Until 1803, Georgia distributed land based on the “headright” system. Each head of family had the “right” to 200 acres of land for himself and 50 acres of land for each member of his family, up to 1,000 acres. However, after the Revolutionary War, a number of governors signed land grants of significantly greater amounts than the law allowed.
Georgia Gov. George Mathews granted a million and a half acres to a single man. These grants totaled 2,664,000 acres of land in Montgomery County alone, which had an area of only 407,680 acres of land. By the end of his term, outstanding land grants totaled three times the amount of land available in Georgia.
In the early years of the U.S., large loans were owed by the states to their bondholders and other creditors, a massive national debt was owed to the countries which had helped the U.S., and much of the state and federal currencies were worth very little. In order to make money off of land sales, the state of Georgia laid claim to the land extending westward to the Mississippi River.
The Yazoo Land Fraud began in 1785 with the organization of the Combined Society and the creation of Bourbon County, Ga. This secret society’s only purpose was “to obtain from the State (Georgia) large grants of land, either for immigration or for sale, in either case for the end of making a large sum of money out of the transaction.”
Bourbon County was located on the Mississippi and included the site of the future city of Natchez. Georgia appointed civil and judicial officers for Bourbon County but repealed the Bourbon County Act in 1788. In 1789, three companies — the South Carolina Yazoo Company, the Virginia Yazoo Company and the Tennessee Company — formed to buy land from the Georgia Assembly.
On Dec. 21, 1789, Gov. Edward Telfair signed into law a bill selling 20 million acres of land to the Yazoo companies for $207,000. The deal fell through when the companies tried to pay in old, and in some cases worthless, currency. Much of Bulloch and surrounding counties would have been affected.
In 1794, four new Yazoo companies — the Georgia Company, the Georgia-Mississippi Company, the Upper Mississippi Company and the Tennessee Company — pushed through the Georgia Assembly a bill that sold them over 40 million acres of land for $500,000. Gov. Mathews signed it into law on Jan. 7, 1795.
Public outcry at the bill and the methods used to pass it resulted in the public voting most of the bill’s supporters out of office. Reformers, led by U.S. Sen. James Jackson, then took office, and the act was rescinded on Feb. 18, 1796. He vowed to repeal Yazoo if it cost him his life, saying he was willing to shoot every person involved in passing the act.
All records were sent to the state capital in Louisville. On Feb. 21, 1796, they were burned in public with the aid of a magnifying glass. The state then offered to refund the money paid, but some of the land had been resold to people who refused the money. The matter ended up in court.
In 1810, the Supreme Court struck down the reform act as unconstitutional (Fletcher v. Peck). Chief Justice John Marshall and his associates established the inviolability of a state’s contracts by overturning as unconstitutional the 1796 act of the Georgia legislature that had rescinded the Yazoo Land Act of 1795.
Roger Allen is a local lover of history. He provides a brief look at the area's historical past. Email Roger at email@example.com.