Land Disputes in Western Virginia

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Some of the cases on Wythe's docket involved competing claims for land. These claims often arose out of Virginia's history in trying to lay claim to its western frontier, as descendants or people who bought land from early settlers found themselves fighting claims by powerful land companies or former military officers.

The land companies

Virginia's original 1609 charter granted it the land for 200 miles north and south of Old Point Comfort, located in present-day Hampton, from the eastern to western seashore. The Ohio Valley lay within this grant, but France also claimed that area, and the Virginia colonists knew they could not take on the French without help from London. In 1744, though, France signed a treaty that put it opposite Great Britain in the ongoing War of the Austrian Succession, and Virginia felt comfortable attempting to settle the valley.[1]

Virginia's colonial government arranged deals with land speculators to help settle this frontier because it had worked well before. The speculators would form land companies. Virginia then granted land to those companies, which sold title to the land to would-be settlers. Virginia would granted the land companies 1,000 acres of land for every family settled, so long as those families settled within four years from the original grant.[2]

The politically powerful Greenbrier Company was the first land company to get a grant. Its members had previous experience settling frontier lands, and the company managed to successfully survey at least 50,000 acres of land in the Greenbrier Valley.[3] Another land company, the Loyal Company, did not do as well; it lost at least one 50,000-acre land grant because they failed to settle any families there.[4]

The French and Indian War

The French and Indian War complicated Virginia's expansion efforts. A poorly-executed offensive by British forces in 1755 depleted the forces' ranks and forced them to retreat eastward. As a result, settlers in the Greenbrier Valley were practically defenseless against the French's American Indian allies. Practically all the settlers in the area abandoned their homestead that year to escape the slaughter.[5]

Military Land Warrants

To bolster its army's and navy's ranks during times of conflict, Virginia awarded land rights to people who served its military during the French and Indian War,[6] and to those who served for at least three years in the Virginia army or navy or the Continental army.[7] These land grants, often called "military warrants", gave their holder the right to a certain amount of land in a designated area of Virginia's western frontier. A surveyor would later determine the land's precise boundaries.[8] Many of the veterans would never personally settle their gifted land, opting to sell their military warrants to speculators instead.[9]

After the French and Indian War

Great Britain gained large amounts of French territory when the French and Indian War concluded, but London still wanted to settle its relations with the American Indian tribes on the colonies' western frontier. As a result, King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763,[10] which banned any British settlements west of the Allegheny Mountains. With a few exceptions, settlers grudgingly complied.[11] The Proclamation would present a problem for settlers down the road, as it made it effectively impossible for settlers to survey and register any land they had claimed before the French and Indian War began.[12]

The Loyal Company had more success after the French and Indian War was over and gained political influence; at the same time, the Greenbrier Company continued to be a powerful force. The Loyal Company claimed over 200,000 acres of land in western Virginia by the Revolutionary War. In addition, Virginia colonial Governor Dunmore told would-be frontier settlers that they would have to purchase land rights from either the Greenbrier or Loyal Companies or from veterans holding military land warrants.[13] In 1773, Governor Dunmore also issued an order allowing the Greenbrier and Loyal Companies to survey and develop their land grants, even though independent settlers were still not permitted to survey their claims in the area.[14]

The Virginia Land Law of 1779

By the late 1770s, someone who struck out on their own to claim land in western Virginia might have found themselves contending with multiple conflicting claims for the land they had settled; a person holding a military warrant might survey out the land for their use, and the Greenbrier and Loyal Companies still had vaguely-defined claims to thousands of acres. In 1779, the Virginia Assembly passed a law that created the Virginia Land Office, as well as a system for settling disputes over land claims. The Land Law of 1779[15] validated claims to land that were surveyed by an accredited county surveyor before 1778. Coincidentally, most accredited country surveyors belonged to either the Greenbrier or Loyal Companies, so rival land companies' claims ended up invalid under this law.

Surveys of claims under 400 acres made before 1763 were also deemed valid, as were claims made under military warrants from the French and Indian War. Settlers on land who had arrived before 1778 could buy 400 acres for a small fee, and had preemption rights (the right to buy land provided no one had previously established title to it[16]) to buy 1,000 adjacent acres at a cost of £40 per 100 acres. The Greenbrier and Loyal companies scored a big win, though, when the law confirmed thousands of acres-worth of their land claims that they had surveyed.[17]

The law divided the area in Virginia around the Ohio Valley into four districts. The Governor of Virginia appointed a four-person commission to each of those districts to rule on any outstanding disputes over land claims.[18] Under the law, someone could appeal the commissions' decisions to the General Court of Virginia, whose word would be final.[19] The Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia, however, would weigh in on one of these disputes in Maze v. Hamilton, with Peter Lyons and Wythe's rival Edmund Pendleton sitting on the Supreme Court's bench to hear the case, even though they had substantial connections to the land companies.[20] Pendleton, for example was a member of the Loyal Company.[21]

See also


  1. Otis K. Rice, The Allegheny Frontier: West Virginia Beginnings, 1730-1830 (Lexington, KY: Univ. Press of Ky., 1970): 33-34.
  2. Rice, 34.
  3. Rice, 34-35.
  4. Rice, 35.
  5. Rice, 40-41.
  6. Daphne Gentry, "Colonial Wars Bounty Lands," Library of Virginia, accessed October 24, 2014.
  7. "About the Revolutionary War Bounty Warrants," Library of Virginia, accessed Oct. 24, 2014.
  8. "About the Revolutionary War Bounty Warrants."
  9. "About the Revolutionary War Bounty Warrants."
  10. Reprinted in Clarence S. Brigham, British royal proclamations relating to America, 1603-1783 (Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1911): 212.
  11. Rice, 59.
  12. Kirtland, 238.
  13. Rice, 78.
  14. Kirtland, 238, referring to "At a Council held December 16th 1773", in Vol. 6 of Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, ed. Benjamin J. Hillman (Richmond, VA: Va. State Library, 1966): 553-554.
  15. Ch. 12, 10 Hening 35; Ch. 13, 10 Hening 50 (May 1779 session).
  16. Bryan A. Garner, ed., "preemption", Black's Law Dictionary (St. Paul, MN: Thomson Reuters, 10th ed., 2014): 1369.
  17. Rice, 129.
  18. Rice, 129.
  19. Kirtland, 239, citing Ch. 13, Hening, 10: 48.
  20. Kirtland, 237.
  21. Alonzo Thomas Dill, "Sectional Conflict in Colonial Virginia," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 87(3) (July 1979): 309.