The President who owned Rochester

The President who owned Rochester

Images provided by Michael Nighan

As seen in The Presidential Visits Series in its entirety: James Monroe to Donald Trump,  Michael J. Nighan has chronicled the visits of several presidents to Rochester. Today, Michael looks at a President who did not visit Rochester but played a formative role in its existence: Nathaniel Gorham, 8th President of the United States.

The President who owned Rochester

Gorham's signature on the Constitution

Gorham’s signature on the Constitution

Over the years many Presidents of the United States have passed through Rochester. But one president can top those visits. Because, even though he never visited here, the claim can be made that he once owned the city. All of it. All of Rochester. All of Monroe County. Plus a couple of million acres of surrounding territory. And by the way, he also happened to have been one of the signers of the Constitution.

Mention our presidents and we instinctively think of George Washington. Our first president. Except that technically he wasn’t the first. Although he certainly was first under our current Constitution (which is actually our SECOND constitution), there were in fact ten men who, under our FIRST constitution, the Articles of Confederation, held the office of President of the United States prior to George. And No. 8 on that list was Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts, the president who would eventually own Rochester.

Articles of Confederation

Articles of Confederation

Soon after declaring independence in 1776, the Second Continental Congress drafted and debated the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union”, sending them to the states for ratification. Requiring the approval of all 13 states, and taking into account that there was a war on, it’s not surprising that it took until March 1, 1781 for all approvals to be received and the Articles put into effect.

Section IX of the Articles stated that:

“The United States in Congress assembled shall have authority… to appoint one of their members to preside, provided that no person be allowed to serve in the office of president more than one year in any term of three years…”

As government under the new Articles of Confederation evolved, the presiding officer soon became identified as the “President of the United States in Congress Assembled”. While not a chief executive in the manner of our later presidents (under the Articles, the unicameral Congress as a whole acted as the executive, requiring most matters, minor and major, to be decided by a majority vote of the members), the president did chair the Committee of the States, comprised of one member from each state, which carried out the day-to-day functions of government when Congress was in recess.

First use of the title President of the United States in Congress Assembled

First use of the title President of the United States in Congress Assembled

Following Samuel Huntington, the first president under the Articles, who inherited the job having been the presiding officer of Congress when the Articles took effect in 1781, the members of Congress elected nine additional men as president over the years until the current Constitution became operative on March 4, 1789.   Of particular interest to us is the election which took place during the Sixth Confederation Congress on June 6, 1786 in the then-national capitol of New York City:

Present, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia; and from New Hampshire, Mr. [Pierse] Long, and from Delaware, Mr. [William] Peery. Congress proceeded to the election of a president and the ballots being taken, the honorable Nathaniel Gorham was elected.” – Journals of Congress (1)

Nathaniel Gorham

Gorham was a man on the make from the beginning. His teen years and adulthood had been spent acquiring wealth along with business and political connections.  By his early 30s, after the colonies’ break with Great Britain had begun in earnest, he set aside his business (except for a little high seas privateering) to serve in various Massachusetts colonial offices, including being a member of the committee to draft a new state constitution, before being sent as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and it’s successor, the Confederation Congress.

His term as president was not earth-shattering (he only held the office from June 6 to Nov. 5, 1786), and the all-but-powerless Confederation Congress was often unable to muster a quorum.  But there was plenty of work to do such as attempting to raise funds from the states to keep the national government operating. And border and other disputes between the states required constant mediating. As did illegal negotiations between the states and various Native American tribes.  Finally, there was much scrambling to increase the size and strength of the army, particularly following the outbreak of Shays’ Rebellion in Gorham’s home state of Massachusetts. (2)

As participation petered out, the 1785-1786 session of the Confederation Congress ended on Nov. 5, marking the end of Gorham’s presidency. But both his involvement with Congress, and his desire to make a buck, continued.

While attending the next Confederation Congress term of 1787-1788, Gorham was appointed a Massachusetts delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.  A middle-of-the-road nationalist, he attended most of the sessions, spoke frequently, and occasionally served as Chairman of the Committee of the Whole, meaning that he’d often substitute for George Washington, the convention’s presiding officer, during many of the debates over the proposed structure for the new government. As a point of trivia, he was also responsible for the last change to the Constitution, proposing on Sept. 17, 1787, the final day of the convention, to increase the number of members in the House of Representatives:

If it was not too late, he (Gorham) could wish, for the purpose of lessening objections to the Constitution, that the clause, declaring that “the number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every forty thousand,” which had produced so much discussion, might be yet reconsidered, in order to strike out “forty thousand,” and insert “thirty thousand. – James Madison, “Journals of the Constitutional Convention”

In one of the very few times he spoke during the debates, Washington expressed his approval of Gorham’s proposal. With such support, the motion passed unanimously, the change was made, and Nathaniel Gorham and 38 others affixed their names to the Constitution.

The Phelps & Gorham Purchase

Following the American Revolution, a mare’s nest  of contradictory royal charters from kings James ICharles I, and Charles II, combined with conflicting British treaties with the Dutch and the Native American tribes,  made state land claims and land sales a legal morass.  At the end of the war, Great Britain ceded to the United States most of her claims to territory east of the Mississippi, including lands controlled by the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy (who were not consulted).  As a result, one of the major issues confronting Congress was mediating between the states and seeking a peaceful resolution of dozens of conflicting land claims, while protecting the territorial interests of the nation as a whole and, theoretically, the interests of the Native Americans living on the land.


Map of Phelps & Gorham Purchase

Because the royal charters of New York and Massachusetts, and to a lesser degree Connecticut, overlapped, each claimed all or part of the land between Seneca Lake and the Niagara River and Lake Erie. While today it might be seen as a major conflict of interest, while serving in the Confederation Congress, including his term as president, