Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

John Nicholson was an early Pennsylvania land speculator, financier and entrepreneur. He was born in 1757, emigrated from Wales at an early age and died in 1800. While serving as comptroller-general of the state (1782-1794), he was a major factor in helping Pennsylvania achieve financial solvency after the revolutionary war. In this capac­ity, Nicholson created political alliances with those who stressed state rather than national sovereignty, and in the 1790s he was instrumental in helping to form the Democratic­Republican party.

Nicholson was a friend of many prominent national and state political figures, such as Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Mifflin, Robert Morris, Aaron Burr, and Edmund Randolph, all of whom became involved with him in his various business schemes. For in addition to his political activities, Nicholson also engaged in many entrepreneurial promotions. He and his partners were the major private purchasers of building lots in the Federal District (Washington, D.C.) in its infancy; he was a flour merchant and an ironmonger, helping to establish with John Haydn the first iron furnace west of the Allegheny Mountains, near present-day Uniontown; owned many lead, copper, silver and coal mines; promoted inventors like John Fitch, James Rumsey and Oliver Evans; managed and spon­sored internal improvement projects, such as the Phila­delphia-Lancaster Turnpike and the Delaware and Schuylkill Canal; and participated in many humanitarian activities, such as helping blacks in Philadelphia.

Nicholson’s primary activity, however, was land specula­tion. He became, in fact, the major Land speculator of Pennsylvania in the 1790s and one of the major speculators of the nation. In order to meet the expenses of tax payments and of promoting sales of his vast holdings, which totaled at least 5 million acres by 1800 (4 million in the Keystone State alone, or 1/7, of the State of Pennsylvania), he attempted to lure immi­grants from several European nations to settle on his lands in America.

Like Robert Morris, the “Financier of the Revolution” and Nicholson’s partner in many land schemes, he depended too much on the growth of the American frontier. They thought that migrants from Europe would pour into America with its promise of land and religious and political freedoms. He agreed with Robert Morris when he wrote, “The proprietor of back lands gives himself no other trouble about them than to pay the taxes, which are inconsiderable. As Nature left them, so will they be till circumstances give them value. The proprietor is then sought out by the [immigrant and] settler who has chanced to pitch upon them, or who has made any improvement thereon, and receiving from him a price which fully repays his original advance, with great interest.”

This proved to be a fallacy because the reverse was true. Taxes on an acre were indeed small, but on 5 million they were crushing.

The Napoleonic Wars drained off both the people and the capital of European investors, and left large speculators like Nicholson with vast unsettled lands and few buyers. Further, most of the land had been acquired on credit and when the bills and taxes fell due in the late 1790s, Nicholson could not pay them.

As comptroller-general of the State of Pennsylvania, Nicholson represented the Commonwealth when it se­cured the Erie Triangle from the U.S. government in 1792. He obtained most of the 202,000 acres for himself and formed a land company called the Pennsylvania Population Company to handle land sales. When Nicholson couldn’t find enough domestic buyers, he tried to peddle his land and land company stocks in Europe. One of the agents he used was James Mon­roe, then U.S. Minister to France, and later, of course, Presi­dent of the United States.

Monroe didn’t entice many Frenchmen to buy Nicholson lands, but he did buy confiscated French estates for himself from the revolutionary government. When Monroe com­plained about speculators, Nicholson replied, “I cannot … but suppose a part of that dislike may arise out of the …. situation by which he now feels himself since his own great speculations within the wall of Paris, a purchase in which speculating on the instability of the government of France he hath amassed an amazing fortune at one throw. I wish him well of it and long may he enjoy it – but he would recollect there was a time when he even for the means of his support and living asked the aid of a land Speculator [Nicholson] and that he didn’t ask in vain ….”

Another European land agent used by Nicholson was Gouverneur Morris, the stylist of the U.S. Constitution. But lands were just not selling enough though Morris even “caused an offer to be held out to the Priests but they, whether they believed in Efficacy of their own prayers or found it most convenient to seem to be­lieve, I know not, but they declined also on the score of Indigence.”

All of his agents reported the same story; the European mar­ket would be poor until peace was restored to the Continent.

Nevertheless, Nicholson persisted and helped to organize, in 1794, the Pennsylvania Society for the Information and Assistance of Emigrants and Persons Emigrating from For­eign Countries. He became its first president. The Society, with a membership which included Aaron Burr, Robert Mor­ris, James Wilson and others, provided food, shelter, medical care, legal and financial aid and above all, advice on land and settlements. Nicholson, as the organization’s president, brought English farmers to the Population Company lands in order to show American settlers improved agricultural tech­niques and imported Dutch farmers t0 do the same. However, none of these efforts attracted enough settlers to the Erie lands and the company eventually failed.

Nicholson was especially active in aiding French immi­grants and persuaded some of them to go to lands of another of his companies, the Asylum Company. About 10,000 French emigres fled to this nation to escape the Reign of Terror. Many wanted to establish or join colonies here, and the most successful was the one in Pennsylvania formed by John Nicholson and Robert Morris. The French approached Nicholson because of his reputation as the man who made more money at land speculation “than any other man in Pennsylvania.” Nicholson also spoke French which would facilitate matters.

