Dill, David Jr. "Portrait of an Opportunist: The Life of Alexander Macomb." Watertown Daily Times. 9, 16, 23 September 1990.

Green indicates text and graphics added by Marshall Davies Lloyd.

C1 Sunday, September 9, 1990 Watertown Daily Times

Alexander Macomb, Sr.

Alexander Macomb (1748-1831)
T. P. Hall's Family Records.

Portrait of an Opportunist:
The Life of Alexander Macomb
This is the first part of a three-part series on Alexander Macomb.

By David B. Dill Jr.
Special to The Times.

"Laugh at all my visionary schemes," lamented Alexander Macomb to William Constable in April of 1792. "Dear William ... I curse myself for my credulity ... what a pleasant situation I was in. ... Now see the contrast--my credit gone ... a large family to support ... and myself going to prison --- what a sad reverse, and all this in less than three months."


In the freewheeling atmosphere of the New York City marketplace, Macomb's career collapsed abruptly for his not recognizing the pitfalls of headlong speculation in land and securities. Until then a supremely confident opportunist, Macomb found his downfall shattering. Perhaps he had dreamed of lasting fame as the grand builder of Northern New York, but instead his name has survived only as part of the phrase "Macomb's Great Purchase of 1791."

To his contemporaries he was more than a name. Alexander Macomb Sr. (1748-1831), not to be confused with his son of the same name, a future general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, emerged from the American Revolution as one of a bright, new class of parvenu entrepreneurs, all of whom amassed wealth from wartime trading in scarce merchandise and military supplies. Familiar examples are patriot upstarts such as Robert Morris of Philadelphia and William Duer of New York, self-made men of English birth who found ways to conduct private business while ably serving the public interest.

Macomb, however, had a place in a group of American newcomers who had spent all or much of the war behind enemy lines. Making a fine illustration is a provocative quartet of close business associations prominent in New York City after 1783: Besides Macomb, they were William Constable, William Edgar and Daniel McCormick.

Linked by heritage, all were native Presbyterian or Anglican Irishmen who had emigrated to provincial New York by their separate ways soon after 1750. More

See Alexander--Page C-2

C2 Sunday, September 9, 1990 Watertown Daily Times

>From Page C-1
properly neutralist than loyalist in the Revolution, above all they were entrepreneurs, profit-hungry to the core, and more akin to patriot merchants than Tory ideologues.

William Constable (1752-1803) had engaged in transatlantic trade between England and British-held American ports before switching to the American side late in the war. William Edgar (1739-1820), like Macomb, had been a merchant supplier to fur traders and the British army throughout the war. Something of a skinflint, Edgar passed his long life making money.

Daniel McCormick (1744?-1834) served as a lieutenant in the patriot militia until the British occupation of New York City, thereafter becoming a vendue master, or auctioneer, of captured American vessels and their cargoes. After the war, he enjoyed life as a merchant, convivial bachelor-about-town and philanthropist, remembered as the last man in New York to wear knee breeches and silver-buckled shoes.

Irish Immigrant
    Of the four, Macomb was the most dynamic. The popular image of Alexander Macomb has been that of a simple fur trader, by implication an uncouth frontiersman whose yen to get hold of wilderness lands in Northern New York stemmed from observations on fur-buying expeditions up the St Lawrence River. If he had been such an individual, there would have been good reason to see Macomb as only a front for powerful insiders. But in truth Macomb had always been a sophisticated and imaginative man on the make, accustomed to taking large risks and boundlessly confident of his ability to hold his own among the wolfish leaders and officials of his time.

Born in 1748 at Ballynure, County Antrim, he emigrated from Ulster to Albany in 1755 with his Scotch-Irish parents and brother and sister. His father, John Gordon Macomb, never more than a minor functionary nor visibly affluent, almost certainly remained a New Yorker for there is no evidence that he ever moved his family to Detroit as the family genealogist has insisted. By published record John Macomb served as county judge at Albany, raises a corps of 500 loyalists in support of General Burgoyne at Bennington, Vt., suffered confiscation of his home at nearby Hoosick, N.Y., and, as recompense, received an appointment as paymaster of British provincial troops. Although in 1780 he petitioned General Frederick Haldimand (unsuccessfully) for a commissary post in the West, his only experience with Detroit may have been limited to visits in the 1780s. From inconclusive evidence, it appears that in 1766 John Macomb's son Alexander traveled to frontier Detroit entirely on his own.

Macomb Enters a Tough Industry
    Macomb threw himself into an industry remarkable for relentless competition. New York merchants of the 1760s held a proprietary interest in the trading post of Detroit, and Michilimackinac beyond it, as the westernmost links of a trading network extending from the port city of New York via the Hudson, Mohawk and Niagara water route. In what amounted to a provincial trade war, aggressive New Yorkers like James Sterling, John Porteous and William Edgar struggled with the more numerous Canadians from Montreal. Tenaciously holding on to possibly one-third of the fur business, they undoubtedly benefited from their superior capacity to import unlimited volumes of low cost rum for the Indian trade.

One of the most energetic New York firms was Phyn & Ellice of Schenectady. Needful of cash and a strong presence in strategic Detroit, the proprietors turned to a new trading firm owned by Alexander and William Macomb. In a document dated Aug. 27, 1774, Phyn & Ellice sold its Detroit stock to the Macomb brothers and appointed them as its agents in that post.

