew Robert Lewis, mayor of Fredericksburg, who, with his brothers, was still pursued in court by heirs of Anthony Bacon, onetime associate of their father, Fielding Lewis. Bacon, a merchant, ironmaster, slave trader, government contractor, and member of Parliament, had been the Dismal Swamp Company's first man in London before Samuel Gist arrived. Fielding Lewis, a merchant in Fredericksburg, had represented Bacon's interests in Virginia. Lewis also had joined his brother-in-law, George Washington, in starting the Dismal Swamp Company.

In 1803, William Wirt was moving his law practice to Norfolk, where everyone knew Thomas Newton, Jr., one of the city's leading politicians and merchants. Newton promoted the digging of a canal through the Dismal Swamp, remaining loyal to the project despite its problems. He also handled the complicated affairs of the estate of his father-in-law, Robert Tucker, Norfolk merchant and founding member of the Dismal Swamp Company, whose fortunes had fallen so rapidly just before his death. Tucker was a kinsman of both Nelson brothers, William and Thomas. He was also related to Robert Burwell. Burwell had served on Virginia's colonial Council with the Nelsons, but his main interest had been horses, and his kinsmen had agreed that he was the weak link of the Dismal Swamp Company.

William Wirt had higher literary ambitions than The Letters of the British Spy. He had ingratiated himself with leading Virginians, including the president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. How better to confirm his standing as a political and literary heir to eminent Virginians than by memorializing their greatest success in a book? For Wirt, a Jeffersonian, Virginia's heroic age was not the era of William Byrd or the era of Speaker Robinson and the Nelson brothers but of the American Revolution. To celebrate it, he planned a book about Patrick Henry. He would portray Henry as a hero who had freed Virginia not only from King George III and Parliament but also from the likes of the Nelsons, Speaker Robinson, and "old Colo. Byrd."

William Byrd -- "Colonel" meant that he led his county's militia -- planned the city of Richmond in 1733, not as he lay in the Dismal Swamp in 1728. He never saw the interior of the Dismal Swamp. Commissioners for running a boundary line in 1728 went around the swamp, leaving surveyors to hack and wade through it. Virginia's officials had sought a precise boundary for years. People had settled farther south of the James River and farther north of Albemarle Sound in greater numbers since the 1680s. Many Virginians of the "poorer sort" moved into North Carolina, where, if they bothered to seek title, they could get more land from the proprietor's office at lower cost than in Virginia. Worse, in 1706, the surveyor of North Carolina started running lines west of the Dismal Swamp on land that Virginia officials claimed as their colony's. Some in the area hoped to get title from North Carolina, as they had not from Virginia. Worst of all, this intruding surveyor began to lay out a dividing line between the colonies without consulting the government of Virginia. The Council sent someone to stop him.

Virginia officials called the oldest residents of the southernmost counties to swear under oath that no one ever had believed the boundary to run where Carolinians said it did. In the summer of 1710 the two colonies, under orders from London, appointed commissioners to establish a line jointly. These four men spent September and October gathering depositions and trying in vain to take a celestial fix with a sea quadrant to find the latitude. They had no hope of agreement: the Virginians accused the Carolinians of trying to change witnesses' testimony; Carolinians accused Virginians of cheating with the quadrant. The commissioners parted bitterly, without starting a survey. Before the delegations met, Virginians, approaching the swamp from the west, concluded that there was "no passage through the Dismall."

From a distance, the Dismal Swamp looked impassable. Ancient, immense cypress trees, massed, presented a wall of broad, bald trunks supporting feathery crowns 100 feet up, above which a few buzzards or a hawk slowly moved to and fro. In the forest were black gum trees and thick stands of white cedar. Under the right conditions, barricades of trees reverberated a shout with an echo. The great swamp had smaller tributary swamps; it sent out broad tentacles of wetland.

The Dismal Swamp's uneven surface sloped slightly downward from west to east. Almost imperceptibly, amber water flowed from it. Beaver dams deepened standing water, providing better fishing to otters and convenient frogs to great blue herons. Cypress, gum, and cedar had bases in water and roots in a deep accumulation of peat. Above the surface, the pedestals of kneelike roots of cypress and arching roots of gum trees held honeysuckle, yellow jessamine, and vines of bright hydrangea delicately climbing their trunks. Virginia creeper intertwined under branches hung with moss, locking the closely set trees together. Thick rattan stems coiled around some trees. The swamp mirrored itself where trees and their hangings were reflected in its dark water. Much of the drier, mossy ground was spongy and yielding. Where time or storms or fire had felled trees, the swamp lay choked with tumbled trunks and branches. Rich ferns grew to heights of nine or ten feet, as did reeds. These, with myriad coiled briers and hanging vines, could make any spot seem closed off from all others. Sounds did not travel far, and the swamp seemed to sit in silence, creating its own dark shade.

