Land speculators played a prominent role in Mississippi history, most notably in the antebellum period. Even during the territorial period, however, competing groups of speculators laid claim to parts of the Mississippi Territory, leading to disputes that ultimately limited settlement. A number of individuals or land companies acquired rights to certain tracts of Mississippi real property from the British or Spanish governments. Other speculators received grants of land from the State of Georgia, which in 1795 created Bourbon County, encompassing parts of what would become the Mississippi Territory. One of the central issues of the factional politics of the territorial period involved sorting out rival land claims and balancing the rights of speculators against the interests of settlers.
The Choctaw and Chickasaw owned much of the land acquired by the early speculators, who assumed that they could resell the land after the Indians were removed. When removal finally came in the 1830s, cotton prices were high, and credit terms were easy. As a result, land speculators, including wealthy planters and their agents from the Atlantic seaboard and land companies formed in the Northeast, acquired much of the Choctaw and Chickasaw land cessions before the federal government had the chance to organize public land auctions. The New York and Mississippi Land Company, for example, at one point held four hundred thousand acres of the Chickasaw cession in North Mississippi—10 percent of the entire area ceded by the tribe in 1836.
By 1837 the land speculation craze had begun to abate, and those who had bought land in hopes of realizing big profits ultimately did not make as much money as they had hoped. The Panic of 1837 ended the easy credit of the early 1830s, and the opening of Texas lands further west offered new opportunities for land speculators. Many of the speculators that acquired Chickasaw or Choctaw land in the 1830s held on to the property for a number of years, still hoping to receive a sizable return on their investment. In 1841, five years after the Chickasaw lands were ceded to the US government, a group of twenty land speculators still owned almost one-third of the land in Pontotoc County in Northeast Mississippi. It soon became apparent, however, that much of the eastern part of the Indian cessions would never be converted to large cotton plantations, so speculators began to sell off their holdings in small plots to yeoman farmers at prices lower than the speculators had initially anticipated but substantially higher than the federal government’s proposed minimum price of $1.25 an acre.
- Charles C. Bolton, Poor Whites of the Antebellum South: Tenants and Laborers in Central North Carolina and Northeast Mississippi (1994)
- Robert V. Haynes, Journal of Mississippi History (October 1962)