George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Mifflin, 15 December 1791

From Thomas Mifflin

Philadelphia 15th Decr 1791.


I have the honor to transmit to you copies of the documents respecting a contract which was made between the State of Pennsylvania and the late Board of Treasury of the United States, for the purchase of a certain tract of land, bounding on lake Erie; a report from the Comptroller General of Pennsylvania exhibiting the amount of the consideration money, as settled by him and the Comptroller of the Treasury of the United States; and a letter from the Attorney General of the State, representing the necessity of obtaining the aid of Congress to prescribe the forms, and authorize the execution of an Instrument of transfer.1 As I am ready to close this transaction, on behalf of the Commonwealth, permit me; Sir, to request that you will be pleased to lay the subject before Congress for their decision.2 I am, with sentiments of perfect respt, Sir Your most Obedt & most Hbe Servt

Thos Mifflin

Copy, DNA: RG 46, Second Congress, 1791–1793, Records of Legislative Proceedings, President’s Messages.

New York surrendered its western land claims to the United States in 1781, as did Massachusetts in 1786. When the western boundary of New York was settled, the Continental Congress found that the United States had title to slightly more than 200,000 acres wedged among New York, Pennsylvania, and Lake Erie. This area, which became known as the Erie Triangle, was cut off from the Northwest Territory by the Connecticut Reserve, which Connecticut was not expected to relinquish. Congress decided on 6 June 1788 to sell the Erie Triangle for not less than seventy-five cents per acre. Pennsylvania authorities, anxious to acquire a wide and valuable frontage on Lake Erie, contracted with the Board of Treasury to purchase the entire tract at that price. The Continental Congress approved a contract on 4 Sept. 1788, but it was dissolved before the transaction was completed. In the fall of 1791 Pennsylvania comptroller John Nicholson and U.S. comptroller Oliver Wolcott agreed to the terms of payment: Pennsylvania would pay $151,640.25 for 202,187 acres.

1Thomas Mifflin enclosed copies of six documents. The first enclosure was a resolution of the Pennsylvania general assembly of 12 Nov. 1787, authorizing the state’s supreme executive council to report on the possible purchase of the Erie Triangle. The second enclosure was an extract from the council’s minutes for 14 June 1788 containing a resolution authorizing Pennsylvania’s delegates to the Continental Congress to contract for the purchase of the land for seventy-five cents an acre. The third enclosure was a formal purchase offer of 7 July 1788 presented to the Board of Treasury. The fourth enclosure was a letter to Pennsylvania delegates William Bingham and James R. Reid of 28 Aug. 1788 from Arthur Lee and Samuel Osgood, accepting Pennsylvania’s offer on behalf of the Board of Treasury. The fifth enclosure was a letter from John Nicholson to Mifflin, dated 8 Nov. 1791, detailing the agreement made with the comptroller of the United States, including the specific amount and the means by which the payment could be made—in loan office certificates at face value reduced by the continental scale of depreciation, in final settlement certificates, or in certificates of the registered debt with interest calculated through 10 June 1791. The sixth enclosure was Pennsylvania attorney general Jared Ingersoll’s letter of 28 Nov. 1791 to Alexander J. Dallas, secretary to the governor: “Agreeably to the request of the Governor, which you did me the honor to communicate in your favor of the 10th instant I conferred with the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States on the subject of the Lake Erie contract. The Secretary referred me to the Attorney General as the object of conference was of a legal nature. I mentioned the business to the Attorney General who requested that my communications might be in writing; which I have accordingly made, and entertain no doubt but that they will receive immediate attention. I beg leave to add that it does not appear from the papers forwarded to me that any instrument of conveyance from the United States to the State of Pennsylvania for the tract of land bounding on Lake Erie, contracted for with the Treasury of the United States, can be executed without a previous law of Congress for that purchase; I conceive that no officer of the United States is at present authorised to make such conveyance” (all enclosures in DNA: RG 46, Second Congress, 1791–1793, Records of Legislative Proceedings, President’s Messages).

2GW referred Mifflin’s letter and its enclosures to the secretary of state, who reported on 19 Dec., concurring with Ingersoll’s opinion that the conveyance required congressional action. GW laid Jefferson’s report and Mifflin’s letter and its enclosures before Congress on 20 Dec. (see GW to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, 20 Dec. 1791).

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