Unfolding the Map
As we cross the Ohio River, and into Ohio, William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) talks a little about the origins of Gallipolis where he stays on what I think is the last night of his Blue Highways journey. He relates a little of the history of Gallipolis, but as I looked further into it, it seems that the origin of the town came about because of a bit of fraud committed by an unscrupulous French company on some French emigres. To see where Gallipolis came to be, despite the bad beginning, look at the map. I wouldn't con you!
"With what was left of day, I crossed the Ohio River into old Gallipolis, a town of a dozen pronunciations, a gazebo-on-the-square town settled by eighteenth-century Frenchmen. Although a priest once placed a curse on Gallipolis - I don't know why - residents today claim it's the loveliest French village on the Ohio."
Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 3
It seems that Gallipolis was founded because of that centuries-old American pastime - the swindle.
How many times have you laughed when someone says something like "...and if you believe that, I have some swampland in Florida to sell you!" How about the age-old jokes about selling some rube the Brooklyn Bridge. Those figures of speech came into our consciousness for a reason. It appears that there was a lot of swindling going on back in young days of our country. The reason swampland in Florida became synonymous with swindle is because a Florida land boom in early 20th century led to many people buying land unsuitable for habitation.
Because it was literally a swamp.
Land swindles in the United States are even older than that. In the 1790s, wealthy financiers convinced lawmakers in Georgia to allow them and their cronies to buy 35 million acres of land for a paltry sum. The sale was eventually nullified, but not after people got very angry and, I imagine, some Georgia politicians were thrown out.
Of course, the US government swindled many American Indian tribes out of land, as well as their resources. The Walking Purchase was a land deal in the 1730s, possibly based on forged or non-existent documents, that gave William Penn, and later Pennsylvania, 1.2 million acres at the expense of the Lenape (Delaware) Indians. In 2003, the Delaware asked for the right to get back 314 acres of that land, and were rebuffed by Pennsylvania. The case was brought in federal court, and then appeals court, but the Lenape lost each time even though the court agreed that there was probable fraud in the original agreement. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
The New York Times reported in 2003 that a class action suit brought about by 300,000 American Indians claimed the US government cheated them out of $137 billion over 115 years. The money was made by the government through exploitation of natural resources, grazing rights and timber leases but somehow did not get into the trust fund set up for Natives and administered by the Department of the Interior. That trust fund, established in the late 1800s, itself may have been the cause of many swindles. According to the Times, in 1887 individual Indians owned a combined 138 million acres of land, and today only own a combined 10 million acres, with another 45 million acres owned by tribes.
And columnist Jack Anderson, in 1984, outlined a government attempt to push two Shoshone sisters off of their land by arguing in court that their offer to buy the land, even though refused, gave them title to it. Such an argument, if legal, would certainly make my efforts to buy a house much easier and a hell of a lot less stressful!
In New Mexico, near where I live in Albuquerque, one of the biggest land swindles ever was perpetrated. Rio Rancho Estates promised a great financial investment for retirement, financial security, and education of children. The lots were nothing more than barren desert land, with no infrastructure, which the sellers had purchased for $180 per lot and sold for over $11,000 for "residential" lots and $25,000 for "commercial" lots. The swindle was the basis for David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross. Surprisingly, today Rio Rancho is the third largest city in New Mexico, and poised to become the second largest in the near future.
American history is littered with swindles, from the claims of snake-oil salespeople to Enron. It was in the United States that Charles Ponzi found a gullible public to set up an investment scheme that couldn't help but collapse under its own weight. That we haven't gotten any less gullible is proved by the success that Bernie Madoff had in maintaining his own Ponzi scheme before it collapsed and ruined the lives of many people. P.T. Barnum supposedly stated that "there's a sucker born every minute," and even though his contribution of this phrase is under doubt, the fact remains that we all are suckers at some time or another. We give money to street con-artists who prey on our good natures by saying that they need a couple of dollars for gas to get home to their babies, and take our money given in good faith to buy alcohol or drugs. We allow unscrupulous mechanics to do subpar jobs on our cars, keeping us coming back, before we finally catch on to the scheme. We allow people into our lives whose sole purpose is to get things for themselves without a thought or care about who it hurts or how it hurts. I like to think that it's because at heart, we are a good people who care about others well-being. Sometimes, we unwittingly let a few sociopaths occasionally yank us around, though on bad days I wonder if the sociopaths are the ones who laugh at us as they make millions and accumulate.
And Gallipolis? How does it fit into this story? A group of French aristocrats, frightened by events in France (which would eventually lead to the French revolution), emigrated to the United States. A company called the Scioto Company sold lands in Ohio to French investors. They were promised a wonderful place, akin to the Garden of Eden. In 1790, the former artistocracy showed up to claim their investments, only to find that the Scioto Company had never owned the land. They had nothing. Fortunately for them, they were able to petition President George Washington, and as a result the Ohio Company sent some people and they built a log cabin settlement for the disillusioned French. Gallipolis grew out of this initial settlement, founded on a swindle but turned into "the loveliest French village on the Ohio."
The curse on Gallipolis, referenced by LHM in his quote, had nothing to do with the swindle. A French priest allegedly cursed the town because it refused to turn away from sin.
I'm shocked, but I had trouble finding songs about land swindles. There are songs about con men, however. Here's an oldie from Golden Earring called Con Man.
If you want to know more about Gallipolis
Next up: Ironton, Ohio