Yet the swamp could be noisy. On a spring or summer evening many kinds of frogs, so numerous that the earth seemed to undulate and croak, kept up a cacophony, swelling as darkness fell. In the night, frogs and bats consumed part of the vast population of insects. In summer, blood-sucking horse flies swarmed. Large mosquitoes hovered in thick clouds. Barred owls preyed on shrews and mice. At the approach of dawn, an array of birds, especially warblers and thrushes, awoke the swamp. With different cries, in autumn great numbers of grackles and crows descended.

Dense growths of tall bamboo hung in broad arches. On these, snakes sometimes sunned themselves -- copperheads or a water snake exposing its bright red underside. Water snakes consumed fish and fell prey in turn to long king snakes.

On some margins of the swamp and on drier ridges and islands within it, sandy, firmer stretches supported hardwood trees -- red maples and white oaks -- as well as tulip poplars and forests of loblolly pine overshadowing a profuse undergrowth of cane and briers, ferns, blackberry thickets, gallberry shrubs, and rusty red and green poison oak. Blackberries, gum berries, and beehives in trees attracted black bears, the swamp's largest animals. Berries, saplings, and other ground plants were forage for flocks of white-tailed deer, some of which fell to packs of gray wolves.

Near the eastern rim of the swamp lay a broad expanse of open marsh densely covered with tall green reeds -- thousands of acres of reeds swaying under the wind in waves like the surface of the sea. In its interior the swamp hid a shallow, almost circular lake ringed with old cypress trees. When its dark water lay still on a windless day outside the migrating season for swans, ducks, and geese, the swamp's silence seemed even deeper on the lake than amid the undergrowth. Around the lake the swamp's fecundity extended for hundreds of thousands of acres in every direction.

William Byrd measured his trip along the northern margin of the Dismal Swamp from the east side to the west side as 65 miles. More than any other tract in the colony, the swamp confirmed his description of Virginia. True, Virginia lacked the Garden of Eden's Tree of Life, Byrd wrote, but, apart from that, "our land produces all the fine things of Paradise, except innocence."

Visitors to the counties in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina found many residents odd. They seemed ignorant but self-satisfied, dirty but idle, poor but dishonest. They gave travelers directions that turned out to be wrong. They told learned men about strange creatures, such as the jointed snake, which broke into inch-long pieces when struck. They acted as if there were "no difference between a Gentleman and a labourer all fellows at Foot Ball." Quakers had settled in the region, hoping to be left alone; other people, with little or no religion, sought the same comfort. Poor Virginians moved into North Carolina, got 150 or 200 acres to support some corn and pigs, while the swamp fed their cattle and they tried to evade paying quitrents to the proprietor in England. Indebted Virginians crossed into North Carolina, where their creditors could not collect. "Women forsake their husbands come in here and live with other men." In the zone claimed by both colonies, some people told a Virginia official that they lived in North Carolina and a North Carolina official that they lived in Virginia. "Borderers" allowed runaway slaves to hide and farm nearby, taking a large share of their crops in return for concealment. One governor reported: "The Inhabitants of North Carolina, are not Industrious but subtle and crafty to admiration." The leaders of both colonies wished to bring more order to "the disputed bounds" near the Dismal Swamp and farther west. To do so, they needed a clearly marked line.

In the evening of February 2, 1720, the Spotswood, out of London, sailed between the capes and dropped anchor in Chesapeake Bay. William Byrd had returned to Virginia. He did not plan to stay long, three months at most. Yet he did not leave for England until the summer of 1721. Upon reaching London, he published his Discourse Concerning the Plague. A widower for almost five years, he went back to England partly to win a rich wife. After he failed with several women, he and Maria Taylor were married in May 1724. Twenty months later the couple went on board the Williamsburg and sailed for Virginia. William Byrd never saw England again. Back at Westover in 1726, he became one of Virginia's commissioners for running the boundary line.