Nicholson and Morris were approached by Gen. Louis de Noailles, a veteran of Rochambeau’s army in the American Revolution and a former dancing partner of Marie Antoinette, and Omar Talon, chief of the King’s secret service and Chief Justice of the Criminal Court of France under Louis XVI. They purchased 200,000 acres from the specula­tors and established the settlement of Azilum (Asylum), twelve miles below the present town of Towanda. Tradition has it that a “Grand Mansion ” was prepared for the expected arrival of Queen Marie Antoinette. Of course, she never arrived; but Prince Talleyrand did, in 1794, and found Talon living in the house with a woman, a French cook, “and every­thing that could persuade purchasers that they are not arriving at a wild place.” But Talleyrand also warned that the French emigres would leave as soon as amnesty was declared in Europe, and that is exactly what happened. At its peak there were no more than fifty houses at Azilum.

Nicholson joined the Frenchmen in attempting to salvage the settlement and his company. Talon was dispatched to Europe to try and sell land. Nicholson even promoted potash and maple sugar production and got Edmund Randolph, then Attorney General of the United States, to take stock and be­come a member of the Board of Trustees. But all to no avail; one of the difficulties was that certain Europeans, like the French Minister, J. Fauchet, were warning Frenchmen against buying Asylum Company lands. So, while some famous visi­tors such as Louis Philippe, the future French king, stopped at the settlement, not enough came to permanently settle.

A former French aristocrat summarized the colony’s failure when he wrote to Nicholson, “I did flatter myself that the farming business would enable me to support my family; but, for all I exerted myself to the utmost, I could raise but small crops. I sank money every day in the improvement of new land and impaired my health by a labour altogether too hard to a man not used to work from his infancy.”

Another visitor, Duc de Liancourt, former Grand Master of the King’s wardrobe, pointed out other flaws when he said that Nicholson’s artisans were more prone to drunkenness than work, that prices for necessities were too high and that there were too many disputes over land titles.

Part of the lands of the Asylum Company were sold by Nicholson to Dr. Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen and later the founder of the Unitarian religion in America. This was part of another of the speculator’s schemes which in­volved trying to lure Englishmen who favored the French Revolution to his lands. As a result, this group from the British Isles, which included among its leaders both Priestley and his son-in-law, Dr. Thomas Cooper, was experiencing difficulties in its homeland. Cooper eventually became an edi­tor in America and was sent to prison under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.

Cooper and Joseph Priestley, Jr. were sent to America in 1793 to explore sites for a settlement. When Nicholson learned of their interest, he tried to persuade them to settle on some of his land near Reading. Cooper and Priestley were completely captivated by Nicholson’s land in the area and negotiated with him and Robert Morris for 300,000 acres, fif­ty miles from Northumberland near Loyalsock Creek. Priest­ley said the settlement was not to be confined to any one class of people but “it was set on foot to be as it were a rallying point for the English, who were at that time emigrating to America in great numbers …. ” Cooper wrote Some Information Respecting America in 1794 to induce migra­tions, and Nicholson supplied him with information about the lands to include in this glowing report.

One of the more interesting Englishmen whom the Priest­leys and Cooper hoped to attract was the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He did not take part in what he called “trying the experiment of perfectability on the banks of the Susque­hanna” but it did inspire him to write Monody on the Death of Chatterton, part of which reads, “yet will I love to follow the sweet dream, where the Susquehannah pours his untamed stream.”

Nevertheless, Cooper and the Priestleys came to America and hoped that the settlement would act as a magnet to attract other Englishmen. Dr. Joseph Priestley made a triumphant tour from New York to Philadelphia, wined and dined by officials along the way, and then up to Northumberland.

But, as with their other settlements, neither Priestley nor Nicholson could attract enough immigrants. Henry Wansey, one of the settlers, said that disagreements among the parties helped to cause its failure and Joseph Priestley, Jr. added that “Englishmen … unless previously accustomed to a life of labour, are so ill-qualified to commence cultivation in a wilderness … ” that the project was doomed to fail.

Since this was a major reason for the failure at Asylum, perhaps Nicholson should have been more selective in the type of immigrants he attempted to lure. But perhaps any buyer, no matter how ill-suited to take up life in the wilds, looked promising to a man in his financial plight. Nicholson and Dr. Priestley remained friends and compared notes on glass manufacturing in which both had an interest.

Nicholson recovered much of the land of the ill-fated project from the Englishman and added it to what be­came the North American Land Company. This, a partner­ship with Robert Morris and James Greenleaf, a New England speculator, has been called by some historians “the largest trust ever known in America.” The company began in 1795 as a result of another project in which the three were involved, the development of the Federal City, now known as Washing­ton, D.C. The three bought most of the building lots in the proposed new capital city when public sales of lots failed to arouse much interest. The speculators stepped in and hoped to make a considerable profit on the venture.

