Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to John Cleves Symmes, 6 August 1791

To John Cleves Symmes

Philadelphia August 6th. 1791.


Copies of Governor St. Clair’s Letter to you of May 23d. 1791, and of your answer of the same day to him, having been communicated to Government, it is perceived that sundry persons claiming titles under you have taken possession of Lands of the United States between the upper line of your Contract and the little Miami. As it is the duty and determination of the Executive to see that no encroachments be made on the public Lands, I am now to desire from you an explanation of these proceedings, and that it may be sent at as early a day as possible in order that your claim, if well founded, may not be prejudged in a Report on the subject of the Lands of the United States which is to be laid before Congress soon after they meet in October, and that such other proceedings may be had therein as shall be thought proper.—I am Sir Your most obt. & most hble. Servt.

PrC (DLC); in clerk’s hand; lacks signature. FC (DNA: RG 360, DL).

Symmes, currently serving as a judge in the Northwest Territory, had acquired an interest in western settlement while he was a member of the Continental Congress in 1785–6 and spent the greater part of the last two and a half decades of his life developing a magnificent tract of land in the Ohio country that included the city of Cincinnati (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–1936 description ends ).

The judge and Governor St. Clair were involved in a dispute over the location of the eastern boundary of the former’s tract in the Ohio country. In 1787 Symmes petitioned the Continental Congress for a grant of approximately 2,000,000 acres of land bounded on the west by the Great Miami river and on the east by the Little Miami river. The Continental Board of Treasury approved a contract with Symmes in the following year authorizing him to purchase 1,000,000 acres of land at 66½¢ an acre and setting the eastern boundary of the tract about fifteen miles west of the Little Miami. Before the tract was surveyed, however, Symmes made certain grants of land along the Little Miami that were beyond the limits specified by his contract with Congress. When Governor St. Clair called this transgression to his attention, Symmes defended himself by arguing that these grants were valid because the Board of Treasury had allegedly failed to abide by the Continental Congress’ intent to make the Little Miami the eastern limit of his purchase. In the end, Congress, acting in response to a petition from a recipient of one of the disputed grants, passed an act in April 1792 extending Symmes’ tract to the Little Miami. The passage of this act was undoubtedly facilitated by the efforts of Elias Boudinot and Jonathan Dayton, two New Jersey congressmen who were business associates of Symmes (Symmes, Petition to Continental Congress, 29 Aug. 1787; St. Clair to Symmes, 23 May 1791; Symmes to St. Clair, 23 May 1791; St. Clair to Hamilton, 25 May 1791; Act to Ascertain Boundaries of Symmes’ Purchase, 12 Apr. 1792; Symmes, Request for Alteration of Patent, 29 Sep. 1794, in Carter, Terr. Papers description begins Clarence E. Carter, ed., The Territorial Papers of the United States, Washington, 1934–1962, 26 vols. description ends , ii, 70–1, 342–8, 388–9, 492–5; see also Symmes to Dayton, 15 Aug. 1791; Symmes to Boudinot and Dayton, 25 Jan. 1792; Dayton to Symmes, May 6, 1792, in Beverley W. Bond, Jr., ed., The Correspondence of John Cleves Symmes [New York, 1926], p. 146–54, 159–62, 267–71).

Symmes replied to TJ in a letter of 17 Sep. 1791, recorded in SJL as received 23 Nov. 1791, but not found.

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