Such a prestigious arrangement with the Schenectady firm marked an impressive advancement for the 26-year-old Alexander Macomb and his younger brother William. The precocious young merchants were already operating a modest but flourishing trade with settlers, townspeople and outfitters. Their first ledger recorded, for example, supplying a Mrs. Labute, perhaps a shopkeeper, with rum, wine, dry goods, animal skins and gunpowder, and billing her 32 pounds, 2 shillings, 6 pence New York currency during June of 1774.

Off on a Military 'Adventure'
    Affiliation with Phyn & Ellice may have helped land some official business. The brothers' petty ledger contained the account "Adventure to the Huron River" (a stream near Sandusky, Ohio). The entries totaled 691 pounds, 2 shillings, 11 pence New York currency by March 3, 1775, and included items popular with the Indians, such as black wampum, brooches, blankets, moccasins, horn combs, tobacco and rum.

The "adventure" to the Indian country across Lake Erie was presumably a military one to curry Indian support, and its significance was appreciated by big suppliers like Macomb. As armed conflict raged in New England and Quebec during the early months of the War of Independence, it was only a matter of time before it spread to the western frontier posts. But all-out employment of Indian warriors as part of Britain's offensive strategy was still two years away.

Meanwhile, the fortunes of the Macomb brothers took an upswing with the arrival of Henry Hamilton, an ambitious Scottish-born officer who would become their strong supporter. On Nov. 9, 1775, the Macombs and other inhabitants watched intently as Hamilton assumed the office of lieutenant governor and superintendent of Detroit.

Duties of his position were equivocal and overlapped the commanding officer's, but did include responsibility for regulating the fur trade and keeping the Indians at peace. Because the posts lacked civil government, the four lieutenant governors at Detroit, Michilimackinac, Vincennes and Kaskaskia acted much like political officers attached to the military, reporting to the governor of Canada in Quebec. Soon, going beyond his jurisdiction, Hamilton haughtily overstepped the commanding officer's authority and even bypassed the governor by corresponding directly with Lord George Germain, the American Department secretary at Whitehall, England. Of course the Detroit merchants quickly recognized which British authority held real power.

War Means Business
    The American Revolution came to Detroit in 1777 when Germain, responding in part to Hamilton's needling, proclaimed an official Indian policy for the West. Writing on March 26 to Governor Sir Guy Carleton, he relayed an ominous message:

"...it is the King's command that you should direct Lieut.-Governor Hamilton to assemble as many Indians of his district as he conveniently can ... employ them in making a diversion and exciting an alarm upon the frontiers of Virginia and Pennsylvania. ... A supply of presents for the Indians and other necessities will be wanted ... and you will of course send Lieut.-Governor Hamilton what is proper and sufficient."

Germain's order to ship unlimited supplies of Indian gifts to Detroit made welcome news to its merchants, certainly to Alexander Macomb, who for more than a year had been Hamilton's chief provisioner.

Close social ties had cemented their relationship. Illustrating their friendship is a remark in Macomb's letter of February 1779, just prior to Hamilton's capture at Vincennes by George Rogers Clark: "...my better half is happy that you eat your Xmas dinner at peace at St. Vincenne, since you could not do us that pleasure at Detroit." It was a tie so lasting that years later Macomb named his fifth son Henry Hamilton Macomb.

A Good Word for a Friend
    In September of 1778, anxious to give a boost to his friend and irritated at the reluctance of other merchants to accept orders for government provisions, Hamilton made a point of informing the new governor, General Frederick Haldimand, that:

"Mr. Macomb ... has furnished goods at a more reasonable rate than any other merchant. If his prices are compared with goods taken up for the Crown at other Posts, I am well assured they will be found more moderate. ... He has never charged commission or expenses, tho' he has given himself a vast deal of trouble in the purchase of Indian corn, flour, cattle &c. He has advanced on the Credit of the Crown to the amount of 12,000 pounds N. York Currency at one time. ... I but do justice to a perfectly honest man."

That Macomb, an astute merchant, could have been so altruistic or ardent a king's subject as to turn down a profit on a large part of his trade, stretches credulity. The assertion hints of collusion between the two men at the worst, or at least of the lieutenant governor's ignorance of standard business practice. It is logical to suppose that the Macombs would mark up prices enough to guarantee a generous return on their investment.

Haidimand Not Fooled
    Haldimand, on the other hand seemed to have no doubts about the profiteering aspects of the arrangement. He simmered for years over the Macomb monopoly and finally exploded in rage at "the fortune which the Messrs Macombs have made by Government during the war." The Macombs' control of the government business, which they must have won by aggressive promotion, did indeed extend throughout the Revolution and beyond. Hamilton's successor, Major Arent Schuyler De Peyster, felt equally comfortable with Alexander Macomb, whose daughter Sarah married De Peyster's namesake nephew after the war.

Not only did the Macombs supply provisions to the garrison and goods to the Indian Department on credit, but they also acted as paymaster for post personnel, militia, volunteers and interpreters. The scope of their business increased so greatly that by 1779 the brothers took in a third partner, William Edgar, and became the firm of Macomb, Edgar and Macomb. The title implies that Alexander Macomb headed the establishment, although Edgar later took credit for saving the firm through his own prudence. As an illustration of the volume of their official trade, the partners billed Governor Haldimand for 199,215 pounds New York currency for the period of September 1779 through May 1783 alone. They were becoming wealthy; By October of 1781 the partnership could invest surplus money of nearly 100,000 pounds in New York currency at 5 percent interest.