By spending the year 1720 at Westover rather than in London, Byrd missed the excitement of the South Sea Bubble, an episode that would affect people's notions of companies and finance for one hundred years. He received lurid reports about the collapse of the South Sea Company's stock: "The fire of London or the plague ruin'd not the number that are now undone, all ranks of people bewayling their condition in the coffee houses & open streets." Endowed with a monopoly of Britain's trade to South America, the South Sea Company never did much trading, though its monopoly was its chief tangible asset. Instead, the directors undertook to refinance Britain's national debt, offering to retire it more quickly at a reduced rate of interest. To accomplish this, the company persuaded holders of government annuities, which made up the bulk of the debt, to exchange their annuities for stock in the South Sea Company, in expectation of much larger returns from a rising stock. The company would thus become the government's largest creditor and retire the national debt sooner at a lower cost.

As South Sea stock rose, annuities came in more easily, and investors bought more stock on the open market. In fact, its price had to rise for this scheme to work. The company helped by allowing deferred payment for stock and by lending money, accepting its own stock as security, knowing that loans would be used to buy more stock. The company bid up the price on the open exchange by buying some of its new issues. Many people made quick profits by buying and reselling in a rising market. Imitators of the South Sea Company announced new projects, promised immense profits, and invited subscriptions. They planned to use subscribers' money not for the advertised enterprise but to turn a profit in South Sea stock. During the spring and summer of 1720, avid striving for easy wealth grew more frantic. South Sea stock, selling at 116 before the annuity scheme, rose to 375 by May 19, then to 820 by August 12. On August 24, the company sold a new issue of L1,200,000 at a price of 1,000, all subscribed in a few hours. Its supposed value rested on nothing but "the opinion of mankind." Balladeers sang rhymed warnings:

Five hundred millions, notes and bonds
Our stocks are worth in value;
But neither lie in goods or lands,
Or money, let me tell you.
Yet though our foreign trade is lost,
Of mighty wealth we vapour;
When all the riches that we boast
Consists in scraps of paper!

The South Sea Company induced the government to take legal action against some of the new projects, which were "bubbles" -- all stock and no substance. Calling smaller bubbles into question encouraged doubts about the South Sea Company. Its stock began to fall in September, dropping from 1,100 to 185 in six weeks. With the help of purchases by the Bank of England, the price held near 400. Speculators took heavy losses, and two-thirds of the original holders of the national debt found that they had exchanged L26,000,000 in secure annuities for L8,500,000 in South Sea Company stock. From their correspondents, Virginians heard about "the ruinous effects of the South Sea stock and other bubbles," which had thrown England on "dismall times." At Alexander Spotswood's celebration of his birthday on December 12, 1720, in the governor's new mansion in Williamsburg, the guests, including William Byrd, danced country dances and played at stockjobbing.

The collapse of the South Sea Bubble and the similar fate in Paris of the Mississippi Company and its bubble became a theme for plays, verse, tracts, and books. Thomas Mortimer began his book of advice, Every Man His Own Broker, with his experience: "The author has lost a genteel fortune, by being the innocent dupe of the gentlemen of 'Change-Alley." Plays such as The Stock-Jobbers and South Sea; Or the Biters Bit satirized such people and moralized against greed. William Hogarth created a busy, vivid print, South Sea Scheme, linking speculation with prostitution, theft, and depravity. After 1720, the words "South Sea" brought to mind not only stockjobbing and rash speculation but also financial disaster as punishment. After William Byrd reached England in 1721, he carried on his search for a wife at the height of bitter reaction against bubbles. Once he and his new wife settled at Westover, Byrd wrote to his friends in England describing the merits of life in Virginia. He made his colony sound like an idyllic contrast to dangerous, smoky, corrupt London. He tried to convince his friends that he had moved to a healthier, more fruitful, more honest country. After his service along the boundary line, Byrd's descriptions of Virginia changed. Even when they professed sincerity, his celebrations of this rich land contained a broader streak of irony. The land, like the South Sea Company, was only potentially rich. And extracting wealth from it would require not only projectors but also dupes.
Charles Royster

About Charles Royster

Charles Royster - The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company

Photo © Jim Zietz

Charles Royster lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Praise

Praise

"Here is a narrative history of scope and of abundance, a fascinating story." --The Washington Times

"Vivid. . . . plunges readers into the rough world of colonial capitalism--a world swarming with adventurers, aristocrats, fools, rogues and visionaries all wearing masks of gentility." --The News & Observer (Raleigh)

"A veritable encyclopedia of early American get-rich-quick schemes." --Men's Journal

"[Royster] is a seasoned stylist, and tells this colorful story in rich detail." --The Washington Post

"Imagine Barbarians at the Gate with lace cuffs." --Wilton Barnhardt

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