Oliver Phelps

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Oliver Phelps bigraphy, stories - American politician

Oliver Phelps : biography

October 21, 1749 – February 21, 1809

Oliver Phelps was early in life a tavern keeper in Granville, Massachusetts. During the Revolution he was Deputy Commissary of the Continental Army and served until the end of the war. After the war ended, he was appointed a judge, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and became a land speculator in western New York state. A depressed real estate market forced him to sell most of his holdings.

Speculates in land purchase

The connections he established during the Revolutionary War aided his efforts in forming in 1788 a syndicate with Nathaniel Gorham, also a former member of the Federal Constitutional Convention. They organized a company of speculators, retaining 82 shares for themselves, and brought in competing companies to join in their effort. They sold 15 shares to the Niagara Company, composed of Colonel John Butler, Samuel Street, and other Tory friends of the Indians, and another 23 shares were divided among 21 persons. Following the American Revolution, there remained a confusing collection of contradictory royal charters from James I, Charles I, and Charles II, mixed with a succession of treaties with the Dutch and with the Indians, which made the legal situation intractable. Massachsetts owned land west of New York that was disconnected geographically from the rest of the state. New York and Massachusetts reached a compromise settling their competing claims for the region on December 1786 with the signing of the Treaty of Hartford. The syndicate lobbied for a law that was passed by the Massachusetts legislature that enabled them to buy land, payable over three years, using Massachusetts Consolidated Scrip, which was worth about 20 cents on a dollar at the time.

On July 4–8, 1788 a council was held with chiefs of the Five Nations of Indian at Buffalo Creek. Phelps was the active agent for the syndicate and negotiated with the Indians to purchase their title to the land. The Indians considered themselves to be the owners of the land, but Phelps persuaded the Chiefs that since they had been allies to the defeated British during the Revolutionary War, and since the British had given up the lands in the 1783 peace treaty, the tribes could only expect to retain whatever lands the United States would allow them to keep. Phelps and Gorham wanted to buy , but the Indians refused to sell the rights to any land west of the Genesee River. Phelps suggested that the Indians could take advantage of a grist mill to grind their maize which would relieve the women of the grinding work. The Indians asked how much land was needed for a grist mill, and Phelps suggested a section of land wide and miles deep, about , along the western bank of the river. Phelps and Gorham finally bought the rights to including a tract on the west bank of the river later named The Mill Yard Tract where they planned to locate a saw mill and grist mill. The Indians were later much amazed that so large a tract of land was needed for the grist mill.

They paid USD$1 million (about £300,000), or less than 25 cents per acre, between 1787-1788.

At first Phelps and Gorham thought they would make the site of current-day Geneva their headquarters, but discovered that their survey had somehow left that site just east of their boundary. So they chose Canandaigua, New York, at the head of Canandaigua Lake, as the seat of the new Ontario County. The name Canandaigua is derived from the Iroquois word "Kanandarque" which means chosen spot. It was the site of the principal village of the Seneca Indians, burned by the whites during the war in the Sullivan Expedition.

Builds home in Suffield

After the purchase, Phelps returned to Suffield, Connecticut and bought what was later named the Hatheway House from its builder Shem Burbank, who as a Tory sympathizer during the American Revolution had suffered financial difficulties afterward. Phelps spent generously on furnishings for the home, hired servants, and added a wing to the home in 1794, a display of his wealth and an "architectural masterpiece" that still features original Paris-made wallpaper.