Thomas Jefferson Papers

Gideon Fitz to Thomas Jefferson, 20 March 1816

From Gideon Fitz

Opelousas Louisiana, March 20th 1816


Permit me to lay before you a copy of my letter lately transmitted to the President of the United States, with a copy of its enclosure, on a subject which has greatly interested my feelings, and which I fear may have injured my reputation.

I hope it may not be thought amiss1 that I should feel desirous of affording you, to whose kindness I am indebted for my present promotion in life, a brief explanation of circumstances which have given rise to the Presidents dissatisfaction alluded to in the enclosed Copy of my letter. On the 12th July 1811 the Board of Commissioners at Opelousas received a communication from Mr Gallatin expressive of the Presidents disapprobation of their proceedings, and concluding with the following remarks. “I can only add the subject in itself and in its consequences is viewed by the President as of such vital importance that a conviction of the purity of your motives, the great confidence placed in you and a sense of your usefullness in other respects, have alone prevented a more efficient prevention of the evil.”—

I am sorry it was thought necessary by some person in New Orleans, who by means unknown to the Board, became possessed of a copy of this communication of Mr Gallatins soon after its arrival, to publish it in the Orleans Gazette.—The slightest intimation from the President would have been promply attended to by the Board in conforming their decisions to his construction of the laws, and to correspond with the decisions made by the Orleans Board, untill the necessary explanations of the difference in the nature of some of the claims in the two districts should have been made known at the seat of government. The general principals on which the Board had decided to act in confirming claims were transmitted to the Treasury Department in December 1810 with a view of their being investigated, and if objectionable, that those objections should be made known to the Board before they should enter fully on the business of issuing certificates of confirmation. Many of the uninformed inhabitants of the country at that time were apprehensive that their claims held under the lower grades of title and even Orders of Survey from the Spanish government, though in all respects fair & equitable in their nature, would be disallowed by the American government, and therefore, as is believed, were disposed to transfer them to speculating Americans for a small consideration and would have thereby deprived themselves and their posterity of property which might become valuable to them. To prevent this occurrence which would tend in a short time to excite animosity between the ancient inhabitants and new2 settlers in the country, the commissioners permitted their principals of decision on the claims to be made known in the District,—and if, as I have stated in my letter to the President, we have “in our zeal to serve the government by quieting the apprehensions of the inhabitants of an extensive District of country lately transfered from a Despotic government to one of whose liberal principals they had began to evince doubts by their murmurs at their title papers being so long witheld from them, without their being able to perceive any object for it, we shall be thought to have confirmed a few claims not strictly within the contemplation of the acts of congress, and which it may not have been intended by the government should be immediately confirmed, it will be a matter of lasting regret to me.”—I will only add Sir, and I feel persuaded you will believe me, that if in any thing relating to my office I have erred, they have not been errors of the heart.—I should be happy if circumstances would permit it, to see & pay my respects to you in your enviable retirement at Monticello, where I could more satisfactorily afford you explanations of my conduct in the performance of official duties entrusted to my charge.—

