Yazoo Land Fraud: Definition & Summary

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

The Yazoo land fraud sounds like something from a Dr. Seuss book. But instead of whimsical characters and silly rhymes, the Yazoo land fraud is a story of politics, bribery, and scandal. This lesson defines and summarizes the Yazoo land fraud.

Introducing the Yazoo Land Fraud?

Yazoo may seem like a pretty silly word, but what exactly does it mean? The word takes its name from a group of Native American tribes that lived in the southeastern United States. The tribes mysteriously disappeared from the region, so the exact meaning of the word is unknown. Some believe Yazoo means 'Valley of Death,' while others think it might describe an area for hunting. Today, it refers to the Yazoo lands where these tribes once resided--in central and western parts of Georgia--and is the setting for the Yazoo land fraud, a controversy surrounding fraud conducted by the Georgia legislature in 1795.

The Yazoo Act

In 1795, the Georgia legislature got itself into some hot water. During this time in U.S. history, there were only 15 states (the original 13 colonies plus Kentucky and Vermont). At the time, Georgia claimed a massive territory where Mississippi is located today. Four companies approached the Georgia legislature looking to purchase 35 million acres from the state. These companies were the:

  • Georgia Company
  • Georgia-Mississippi Company
  • Upper Mississippi Company
  • Tennessee Company

For the 35 million acres, they offered $500,000. Think about the math for a second: 35 million acres for half a million dollars. That sounds like a lot of money, but it actually comes out to just 1.5 cents per acre. What a bargain--some might even describe it as a steal! At the same time these four land companies approached the state, a fifth and independent company made another offer on the land. The Georgia Union Company told the Georgia legislature that it was not only willing to pay $800,000 for the land, but would also make a $40,000 down payment.

If you were in the legislature, what would you do? The answer seems pretty obvious: You should vote for the higher bid so that the state makes more money for its land. Instead of 1.5 cents per acre, the state could make 2.3 cents per acre. Unfortunately, the legislature voted for the lower bid and passed the 1795 Yazoo Act, which turned the land over to the four bidding companies.

Map of Yazoo Act transaction
Yazoo Map

Bribes and Scandal

So why exactly would the Georgia legislature sell land at a significantly lower price than its actual value, especially when there was a higher bidder? The answer is simple: bribery.

U.S. Senator James Gunn began greasing the palms of legislators, local politicians, and even the media. With the exception of one legislator, everyone else who voted to pass the Yazoo Act was getting something from one of the four companies. Word of the scandal was leaked, and the public was outraged. How could their legislature--the men they had trusted and voted into office--do something so underhanded?

Within a year, the legislature felt the people's rage. Most of them were voted out of office, and the new legislature went about undoing the damage of the Yazoo Act. Led by Senator James Jackson, the new Georgian politicians rescinded, or took back, the Yazoo Act and decided to give all of the money from the sale back to the four companies and reclaim the land. But the people running the companies weren't fools. They knew that what they had done was wrong and quickly moved to resell the land to speculators to turn a profit.

Senator James Jackson
Senator James Jackson

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