Nicholson wrote “. . . all other places have risen by slow degrees, this will astonish the world by its rapidity, the people are all ready and only wait for houses to rush in.” But people didn’t rush in and so Nicholson and the other partners again turned 10 Europe for assistance. They tried to float loans in Holland to pay for the lots, but the French invasion of that country thwarted their efforts. Dutch gold, instead of flowing into Washington to aid its development, flowed instead into the wars of the French Revolution.

The speculators in the Federal City deliberately exaggerated the progress and advantages of the place in order to attract prospective immigrants. Morris concluded one report to their European agents with, “I am delighted at the place, Nature has done for it all that could be desired and I see that man will do the rest.” But when the Englishman, Francis Bailey, toured the city in the same year, 1796, he reported “the truth is, that not much more than one-half the city is cleared; the rest is in woods . … “The partners even tried to entice inves­tors from India to come and “smoke their hookahs on the banks of the Potomac,” but to no avail.

Nicholson did all that he could to make the place attractive. He promoted the construction of houses, worked on the development of canals, started supply stores and even in­vested in a glass factory. He got little in return, however, ex­cept the praise of President George Washington for his ef­forts.

It was in order to save this and their many other projects that Robert Morris and John Nicholson joined with James Greenleaf in the North American Land Company. They pooled their land holdings in six states into one massive, six­-million-acre conglomerate. Again, they attempted to sell shares of stock in the company and land abroad. They also imported an Englishman, Capt. Charles Williamson, who had developed a “hot house” method of luring buyers. This in­volved first building a saw and grist mill on undeveloped land, then a farm and finally a town populated by a blacksmith, shoemaker and carpenter. Such development was to provide the magnet which would attract buying customers from the U.S. and Europe. Agents such as William Temple Franklin and James Marshall were sent all over Europe to publicize the company and the Williamson method of settlement. They roamed from Ireland, to Switzerland, to what is now Germany.

Nicholson had hoped that the Jay Treaty (1795), which forestalled war with Great Britain, would help improve the land market in Europe and that the disruptions in France would induce French capitalists to invest in American lands. The speculator even imported David Barber from England to lay out towns in Kentucky, imported some settlers from the British Isles, and also had plans to erect a college. His hopes turned out to be illusions, for these lands, like all of the others, simply did not sell. By 1797, Nicholson was nearly bankrupt and could offer no additional support for this or any other project.

Through all of his many land schemes and company promotions, John Nicholson never lost faith in the growth of the new nation. He over-extended himself because of this belief, and this greatly contributed to his downfall. When others refused to take a chance on a project, Nicholson came forth to make the attempt.

Realizing that his land would never attract immigrants un­less the country were more fully developed, he became a ma­jor promoter of internal improvements like the Philadelphia­Lancaster Turnpike and the Susquehanna Canal. He financed inventors of the steamboat like James Rumsey and John Fitch and joined with Alexander Hamilton in promoting new in­dustries such as button, glass and textile manufactories. He imported foreign artisans to work in them and to teach their crafts to those already in America. As with his land ventures, however, Nicholson’s entrepreneurial schemes were pre­mature. In the 1790s, the nation lacked what economic his­torians have called the industrial mind. The preoccupation was still with agriculture.

By 1797 Nicholson had 125 legal suits brought against him, and in 1799 be was sent to Prune Street debtor’s prison in Philadelphia. It was there he died, on December 5, 1800, at the age of forty-three, leaving behind a debt of over $12 mil­lion and an army of creditors who were to plague his family for the next forty years.

Nevertheless, John Nicholson cannot be abandoned to abuse without a few words of commendation. He and others like him can be given some credit for the growth of his native State of Pennsylvania and of the new nation. In promoting settlements, manufactories, internal improvements and inven­tors, be helped to foster development. With partners, he was directly responsible for constructing many of the buildings in the new capital of Washington when others were reluctant to do so. His efforts drew the praise of the President, and the government moved into the city in 1800 as planned. There, thanks in part to the efforts of Nicholson and his partners, public officials found almost 600 buildings finished, and the President’s House and Capitol building well under construc­tion.

for these contributions and more, John Nicholson should not be buried beneath dusty manuscripts. He tried to fulfill the “rags to riches” dream that America provided for him and countless millions of other immigrants who followed. Had he survived an additional decade or two, his speculations might have succeeded because those immigrants whom he tried so diligently to attract did eventually make the journey. In the final analysis, John Nicholson was a harbinger of trends not yet established in a young and fledgling nation.


Robert D. Arbuckle, Ph.D., is director of the New Kensington Campus of The Pennsylvania State University. His extensive research on John Nicholson has produced several articles and a book, Pennsylvania Speculator and Patriot, The Entrepre­neurial John Nicholson, 1757-1800, published jointly in 1975 by The Pennsylvania State University Press and the Pennsyl­vania Historical and Museum Commission.