Macomb was at least indirectly involved in the execution of British war policy, which implicitly sanctioned the Indian practice of scalping American captives.

There is, however, no way of breaking down their income between government and private sources. The partnership clearly continued heavy shipments of pelts. As an example, a single consignment to Niagara in 1780 included 102 fur packs, and on one occasion in 1781 the Widow Berthelet traded in more than 12,000 skins of cat and fox, deer, raccoon, bear, elk and wolf.

Supplies for the Indians
    But it was the Indian Department that accounted for the heaviest volume at the Macomb warehouse. Besides providing food for the lavish entertainment of visiting Indians, the store furnished vast quantities of whatever the Indians desired: stroud blankets, paper looking glasses, Morris bells, ribbons, Jews' harps, brass kettles, pewter basins, brooches, earbobs and the like. Ledger entries of such goods for Dec. 29, 1779, through May 1, 1780, added up to 36,855 pounds, 15 shillings, 4 pence, New York currency.

Of all the Indian presents listed in the Macomb ledger, the really eye-catching items were the red-and buckhorn-haft scalping knives. In this single period the Macombs delivered the astounding total of 8,592 scalping knives. Should Alexander Macomb, as leading partner, have shared moral responsibility with the British authorities for distributing what was, symbolically at least, a terrorist weapon? Having privileged status as government supplier, he was at least indirectly involved in the execution of British war policy, under which royal officials implicitly sanctioned the Indian practice of scalping American captives.

Lord George Germain had made that policy clear in March of 1777 without quite putting it into words, when he instructed Governor Sir Guy Carleton on the use of Indian warriors: "the most vigorous efforts should be made, and every means employed that Providence has put in His Majesty's hands for crushing the rebellion. "William Pitt, almost the only Englishman to pick on Germain's reliance on Providence as justification, fulminated against those who "dared authorize ... to our arms the tomahawk and scalping-knife of the savage?... What! to attribute the sanction of God and nature to the massacres of the Indian scalping knife..."

Macomb's Role Clear
    Meanwhile, terrorized Kentuckians placed their condemnation of Indian atrocities squarely upon the shoulders of Henry Hamilton, whom George Rogers Clark eternally memorialized as "the Famous Hair Buyer." Controversy has arisen not so much over Hamilton's toleration of scalping as to whether he actually bought the scalps brought into Detroit. Some historians have painted Hamilton black, while others have sought to rehabilitate him for lack of evidence that he paid for scalps.

The argument has sidestepped the real issue. Hamilton and his Indian clients perfectly understood the simple scenario: the warriors accepted lavish gifts, including scalping knives, and in return went out to terrorize the American frontier. And in this drama, Alexander Macomb played a subordinate but rather clearly reprehensible role, without any known expression of remorse, and continued it throughout the war. Even as late as September of 1783, Macomb placed a substantial order for Indian presents, including 1,440 scalping knives.

C1 Sunday, September 16, 1990 Watertown Daily Times

Macomb's Mansion

Alexander Macomb had this mansion built in 1786 at 39-41 Broadway In New York City. The house, later a hotel, was thought to be the finest private building In the city.

Macomb's Years in New York City: Wealth and Power
This is the second part of a three-part series.

By David B. Dill Jr.
Special to The Times.

With the Revolutionary War at an end, the partnership of Macomb, Edgar and Macomb began to dissolve. First to drop out, on Sept. 3, 1783, was William Edgar, who followed the advice of a fellow trader, Sampson Fleming, and moved to New York City. He took with him as his share a draft in the amount of 48,000 pounds New York currency - a good clue to the firm's net assets. Within two years, the exact date unknown, Alexander Macomb also shifted his activities to New York City, leaving his brother alone in charge of the store.

Why Alexander Macomb chose to risk a second career under the American flag, while his brother remained loyal to the Crown, may have been a simple matter of differing personalities: Alexander, the aggressive, calculating entrepreneur; William, always the junior partner, a follower, more a conservative than an adventurer, content to live out his life as a Detroit merchant, with no further achievements than winning a term in the Upper Canada provincial assembly. Alexander Macomb, the risk-taker, had visions of a higher sort.

The New York that Macomb encountered in

See Macomb's -- Page C-2

C2 Sunday, September 16, 1990 Watertown Daily Times

Macomb's Years In NY City Ones of Wealth and Power

>>From Page C-1
1785 was a city in flux, one that well suited his restless spirit. Its citizens, bustling about the work of restoring dilapidated buildings and revitalizing a sick economy, exemplified a kinetic young America. In December of 1784 Elkanah Watson, the canal promoter and agriculturist, set foot in New York for the first time and described a town with "very irregular" streets, some 1,400 dwellings and a population of 20,000. Although "the sad vestige of a desolating war met the eye at every point," Watson was astonished "to see ... a vast multitude of masts already clustered in its docks. The elasticity of its rebound has been truly wonderful, and I saw in it a sure passage of its ultimate destiny."

