Three of the first five presidents of the United States, all Virginians, were greatly interested in the lands of the Mohawk Valley. Two of them, James Madison and James Monroe, were present at the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, signed in what is now Rome, New York in 1784. Madison did not plan on attending the peace conference, but while on a trip he bumped into the Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolution, in Baltimore. Lafayette asked Madison to accompany him to Fort Stanwix, and he agreed.
On this trip, Madison became acquainted with the fertile lands of the Mohawk Valley. Writing about the Mohawk Valley to Thomas Jefferson on Aug. 12, 1786, Madison said, “In talking of this Country some time ago with General Washington he considered it in the same light with Monroe and myself, intimating that if he had money to spare and was disposed to deal in land, this is the very Spot which his fancy had selected of all the U.S.”
In a letter to Albany’s General Phillip Schuyler, Alexander Hamilton’s father-in-law, on July 15, 1783, George Washington wrote, “… we propose to pass across the Mohawk river, in order to have a view of that tract of country, which is so much celebrated for the fertility of its soil and the beauty of its situation.” Washington visited the Mohawk Valley that year, stopping in Schenectady, Canajoharie and other places. However, Washington’s first attempt to purchase land in the valley in partnership with General George Clinton, New York state’s first governor, failed. Writing to Clinton on Nov. 25, 1784, he said, “I am sorry we have been disappointed in our expectation of the Mineral Spring at Saratoga — and of the purchase of that part of the Oeriskeny tract on which Fort Schuyler stands…”
He went on, however, to praise Clinton in the same letter for purchasing 6,000 acres of land adjoining the Oriskany tract. This land was in Montgomery County at the time, as Montgomery County was much larger than it is now. In a letter to George Clinton of Nov. 5, 1786, Washington wrote, “I am endeavouring by the sale of Land, to raise money to pay for my Moiety of the purchase on the Mohawk River — So soon as this is effected I will write your Excellency more fully.” On June 9, 1787, Washington wrote to Clinton to say he had raised the money to pay for his share of their Mohawk Valley purchase.
Washington still owned 1,126 acres of this land when he died. The Schedule of Property attached to his will, states that he and Clinton purchased the land from Revolutionary War hero, Colonel Marinus Willett, who was placed in charge of the Tryon County Militia in 1781 and had his headquarters at Fort Plain. Washington’s land would become part of the newly formed Oneida County, near present day Clinton in 1798.
Madison tried to talk Thomas Jefferson into purchasing land with him in the Mohawk Valley, writing on August 12, 1786, “There can certainly be no impropriety in your taking just means of bettering your fortune, nor can we discover in your doing this on the Mohawk more than on james River.” Jefferson wasn’t interested.
James Monroe, however, was interested. Together the two men purchased 900 acres not far from Washington’s. In a letter to Madison of July 15, 1786, Monroe describes the purchase at $1.50 an acre and writes of the land, “I have no doubt of the preference in favor of lands on the Mohawk to those of the same price at present, in any part of the Confederacy— as being equally fertile and more secure in all the other circumstances which can appreciate the value of land…”
Eventually Madison bought Monroe’s share of the land. A friend, Arthur Breese, wrote to Madison on April 11, 1794 from Whitestown suggesting he lay his land out in 100-acre lots and sell them for five dollars an acre. Madison eventually sold his land for $5.83 an acre to Theodorus Bailey, a future U.S. Senator and John Van Wyck, who would become a general in the War of 1812. The profit did not make Madison wealthy as he hoped. In fact, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe were deeply in debt when they died. Washington, on the other hand, died wealthy, much of his wealth coming from speculating in land.
More than 200 years later, the Mohawk Valley is still, in the words of George Washington, “celebrated for the fertility of its soil and the beauty of its situation.”
Dan Weaver lives in the town of Florida and operates a business in the downtown Amsterdam