Monday, January 11, 2016

FRF - Symmes


John Cleves Symmes was a lawyer, former Colonel of the Militia, judge and member of Congress from NJ. He was induced to visit the Miami Valley by Major Benjamin Stiles of Redstone, Pennsylvania, which he did in early 1787. Upon returning to the East he petitioned Congress on 29 August 1787, as John Cleves Symmes and associates, to buy the land between the Miami Rivers. At one point the purchase was said to be for two million acres but this was revised to be one million acres. The contract was modified by Congress, with Symmes consent, in 1792, to reduce the purchase to the final size of 311,682 acres. The purchase finally was approved on 30 October 1794, when President George Washington signed the patent. As finally executed, the Symmes Purchase extended between the Miami rivers and north from the Ohio River about 2/3 of the way to Dayton.

SymmesPurchase @80

Judge Symmes evidently was a headstrong, take-charge sort of guy because he sent surveyors into the field in 1788, sure that his 1787 request would be approved. He also was a frugal guy because he ordered the surveyors to work their way north setting Section corner markers at one-mile intervals but he told them NOT to spend the time running east-west lines to insure the Sections were indeed one-mile squares. The purchasers of the land would need to pay for these surveys to be performed. Further, a basic problem with the Symmes survey was that he ordered his surveyors to define the north-running lines simply using compass heading … not correcting the compass heading to true North.

C. Albert White, writing in the 1982 A History of the Rectangular Survey System for the Bureau of Land Management, had this to say about the Symmes survey; “The supposed northwest corner of a section might be 15 to 20 chains or more, north or south of the northeast corner of the same section. The longitudinal distances between corners were also grossly in error. A purchaser of a full section might have 100 acres more or less than he was to pay for.” Since a surveyor’s chain measured 66 feet and a full section contains 640 acres the work done by Symmes’ surveyors could have been horribly wrong! The History of Warren County cited an example where one Ichabod Halsey purchased a plat from Symmes said to contain 640 acres that actually contained 840!

But wait! There is more. Judge Symmes sent surveyors into the territory beyond the limits of his contract for 311,682 acres … surveying and selling land even farther north than the future site of Dayton, Ohio, which itself was 20 miles or more beyond the northern boundary of the land he actually owned. Symmes spent years selling land he did not own! John Edgar, son of one of the pioneer settlers of Dayton, reports in his Pioneer Life that a group of men (including Jonathan Dayton) bought the seventh and eighth ‘ranges’ from Symmes. Each range was a six-mile (north-south) swath of land extending from the Great Miami River on the west to the Little Miami River on the east. This includes the future sites of Dayton, Beavercreek, Fairborn, Wright-Patterson AFB and Yellow Springs as well as other smaller villages. Edgar further reports that his father received a certificate for two lots in the town of Dayton that reads as follows; 

This will certify that Robert Edgar has complyed (sic) with the conditions of settlement in the town of Dayton and is entitled to receive a deed for the following lots so soon as the Honorable John C. Symmes shall obtain a patent from Congress, including the premises, viz: Town Lot numbered on the plat of said town Thirty-two and ten-acre outlot number Five.

For the proprietor, 

D. C. Cooper

Dayton, March 17, 1798”

Edgar notes that the ‘new proprietors’ refused to honor this certificate and his father received nothing for his labor in clearing the lots.

So. Was “the Honorable John C. Symmes” a con artist, scamming everyone to make a fast buck while hoping that his reputation ‘Back East’ would protect him from prosecution … or hoping that the distance from the sites of real power would protect him? Was he a headstrong individual who was confident that a do-nothing Congress would finally see the wisdom of HIS ways and sell him the lands he had been peddling? Or was he like the lead character in the musical ‘Music Man’ who claimed he always thought there would be a boy’s band?

Your guess is as good as mine …

The Rest of the Story is equally murky; what happened to those who bought land from Symmes?

Its clear from the story told by Edgar about his father, that some folks simply lost all claim to ‘their’ land. But Congress tried to make amends, passing relief acts in 1799 and 1801. By the terms of these acts a person who thought he had bought land from Symmes but actually was a squatter on Government land was given first opportunity to buy the land from the Government at $2 per acre … even though they previously had paid Symmes at the rate of (probably) 66 cents per acre. This may not sound like a good situation but if the ‘squatter’ had been improving the land for five or ten years it was better than simply walking away.

Then there were the problems related to the faulty survey. A court ruling (whose reference I have misplaced) found that the section corners of the original survey should prevail. This explains why some county boundaries in southwestern Ohio are zig-zaggy since they follow the lines of the original Symmes survey.

So far as further large land sales by Congress were concerned, White notes “The Symmes Purchase was so badly managed and the surveys so poor that it effectively killed any further large land sales by Congress. It brought out the need for proper surveys, executed by the government, and the fixing in position, by law, of survey corners and lines once claims were made based on them.”


I plan a later posting in which I will describe the activities of John Cleves Symmes, Jr, nephew of the Symmes Purchase Proprietor, and his connection to the Jefferis family by way of Jeremiah N. Reynolds.



Symmes purchase from surveyor’s perspective: by C. Albert White from A History of the Rectangular Survey System, U. S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Washington, D. C., 1982.

DRURY, Augustus Waldo, History of the City of Dayton and Montgomery County, Ohio, vol 1, found at Google Books.

History of Warren County

BURKE, Thomas Aquinas, Ohio Lands, a Short History, published by the Ohio State Auditor, 1997. Available at .

EDGAR, John F., Pioneer Life in Dayton (Ohio) and Vicinity, 1796-1840,W. J. Shuey, publisher, Dayton, 1896. Reprinted 1999 by Heritage Books, Bowie, Maryland. ISBN 0-7884-1276-0.


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