From Louis Le Bègue de Presle Duportail
paris 10 february 1790
new Connexions which I have formed with america make me take the liberty of writing to your excellency. twenty three persons and myself we have acquired some lands on the ohio and we propose to make a setlement there. for that purpose we agreed to Carry or send over a certain number of Cultivators. this is a kind of experiment, which if successful, will be followed by a much greater one, so that a large french Colony may rise florishing in a few years. two members of our society mr bart and mr thiebaut are the vanguard, they go to america immediately and are to land in alessandria the Country of your excellency. I have great hopes that you will look upon our project as advantageous to the united States and deserving to be protected; besides the bounty and favour which you honored me with when in america encorrage me to beg your recommandation for those gentlemen in alessandria and in any other part where you will think it proper.
I don’t propose to follow their example in this moment and Cross the atlantic. the critical situation of our affairs at home does not permit it. but when they will be quieted, (if god grants us that favour) I intend to visit our Colony. it will be a great pleasure for me to see our people live in an abondance and happinesse which they could never hope in this country. besides I am impatient to see again america and persons (permit me, dear general to mention you at the head) for whom I shall keep always the greatest interest and attachement.
probably your Excellency knows the extraordinary events which have taken place here. we are also struggling for liberty. but I do not know if our success will be as Compleat and perfect as that of the american. there is a very great difference between a young nation and an old one divided almost in two Classes, the one Corrupted by extreme luxury, the other by extreme misery.
I must finish this letter by making an apologie for my bad english but I depend, dear general, upon your indulgence. Since I left america I passed almost all my time in germania, prussia, itali, and have been obliged to learn other languages, which made [me] forget the english. but nothing may alterate the sentiments of veneration and attachement with which I have the honor to be yours exellency the most humble and obedient Servant
ALS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters.
Louis Le Bègue Duportail (1743–1802) had served in the French army as an officer of engineers since 1762 when he was sent to America by Franklin in 1777 as “Colonel in Chief of Engineers” of the Continental army and promoted to brigadier general in November 1777. When the French army arrived in the United States in 1780, he was attached to it with the rank of lieutenant colonel and directed work on the trenches at Yorktown. Returning to France, he remained in the army and, through the influence of Lafayette, was made minister of war in November 1790. He resigned after Lafayette’s fall. He fled to the United States in 1794 and died at sea in 1802.
Duportail’s letter to GW concerns the affairs of the Scioto Company, the largest single enterprise of speculator and assistant secretary of the Treasury William Duer. In 1787 Duer, at the time a member of the Board of Treasury, secured a tract of land that later surveys showed to be over four million acres north and west of the purchase of the Ohio Company of Associates and bounded on the west by the Scioto River. Thirty shares were issued to a group of American businessmen including Duer, Andrew Cragie, Royal Flint, and Richard Platt. Payment was to be made to the Ohio Company in six installments at 66⅔ cents an acre after the survey of the land was completed (“Copy of Transfer of Land from [Manasseh] Cutler and [Winthrop] Sargent to Colonel William Duer in November 1787,” in Belote, “Scioto Speculation,” description begins Theodore Thomas Belote. “The Scioto Speculation and the French Settlement at Gallipolis: A Study in Ohio Valley History.” University [of Cincinnati] Studies, 2d ser., vol. 3, no. 3 (September–October 1907): 1–82. description ends 65–66). In mid–1788 Duer and his partners sent the young Connecticut poet Joel Barlow to France to sell land to French investors. In Paris Barlow soon found an ally and business partner in William Playfair, an unscrupulous English speculator, and the two formed the Compaignie du Scioto, designed to peddle the company’s western lands to unwary French investors. An inflated Prospectus was issued promising prospective settlers a veritable paradise, with cleared land and thriving cities. A group of French investors in the company, calling themselves the “Twenty-Four,” was formed in Paris in January 1790, and some of the members, including the marquis de Lézay-Marnésia, the comte de Bärth (Barthe), and François Adrien Thiebaud. Some members of the “Twenty-Four” actually emigrated to the United States. The majority of the emigrants, however, were Parisian shopkeepers and other small investors, and over five hundred of them came to America in reponse to the Scioto Company’s alluring promises. For their unfortunate fate when they reached the frontier, see Belote, “Scioto Speculation,” description begins Theodore Thomas Belote. “The Scioto Speculation and the French Settlement at Gallipolis: A Study in Ohio Valley History.” University [of Cincinnati] Studies, 2d ser., vol. 3, no. 3 (September–October 1907): 1–82. description ends 48–60. Congress continued to maintain the position that negotiations on the Scioto lands were between that company and the Ohio Company, and by the spring of 1790 it was evident that the Ohio Company was unable to make its own payments to Congress and the Scioto Company itself was bankrupt. The remains of the company disappeared in the wake of the 1792 financial panic. Eventually some restitution was made to the settlers. See Belote, “Scioto Speculation,” description begins Theodore Thomas Belote. “The Scioto Speculation and the French Settlement at Gallipolis: A Study in Ohio Valley History.” University [of Cincinnati] Studies, 2d ser., vol. 3, no. 3 (September–October 1907): 1–82. description ends 37–43; Davis, Earlier History of American Corporations, description begins Joseph Stancliffe Davis. Essays in the Earlier History of American Corporations. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1917. description ends 1:213–53.