Loyalists Reintegrated
    The city's society had also been in transition since 1782, as swarms of newcomers replaced thousands of fleeing Tories. The loyalists who stuck it out, historians now agree, suffered remarkably little retaliation and harassment considering the stressful length of the British occupation. In explanation, one historian has observed that their strength in numbers protected them in the process of "conflict resolution," while another concluded that activist leaders like Alexander Hamilton, the "legal theorist" of reconciliation, persuasively argued political unity as a national need. And a third historian suspected that America simply put aside ideology in a rush to "get on with its agenda."

By 1785 reintegration had advanced to the point where an ex-Tory newcomer like Alexander Macomb slipped into the mainstream without problems. His record as a supplier to Indian marauders evidently never came to light, nor would there likely have been scrutiny of his past by the "business is business" establishment. Moreover, he would not have allowed himself to appear as politically obnoxious as his unreconstructed father, who had preserved his loyalty to the Crown ever since patriot watchdogs had marked him as "a Person highly inimical to the Cause ... (and who) has been seen ... dressed in a Rifle Smock."

Constable a Chum
    Further, acceptance came readily through close ties with William Edgar, already established in New York, and William Constable, a longtime friend from fur-trading days. Notwithstanding a murky earlier history of trading across enemy lines, Constable switched sides in 1778. Thereafter he enjoyed a secure and influential position in Philadelphia and New York owing to the patronage of Gouverneur Morris and a well-publicized but tardy stint in The Continental army. Another valued ally was popular Daniel McCormick, who as a recognized neutral during the occupation escaped confiscation of his property and as early as 1784 had won election to the newly formed Chamber of Commerce.

A common bond of these men, one that undoubtedly meant much to Irish-born newcomers like Macomb, was membership in the Society of the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, one of the ethnic friendly societies springing up at the time. Organized by William Constable and Daniel McCormick in the winter of 1783, the society primarily aimed to assist indigent Irish, but its social aspects also appealed to the convivial Irish-Americans. By tradition the largely Presbyterian members greed never to discuss politics or religion at meetings, but politically minded members like Governor George Clinton might have bent the rule once in a while.

A Career Booster
    Constable, McCormick, Edgar and Macomb all held office in the society as president or councilor at one time or another, especially McCormick; as president for 30 consecutive years he was a familiar fixture at the head table of the high-spirited St. Patrick's Day dinners.

On the practical side, members formed such close in their business, church and civic affairs that the society had an unquestionably significant influence in their careers. To the ambitious Macomb, president of the society in 1791, his membership had special meaning.

In sheer magnitude and audacity, Macomb's land speculations placed him on a par with the giants, Robert Morris and William Duer.

Joining a fraternal organization was one thing, but a surer way to prestige lay in ostentation, and Macomb was not one to be discomfited by display of a grandiose way of life. By October of 1787 Macomb and his family had settled into their new residence at 3941 Broadway, one block south of Trinity Church. The family occupied the left half of the four-story brick structure just completed under the direction of the paterfamilias himself.

Its imposing frontage extended for 112 feet along the west aide of the avenue, and New Yorkers gazing upon it in wonderment called it the finest private building in the entire city. As a measure of its splendor, the mansion, later a distinguished hotel, has been the subject of more comment by city historians than Macomb himself.

Catherine Navarre Macomb

Catherine (Navarre) Macomb (1757-1789)
Hall's Family Records.

Mansion a Landmark
    Admiration for the structure came even from George Washington, who leased the main dwelling from Macomb and made it the presidential mansion from Feb. 23, 1790, until his departure for Philadelphia in late August. Tobias Lear, the president's secretary, and official visitors later described the interior, beginning with the large entry hall from which a single continuous stairway led to three upper floors. On either side were elegant and lofty-ceilinged rooms for dining and receiving visitors. At the back, glass doors opened to a balcony which afforded a handsome view across the grounds to Macomb's own wharf and the picturesque Hudson beyond it.

Macomb's motive in constructing such a grand residence cannot be explained solely on elitist terms. He also had to answer a genuine housing problem. The head of this household was remarkably prolific, and his menage had become truly formidable. In 1787, in addition to his wife, Catherine Navarre, there were children at home. By 1790 Macomb was temporarily a widower, raising 10 children, with seven more to follow [MDL: i.e., from his second marriage on July 11, 1791 to the widow Mrs. John Peter Rucker, neé Jane Marshall].

His household was staffed by at least 25 servants, of whom 12 were slaves (making Macomb the third largest slaveholder in New York City). But not long afterward, his immense household, instead of a joy, became an increasingly heavy burden.

Promoting the Public Good
    Compensating for self-indulgence and fascination for dazzling display, Macomb's personality had another, more praiseworthy, aspect, an apparently altruistic enthusiasm for promoting the public good. Seeming to enjoy his liberation from the dreary confinement of the Detroit stockade and anxious to present a new image, he threw himself into the city's civic affairs. There is no reason to dismiss all the effusions of Macomb's obituarist, possibly his son Major General Macomb, who rightly praised him as a useful citizen "ever ready to aid in the embellishments and substantial improvements of the City of New York." A contemporary vouched for his "generous and profuse" benevolence, in sharp contrast to William Edgar's "penurious and retired" nature.

William Constable, Sr
William Constable Sr.

City boosters counted on Macomb's managerial talent for purchasing materials and directing the conversion of City Hall into Federal House, and the legislature called on him to help erect a building to house the state archives. As further evidence of his social consciousness, Macomb served as the first treasurer of New York's first scientific body, the Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Arts and Manufactures.