I have the honor to be, Sir, With great respect your Obt Servt

Gideon Fitz

RC (DLC); endorsed by TJ as received 8 May 1816 and so recorded in SJL. RC (DLC); address cover only; with PoC of TJ to Nicolas G. Dufief, 9 June 1816, on verso; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Late President U. States Monticello Albemarl Cy Virginia” and “Recommended to the care of Ths M Randolph Esqr near Milton Va”; franked; postmarked Opelousas, 21 Mar. 1816. Enclosures: (1) Fitz to James Madison, Opelousas, 26 Feb. 1816, explaining his circumstances and expressing concern over a 24 May 1811 letter from Albert Gallatin, received 12 July 1811 (printed in Terr. Papers description begins Clarence E. Carter and John Porter Bloom, eds., The Territorial Papers of the United States, 1934–75, 28 vols. description ends , 9:934–6), in which Gallatin reported the “Presidents disapprobation of the construction of the Act of Congress of the 3rd March 1807 and the principals on which the Board of Commissioners had decided to act in ascertaining and adjusting the land claims of this District”; stating that Fitz had shared with land office register Levin Wailes enclosure no. 2 as well as “the Communication refered to in Mr Gallatins letter in which (it will not have escaped your recollection) I gave it as my decided opinion that it would be good policy in the government to quiet the apprehensions of claimants in this District with the least possible delay by confirming their claims very generally, as it was not believed there were many of a fraudulent nature then entered in the land office, and that great discrimination ought to be made in favor of claims supported by written evidence of title emanating from the former government of Louisiana, as there was a probability of some having witheld title papers for the purpose of taking the advantage of the provisions of the Acts of Congress by claiming a larger quantity of land under settlement than they could have obtained under their written titles”; asserting that Wailes agreed with his opinion that Gallatin’s 11 May 1810 letter should be viewed as approval of Fitz’s suggestions both by the secretary of the treasury and the president; indicating that William Garrard of the board of commissioners had agreed with Fitz’s methods for deciding land claims; noting that the “next steps were to promulgate them throughout our District to prevent as much as possible speculation, and to communicate them to the Honorable Secretary of the Treasury, in order, if objectionable, that such objections might be made known to us”; attributing any confirmation of claims “not strictly within the contemplation of the Acts of Congress, and which it may not have been intended by the government should be immediately confirmed,” to his zeal to serve the United States government and quiet the apprehensions of territorial residents; confirming that “no improper motives can be attributed to the commissioners”; and concluding with his opinion that it is “greatly to be regretted that such facility has been afforded by law to claimants in establishing their claims entirely by oral evidence, and it has been remarked by the former inhabitants of the Country holding under the lower grades of written titles, tho in all respects fair and regular in their nature, that new commers settling on the best pieces of vacant land without any written evidence to establish the fairness of their claims, have obtained their confirmation, while those of the ancient inhabitants have been rejected” (Tr in DLC, entirely in Fitz’s hand, at head of text: “(Copy),” at foot of text: “James Madison President of the United States”; RC in DNA: RG 59, MLR). (2) Gallatin to Fitz, Treasury Department, 11 May 1810, acknowledging receipt of Fitz’s letter to TJ regarding unsettled land claims in the western district of Orleans Territory and informing Fitz of his appointment as a commissioner for land claims; naming the remaining board members, Wailes and Garrard; enclosing a letter from Gallatin to Wailes of 5 May 1810 indicating that “congress did not at their last session provide any compensation, and that the commissioners must trust for remuneration to such provision as may hereafter be made by law”; explaining that the compensation would likely be proportional to the number of claims decided on in order that “no improper suspicion will attach that the business is unnecessarily protracted”; asserting that “it seems that there can be but very little difficulty in deciding on those claims not exceeding one league square of which the Commissioners are made the final and absolute judges.—For it is generally understood that there are but few if any fraudulent or doubtfull claims of that size in the District: those which are considered of a doubtfull nature being the large provincial grants to Bastrop, Maison rouge, the parish of Attakapas &c. And perhaps some purchases of Indian Villages and Vacheries” [enclosures for cattle]; and concluding with the hope that Fitz and his fellow commissioners will decide the outstanding claims within the year and “transmit their transcript in time for the next session of Congress which will enable them to open the land office and will in every respect be attended with beneficial effects” (Tr in DLC, entirely in Fitz’s hand, at head of text: “Private,” at foot of text: “Gideon Fitz Esqr Principal Deputy Surveyor &c. Opelousas”; printed in Terr. Papers description begins Clarence E. Carter and John Porter Bloom, eds., The Territorial Papers of the United States, 1934–75, 28 vols. description ends , 9:882–3).

In a letter dated 16 Dec. 1810 (not found), the commissioners explained the general principals they had been using (Terr. Papers description begins Clarence E. Carter and John Porter Bloom, eds., The Territorial Papers of the United States, 1934–75, 28 vols. description ends , 9:930–1).

1Manuscript: “a miss.”

2Word interlined.

Index Entries

  • An Act respecting claims to land in the territories of Orleans and Louisiana (1807) search
  • Fitz, Gideon; and La. land claims search
  • Fitz, Gideon; letters from search
  • Gallatin, Albert; and land claims in Orleans Territory search
  • Garrard, William; land commissioner search
  • Madison, James (1751–1836); and land claims in Orleans Territory search
  • New Orleans; and land claims in Orleans Territory search
  • Opelousas District, Orleans Territory search
  • Orleans Territory; land claims in search
  • Orleans Territory; land commissioners in search
  • Randolph, Thomas Mann (1768–1828) (TJ’s son-in-law; Martha Jefferson Randolph’s husband); delivers letters search
  • Spain; and U.S. land claims search
  • Wailes, Levin; and land claims in Orleans Territory search