Ohio History Journal

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Marketing "the great American

commodity": Nathaniel Massie

and Land Speculation on the

Ohio Frontier, 1783-1813




Few figures in early American history are as controversial as the land spec-

ulator. The land speculator has been portrayed as both a parasitical landlord

and an important figure fostering the economic development of the frontier.

The career of Ohio land speculator Nathaniel Massie highlights the problems

faced by those engaged in land development in the early national period.

Public policy played an important role in determining the changing fortunes

of Massie's real estate empire. Massie used his influence to secure internal

improvements on his land, but eventually the combined political weight of

Ohio settlers limited the gains made by Massie and other land speculators.




During the first half of this century, historians held a low opinion of land

speculation. Many scholars described it as a disease infecting the entire popu-

lation. Large-scale speculators bought thousands of acres, while farmers ac-

cumulated more land than they could cultivate. All segments of society

sought "something for nothing." Thorstein Veblen described land speculation

as one example of the absentee ownership ideal of Americans. Americans, he

argued, were driven by a "passion for acquisition." According to these histo-

rians, speculators served no useful purpose. Frederick Merk referred to them

as "parasites" who engaged in all sorts of fraud, while Paul Wallace Gates

criticized settlers who were "distracted ... from the business of making farms

in the wilderness."1



Jonathan J. Bean received his Ph.D. in history from The Ohio State University in 1994,

where he wrote his dissertation "Beyond the Broker State: A History of the Federal

Government's Policies Toward Small Business, 1936-1961."


1. Paul Wallace Gates, "The Role of the Land Speculator in Western Development,"

Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 66 (July, 1942), 315-16; Malcolm J.

Rohrbaugh, The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public

Lands, 1789-1837 (New York, 1968), 301; Everett Dick, The Lure of the Land: A Social History

of the Public Lands from the Articles of Confederation to the New Deal (Lincoln, Nebra., 1970),