Political affairs, however, held little appeal for him, except perhaps for business purposes. Nominally a Federalist like most men of his class, Macomb nevertheless backed his friend George Clinton, the anti-Federalist governor. He served two terms as state assemblyman, December 1788 to March 1789 and January to March, 1791, but passively, for the Assembly "Journal" recorded only one minor assignment for him. He favored adoption of the federal Constitution, but there is no record of his having taken part in the state ratifying convention, as some historians have asserted.

Real Estate Tycoon
    More to his taste was the business of buying wilderness lands at rock-bottom prices. Macomb was not alone. Throughout the nation almost every man of means itched to make a killing by speculating in the immense tracts which both the federal and state governments were opening for settlement. In New York, strapped for ready funds to reduce the public debt, the anti-Federalist state government overcame its republican scruples and sold land only to moneyed land jobbers, who in theory were to take on the responsibility for development.

In practice, however, the initial purchasers displayed little interest in any role other than making quick resales to longer-term investors and land companies. The primary purchasers, like Alexander Macomb, were bolder risk-takers than the middlemen, who as developers aimed to subdivide their tracts into farm-size lots for contracting to pioneers. Speculators, land companies and settlers all played essential roles in the opening up of the nation's public lands, and land jobbers continued to be a factor until the Homestead Act of 1862.

Ups and Downs
    But matters rarely went according to expectations for any of the participants in the national land rush during the early national period. The initial promoters frequently over-strained their credit during business slumps before running down secondary buyers, who in turn suffered deep discouragement on becoming aware that recovery of their investment took not years but decades. As one exasperated New York developer, James Wadsworth complained after 15 years of experience: "It is slow realizing from new lands. I will never advise another friend to invest in them. Men generally have not the requisite patience for speculating in them." As for poverty-stricken settlers, titles to their farms seemed always out of reach, and many fell back on tenancy. And yet so the West was won.

None of this immediately entered Macomb's mind when he took his first speculative flyer. Between 1786 and 1791, he and his partners acquired more than 4.5 million acres of state and federal lands. In sheer magnitude and audacity, his land speculations placed him on a par with the giants, Robert Morris and William Doer, and an observer might have asked his motives.

For one thing, as he lived on capital, his resources dwindled as the expenses of a large household mounted. Second, as he looked ahead, he hoped to pass on a landed estate to his offspring, a brood which eventually totaled 17. Further, and perhaps most importantly, was his compulsion, as always, to snatch a high-risk chance when he saw it.

C1 Sunday, September 23, 1990 Watertown Daily Times

The Audacity of Macomb's Purchase
Last in a three part series.

By David B. Dill Jr.
Special to The Times.

AlexanderMacomb's first speculation in land came early in 1786, when the New York land commissioners auctioned a never-patented royal grant of 800,OOO acres deep in the Adirondack Mountains.

Its reputation as a ragged and forbidding wilderness doubtless discouraged most investors, but Macomb, as a neophyte land jobber, bid for and received patents to 173,000 acres of that mountain land.

Governor Morris
Gouverneur Morris

His only known land transactions outside New York may have been influenced by the persuasive William Duer, who even while secretary to the Board of the Treasury masterminded the great Scioto land scheme in Ohio.

No evidence exists that Macomb held Scioto stock, but he and William Edgar did join Duer in two other Ohio purchases. Early in the autumn of 1787 the Continental Congress, in its first offering of Northwest Territory land under the Ordinance of 1785, put up for auction the first seven ranges west of the Ohio River, some 40 miles west of Pittsburgh, Pa., and the partnership of Macomb and Edgar bought 89,000 acres of it, one-half of all that sold. Duer, perhaps respecting his official status, took only 4,000 acres.

More or less simultaneously, the Macomb brothers, Constable, Edgar, Duer and Alexander

See The Audacity - Page C-2

C2 Sunday, September 23, 1990 Watertown Daily Times

The Audacity of Macomb's Purchase

>>From Page C-l
Hamilton each subscribed to Ohio Company stock. Along with the other thousand or so proprietor-shareholders, mostly New Englanders, they held rights to future allotments in the Muskingum River country.

Macomb's Purchase

Northern New York land pattern, 1790-1815
A History of New York State.

A Principal Organizer
    At the same time, Macomb became principal organizer of a syndicate to buy 640,000 acres of New York wilderness on the south bank of the St. Lawrence River. Historians have usually brushed off his role in this and his next speculation as merely a front for more powerful figures who preferred anonymity, but in fact Macomb claimed for himself and his associate Constable close to a third of the acreage, far more than any other participant. Moreover, before its division, Macomb possessed the power to sell all of it.

On May 5,1786, in an effort to speed up sales of wild land, the New York legislature had directed the land office to lay out 64,000-acre townships and advertise them for public sale. In compliance, as their first project the land commissioners laid out 10 townships on the St. Lawrence, five fronting on the river, five behind them. The Albany Gazette for June 7,1787, carried the advertisement announcing the auction to be held at the Merchant's Coffee House in New York City.

The sale went off on schedule, and Macomb emerged as the winning bidder for most of eight townships at not over a shilling an acre. Reaching out for the other two as well, he undercut the democratic intention of the legislators that those townships be sold directly to individual settlers in mile-square farms; he arranged under the table with such cronies as Daniel McCormick to bid on those lots for him.

