Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Aaron Burr Tries to Pull a Fast One in the 1790s and Must Sell His Farm in Pelham

There is a fascinating story behind Aaron Burr and the brief time he owned a farm in Pelham in the 1790s. Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog will detail that story.

On February 26, 1790, Aaron Burr purchased a 146-acre farm in Pelham commanded by a mansion that stood near today's "Split Rock Road" and Boston Post Road known as "The Shrubbery". The home, built in the mid-18th century, was a Pell family homestead owned for many years by Joshua Pell. The 146-acre tract was part of a larger farm owned by Joshua Pell before the Revolutionary War. Joshua Pell had a son, also named Joshua, who served as a British officer in upstate New York during the Revolutionary War.

Mark Gaffney, an attorney and local historian, has studied the Joshua Pell "Jr." estate. (It seems that the father and son did not actually use the designations "Sr." and "Jr.") He has determined that during the 1780s New York State's Commissioners of Forfeiture sold the 146-acre tract to Isaac Guion for 988 pounds. The land had been confiscated from Joshua Pell "Jr."

The will of Joshua Pell "Sr." entitled his children to receive monetary legacies when his entire farm (including the 146-acre tract) was divided in half and devised to two of his older sons: Joshua Pell "Jr." (who was entitled to receive the northern half) and Edward Pell (who was entitled to receive the southern half.) The children of Joshua Pell "Sr." filed a lawsuit in which they were represented by Aaron Burr. As a consequence of the lawsuit, in 1789 the New York State Treasurer paid Joshua Pell "Jr." 988 pounds in compensation for "wrongful taking" and paid Isaac Guion 125 pounds for his expenses.

Significantly, in 1790 Aaron Burr bought the very 146-acre tract at issue in the lawsuit. He bought the northern half of Joshua Pell Sr.'s original farm -- the Joshua Pell "Jr." tract -- from Nicholas and William Wright. He acquired the land subject to the right of dower of Phoebe Pell , the widow of Joshua Pell "Sr." For the complete text of this deed, see Wed. June 14, 2006: Text of Deed by Which Aaron Burr Acquired Pelham Lands in 1790.

Burr soon sold the tract to his step-son, Augustine J. F. Prevost. At least one author has studied that sale and concluded that it was part of a scheme by Aaron Burr to hide his involvement with the tract.

In his book Cipher / Code of Dishonor, Dr. Alan J. Clark analyzed the sale and concluded that during the 1790s, Burr was involved in a secret scheme to move the Boston Post Road (which, at that time followed today's Colonial Avenue in Pelham) to its present location which passes near where The Shrubbery once stood. At the same time (and as part of the same scheme), Burr sought to form a toll road leading from Manhattan through the West Farms area of what was then southern Westchester County. This, it seems, was all part of a land speculation scheme in which Burr sought to profit by acquiring the lands of poor farmers who found it difficult to sustain large farms in the area in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by the predations of two armies in the so-called "Neutral Ground" between New York City and upper Westchester County during the Revolutionary War. By moving the Boston Post Road so that it passed next to his newly-acquired farm in Pelham and by placing a toll road in the West Farms area near the Burr Family's ancestral home to shorten the travel time from New York City, Burr hoped to increase the value of those properties and, before the scheme became known, perhaps acquire other properties in the area that likewise would increase in value.

In his fascinating book, Dr. Clark describes the scheme as follows:

"[I]n 1790 Aaron Burr purchased as a summer residence 'The Shrubbery', manor house of the Pell family since 1740 on the Boston Post Road in Pelham, New York for his bride, Theodosia Prevost married in 1782. Burr conveyed the home to his stepson Augustine Frederick Prevost in 1794.

Next he entered on a scheme to move the New York to Boston road (now the Boston Post Road) and form a toll road in the West Farms area of southern Westchester County and Connecticut near his Burr family ancestral home. Dr. Joseph Browne married Catherine (Caty) De Visme, Theodosia's half sister, in a joint wedding with the Burrs at the Hermitage. He owned some of the land on which the road was to be built. Dr. Brown had acquired it from the estate of John Embree in 1785. Road commissioners, engineered into the legislation for absolute control by Burr himself, were Dr. Joseph Browne, George Embree (the family of the city of Embree deeded to Trinity Church during the war and back to Effingham Embree on May 6, 1795) and John Bartow, Jr. Bartow was a brother of Theodosia Bartow Prevost Burr. The Lewis Morris family took all of the tolls from the new bridge over the Harlem River at their Manor of Morrisania.

Burr began speculating in land of Rebels caught in the no man's land between the armies in Westchester County. These poor farmers had been unable to sustain a living on their land because of constant predation by both sides during the War of Independence and after the war were unable to sustain the vast land holdings without slave labor. They were forced to sell their land at bargain prices. Burr was only too glad to oblige. With the new road Burr and Browne would have convenient access to their newly acquired lands from Manhattan making them more valuable to break up into smaller farms for new immigrants. The enterprise was unpopular with the local population because it required taking thir land for the new road. Since Burr had been appointed Attorney General of the State of New York by Governor Clinton in March, 1790, he was forced to sell the Shrubbery Manor house, situated on the toll road, to his stepson Augustine Prevost, to prevent discovery of his connection to the tolls."

Source: Clark, Alan J., Cipher / Code of Dishonor - Aaron Burr, an American Enigma -- Trinity The Burrs Versus Alexander Hamilton and the United States of America, p. 48 (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse 2005).

Please Visit the Historic Pelham Web Site
Located at
Please Click Here for Index to All Blog Postings.


At 12:32 AM, Blogger Diogenes2U said...

So what if Aaron Burr may have been a land speculator? The other founding fathers weren't? Why do so many historians try to paint Burr as a villain? Is it because its "the thing to do?" I suggest you read
Nancy Isenberg's "Fallen Founder," or Gore Vidal's,
"Burr." You might be "enlightened!

At 9:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen 2u Diogenes. Burr's major mistake was in not leaving any descendents to defend his legacy as did the likes of Hamilton & Jefferson. Another oft overlooked reality was Burr had to make his own money unlike many of his peers who simply married into it. Classic examples, Washington, Jefferson & oh yes Mr. Hamilton of course.


Post a Comment

<< Home