William Playfair (1759 – 1823)
The sorrowful events around the Mediterranean area amply demonstrate the lure of the green grass on the other side. And where there is desperation there is always those who want to make a fast buck and to cash in on peddling false hopes.
The story of the Scioto Company is one such example. The opening up of the west or perhaps more accurately the dispossession of the lands of the Native Americans meant that there were enormous tracts of land available for settlers. The Scioto Company, founded by Colonel William Duer and with Manasseh Cutler and Winthrop Sargent as shareholders in 1787, had arranged for the use of some 4 million acres of land north of the Ohio river and east of the Scioto river, on which the Ohio Company had secured an option from Congress. Congress required payment in six tranches before ownership of the land was transferred.
Of this tract of land Scioto earmarked some 3 million acres for sale in Europe, particularly in France which at the time was in the early throes of revolutionary fervour and turmoil. Joel Barlow was appointed as European agent of Scioto and he teamed up with the inaptly named Englishman, William Playfair, forming the Compagnie de Scioto on 3rd August 1789 with some French investors, to buy land from the American Scioto company and flog it French investors in 100 acre tracts. The money raised would then be used to pay Scioto who in turn would pay the Ohio Company who in turn would pay Congress, ample opportunity for monies to be siphoned off in the form of commissions along the way. Eventually the French investors would get the deeds to the land.
Playfair priced the land at 6 livres an acre but only required a down payment of 50%, the balance to be paid from the agricultural profits that the bountiful land would generate. A contemporary who had visited the site of the proposed settlement of Gallipolis commented scathingly that Playfair’s puffery didn’t mention that “these fine forests were a preliminary obstacle to every sort of cultivation” nor that the nearest source of provisions was a year away and that the natives were likely to be a bit uppity. Playfair also failed to point out that what the French migrants were buying were merely pre-emption rights, not the land itself as title to that remained with Congress until they had received the cash in full.
But the desire to leave France and the promise of riches was such that Playfair sold some 100,000 acres around the Ohio river. The problem was that he had not forwarded the monies to the American Scioto Company so when the first batch of 600 migrants arrived at Alexandria in May 1790 they were “disappointed” to find that they did not have title to the lands they thought they had bought because monies had not been paid to Congress to secure it.
The Ohio Company arranged temporary accommodation for them over the winter and in the spring the migrants set about cultivating what the brochures had claimed to be “the most salubrious, the most advantageous, the most fertile land known to any people in Europe”. Within two years they had almost starved and the Scioto Company went bust, Duer spending some time in a debtors’ prison. In 1795 the Ohio Company who owned title to Gallipolis and the surrounding lands along the Ohio magnanimously agreed to sell land to the settlers for $1.25 an acre, effectively requiring them to pay a second time for their land.
Playfair returned to England after the Revolution and earned a living as a translator and essayist. He is credited with inventing the pie chart.