Shrewd and Cynical
    The scheme was only one element in Macomb's cynical and audacious strategy. Although absolute proof is lacking, the outcome of the auction must have been prearranged by a syndicate of up to a dozen or so speculators who shrewdly pooled their interests rather than face competitive bidding. A politically diverse group of former patriots and loyalists, present Federalists and anti-Federalists, their shared hunger for cheap wilderness lands overrode ideological differences. Following the Ohio Company practice, each signed up for a portion of 56 undivided rights entitling each to a proportion of the acreage when finally divided, and each agreed to share certain joint concerns.

Unfortunately for every one, the planning failed to allow for contingencies, and the lack of a detailed written agreement in this primitive American joint venture generated such confusion when it came time to make the division that even the sagacious Gouverneur Morris confessed bewilderment.

Macomb, the sole owner of record, actually shared planning and executive duties with Samuel Ogden-a Newark ironmaster and Gouverneur Morris's brother-in-law, a practical man who was perhaps the only proprietor with a genuine intention to personally develop the area. Morris spoke later of the two internal "companies" in the venture, Ogdens and Macomb's, but the participants' names were never completely divulged publicly and must be culled from private correspondence.

Samuel Ogden's Group
    Ogden's group comprised, besides himself, Gouverneur Morris, Robert Morris and Gen. Henry Knox. Macomb's politically diversified company probably included all of the following: Macomb himself, William Constable (apparently his equal partner from the beginning), William Edgar, John Lamb, John Taylor of Albany, Jeremiah Van Rensselaer and William Laight. Taylor and Van Rensselaer of Albany, and John Lamb of New York City were patriots and anti-Federalists; William Laight was a wealthy neutralist hardware merchant in New York City during the Revolution. Finally, Alexander Hamilton and Gen. Philip Schuyler held unexplained allotments under the joint account.

More mysteriously, 42,000 acres were reserved, as Gouverneur Morris put it, "under the idea of persons in Canada." The designated Canadians may have been among the former loyalists who had settled the opposite shore of the St. Lawrence and who might have assisted in solving the St. Regis Indian problem and in developing the new lands, or so Gouverneur Morris implied. In private correspondence, but not publicly, Macomb named only one of them, Stephen Delancey, a notorious Tory politician of Albany, who fled to Lachine, Quebec, where he became "inspector of loyalists." That in 1789 Macomb tried to peddle St. Lawrence lands in Montreal was charged by Dr. Josiah Pomeroy of Kinderhook in an affidavit designed to topple Gov. George Clinton in the 1792 election. Pomeroy's attempt to implicate the governor in a Canadian plot was universally discredited by contemporaries and every historian since, but his account may have had some kernels of truth.

One of a Kind
    The Ten Towns purchase turned out of be one of a kind; thereafter land sales dropped precipitately. Reacting to what they regarded as onerous restrictions, land-hungry speculators and Clintonian politicians eager to plant anti-Federalist proprietors on the frontier combined to pressure the state legislature into modifying the 1786 land law. Along with the alluring prospect that big land sale revenue meant no taxes, all these considerations overrode republican insistence that small lots be sold directly to yeoman farmers.

On March 22,1791, the state legislators passed a new land law with a vitally significant change, one that reeked of collusion: it authorized the commissioners to sell public lands "in such parcels, on such terms, and in such manner as they shall judge most conducive to the interest of the state." Macomb was only one of many speculation-minded assemblymen who passed the bill, but as ultimately the greatest beneficiary he might well have been one of the leading sponsors-from the beginning.

The land office lost no time in processing a stack of proposals and by September had approved 35 applications tallying up to 5.5-million acres and a contract value of $1,030,435. Most were large grants, but the one that stood out conspicuously above all others became notorious as Macomb's Great Purchase.

Accepted by the board on June 22, Macomb's proposal encompassed most of present-day St. Lawrence, Franklin, Jefferson, all of Lewis and part of Ogwego counties in the northernmost stretches of the state. The remarkably [remarkable] audacity of claiming 3,670,715 acres - 12 percent of the state's surface - was matched by the niggardliness of the purchase price accepted by the commissioners: eight pence per acre (about eight cents).

Only Macomb`s Name
    As in the Ten Towns purchase, only Macomb's name appeared in the documents. In this transaction, however, he had two equal associates in William Constable and Daniel McCormick, a partnership which remained a secret for a year. Otherwise, the same reasons pertained as to why Macomb took responsibility as sole bidder. As to motivation, it is probable that Macomb and Constable had equally intense appetite for land, whereas McCormick went along for the ride.

But in January of 1792, when Gov. Clinton presented the land commission's annual report to the legislature, New Yorkers for the first time realized the full import of Macomb's Purchase. A great flap arose and intensified over the next several months. By no accident, the uproar coincided with the bitterly partisan campaign for the governorship. Federalists heaped abuse on Clinton. Most incendiary were the charges that Macomb had bribed the governor, who was also a commissioner, by giving him a hidden interest, and that the commissioners had willfully ignored the land policy by granting only large tracts.

Although Macomb and his partners were intimate friends of the governor and among his Federalist supporters, no solid evidence turned up which would have implicated Clinton in anyway, and the uncharacteristically republican protestations of Federalist leaders evaporated.

Doubts About Aaron Burr
    Nor was there any apparent substance to insinuations that Aaron Burr, state attorney general and a land commissioner, had nefarious motives by absenting himself from board meetings at which votes were taken. Yet doubts lingered. Jabez Hammond, a Republican historian of the early 1800s, thought it "preposterous" if the "vigilant, scrutinizing" Burr missed anything going on in New York City.

The political controversy only heightened Macomb's lack of credibility. The sheer magnitude of his purchase and its giveaway price fostered a disbelief that any one man could possibly have managed it without bribing public officials. If the identity of his fellow speculators had been known from the beginning, there might have been less fuss. As it was, the governor's enemies chose to see Macomb as a front man and failed to recognize him for what he was: a bold enterpriser of a new class, taking advantage of a once in a lifetime opportunity and shamelessly making an outrageous proposal.

While surveyors mapped Macomb's broad holdings, he turned to banking and corporate management. Recognizing his financial strength, the local branch of the Bank of the United States appointed him to its board, and in November of 1792 he was elected a director of the New Jersey Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers, S.U.M. for short. The newly organized society was Alexander Hamilton's brainchild and one of the earliest and most ambitious of the nation's business corporations. Macomb's responsibilities included site selection and requisition of materials for the proposed plant, a task for which he qualified superbly.

Many Expenses
    But within months Macomb's world began to appear less secure. Burdened by the high cost of luxury living and an uncommonly large household, he also had carrying charges for his several land holdings, and to maintain his one-third interest in the Great Purchase he would have to meet a $15,000 installment. Further, part of his capital was tied up in his share of William Edgar's China trade.

William Duer's resources were similarly stretched by land speculation in Maine. Seeing each other often as S.U.M. managers, the two men joined in a highly confidential and risky enterprise in which they expected to recoup their fortunes.

In a secret agreement dated Dec. 29, 1792, the partners committed themselves to a one-year program of speculation in bank stocks and U.S. debt securities. All purchase decisions lay in Duer's control, but paperwork was to be in the name of Macomb alone. One historian has described the association to be of mutual advantage: Duer's astuteness, but a tainted background requiring him to remain in the shadows, contrasting with Macomb's gross inexperience in security speculation, but with sound assets and a spotless reputation well-suited for public relations. Both men, moreover, shared the same bold, confident temperament necessary for aggressive play in the stock market. Throwing caution to the wind, Macomb rested his future in Duer's hands and completely disregarded the other's "fertile genius" for hatching ill-fated schemes. The quote is by Macomb himself, months later.

Constable Urges Caution
    What might have saved Macomb from folly was the sound counsel of his close friend, William Constable, who had often moderated Macomb's impetuosity. Although fully as audacious in land speculation as Macomb, in all other business affairs Constable was prudent and conservative. But sadly for Macomb, his friend had just departed for London, where he remained for three years on business for his firm and in negotiating sales of Northern New York land. Replying to Macomb's confidential revelation of the Duer connection, Constable from personal experience urged extreme caution:

"(Duer) will speculate on you--as after leading you into all the risque. He will reap the profit ... You dare not differ with him on account of

See Macomb -- Page C-9

C9 Sunday, September 23, 1990 Watertown Daily Times

Macomb's Great Purchase

>>From Page C-2

character but must pockett the loss ... he cannot go straight." The warning came too late.

Duer, Macomb and an inner circle of associates entered the market in a fury of activity, becoming familiar in the Coffee House stock exchange as the Company. A historian who had worked his way through the intricacies of the hectic three months of speculation culminating in the Panic of 1792, concluded that the Company's aim was to control the Bank of New York and to corner the federally funded six-percent securities by bullish purchasing from the bears, chief of whom were three of the Livingstons (Brockholst, John R. and Edward).

Macomb seemed to have recklessly committed all of his assets, and funds of the S.U.M., by giving his own notes. Men and women in all walks of life eagerly jumped into the market, and when security prices fell and the bulls could not cover their notes, a general panic followed. Duer and Macomb became bankrupt and were thrown into debtor's prison, where hundreds of angry note-holders threatened to break down the walls.

Alexander Macomb emerged almost $300,000 in debt, hounded by the unrelenting Livingstons and absolutely finished as a businessman. His close friends Constable and McCormick, and to some extent Edgar, tried to shield some of Macomb's real estate from his creditors, but their efforts over several years failed to save him.

Duer, Robert Morris and Constable also failed in business during the 1790s. The bankruptcies of Macomb and Duer directly resulted from their impulsive conspiracy to comer the security market. Robert Morris owed his collapse to an overpowering self-confidence in a scheme to corner the French tobacco market. In the case of Constable, severe business reversals in the neutral trade ended his mercantile career. Contributing to their ruin, all four overstretched their resources in land speculation by imprudently miscalculating the market.

Important Object Lessons
    No matter what stand they had taken in the Revolution, these pioneer enterprisers and others like them shared many of the same visions and the same misfortunes in the early national period. And by their very misjudgments and follies, they provided object lessons for a younger group of American businessmen, one of whom, John Jacob Astor, made none of their errors and became the richest man in America.

On the positive side, by breaking the chains of economic restraint and experimenting tentatively with innovations like corporations and consortiums, bold men like Alexander Macomb set in motion the way 19th-century America business would be conducted.

Macomb Source List

Here is author David Dill's list of the most useful resource material on Alexander Macomb:

Primary Sources


Detroit: Detroit Public Library. Burton Historical Collection. Macomb Papers.

New York: Columbia University Libraries. Special Collections. Gouverneur Morris Papers, 1768-1816.

New York: New York Historical Society. Duer Papers.

New York: New York Public Library. Constable-Pierrepont Papers.

Washington: Library of Congress. Papers of Gouverneur Morris.

Government Documents

New York: Department of State. Land Office Minutes.

New York: "Jounal of the Assembly of the State of New York." 12th, 14th and 15th sessions.

New York: "Laws of the State of New York Passed by the Legislature of Said State." New York: 1786, 1791.

New York: "Minutes of the Albany Committee of Correspondence: 1775-1778." 2 vols. Albany, N.Y: 1923.

New York: Department of State. "Calendar of N.Y. Colonial Manuscripts Indorsed Land Papers." Albany, N.Y.: 1864.

United States Congress: "Annals of the Fourth Congress.," 1795-1796. Washington, D.C.: 1849; "Annals of the Fifth Congress," 1797-1798. Washington, D.C.: 1851.

Secondary Sources


Barnhart, John D. "Henry Hamilton and George Rogers Clark in the American Revolution..." Crawfordsville, Inc.: Banta, 1951.

Brown, Gerald S. "The American Secretary: The Colonial Policy of Lord George Germain, 1775-1778." Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1963.

Davis, Joseph S. "Essays in the Earlier History of American Corporations." 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1917; reprinted., New York: Russell & Russell, 1965.

East, Robert A. "Business Enterprise in the American Revolutionary Era." New York: Columbia University Press, 1938.

Hough, Franklin B. "A History of Jefferson County in the State of New York..." Albany: Joel Munsell. 1854; reprinted., Ovid, N.Y.: W. E. Morrison, 1976.

"A History of Lewis County in the State of New York..." Albany: Munsell & Rowland, 1860; reprinted., Merrick, N.Y.: Richwood Pub. Co. 1975.

"A History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, New York..." Albany: Little & Co., 1853; reprinted., Baltimore: Regional Pub. Co. 1970.

Macomb, Henry A. "The Macomb Family Record... " Camden, N. J.: Sinnockson & Sons 1917.

Murphy, Richard C. and Mannion, Lawrence J. "The History of the Society of the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick in the City of New York, 1784 to 1955." New York: 1962.

Published Papers and Documents

Clinton, George. "Public Papers of George Clinton." 10 vols. New York and Albany: State of New York, 1899-1914.

Davies, K. G., ed. "Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783." Colonial Office Series. Dublin: Irish University Press, 1973. Vols. 12, 14, 16.

Decatur, Stephen, Jr., ed. "Private Affairs of George Washington from the Records and Accounts of Tobias Lear, Esquire, His Secretary." Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1933.

"Historical Collections of the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society." Vols. 9, 10, 11, 19, 20, 38 (1886-1912).

James, James A., ed. "George Rogers Clark Papers, 1771-1781."

"Illinois Historical Collections" 8 (1912).

Syrett, Harold C., ed. "The Papers of Alexander Hamilton." 27 vols. New York: 1961-1979.

Stokes, I. N. P. and Haskell, Daniel C. "American Historical Prints: Early Views of American Cities, Etc." New York: New York Public Library, 1932.

Stokes, I. N. P. "The Iconography of Manhattan Island 1498-1909." 6 vols. New York: Robert H. Dodd, 1915-1928.

Wilson, James G., ed. "The Memorial History of the City of New York..." 4 vols. New York: New York History Co., 1892.

Young, Alfred F. "The Democratic Republicans of New York: The Origins 1763-1797." Chapel Hill: Univ. of N.C. Press, 1967.


Dyer, Albion M. "First Ownership of 0hio Lands." "New England Historical and Genealogical Register" 64 (1910): 167-180, 263-282, 356-369; 65 (1911): 51-62, 139-150, 220-231.

Fleming, R. H. "Phyn, Ellice and Company of Schenectady." "Contributions to Canadian Economics" 4 (1932), 7-41.

Additions: M. D. Lloyd

Gordon, John Steele.e-text "The Great Crash (of 1792): The federal government handled it far better than it would later ones." American Heritage 50 (May-June1999): 20, 24.

Dill, David Jr. "Portrait of an Opportunist: The Life of Alexander Macomb." Watertown Daily Times. 9, 16, 23 September 1990.

Ellis, David H., James A. Frost, Harold C. Syrett and Harry J. Carman, "Northern New York land pattern, 1790-1815." From A History of New York State. (2nd Ed., Rev.; Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1961 ). [Source for map of Macomb's Purchase].

Hall, Theodore Parsons. Family Records of Theodore Parsons Hall and Alexandrine Louise Godfroy, of "Tonnancour," Grosse Pointe, near Detroit Michigan, including brief accounts of the St. Auburn, Scott-Gordon, Irvine-Orr, and Navarre-Macomb Families. Detroit: Wm. C. Heath, 1892. [Source for the portrait of Alexander Macomb, Sr. and Catherine Navarre Macomb].

Meany, Joseph. "Merchant and Redcoat: The Papers of John Gordon Macomb, July 1757 to June 1760." Ph.D. diss., Fordham University, N.Y., 1989. (abstract).

Treaty of New York with the seven nations of Canada.e-text May 31, 1796. (councilfire.com).

Lyman, Susan.e-text The Story of Norwood NY: a nice place to live. Norwood, NY: n. p., 1972. (thames.northnet.org/norwood).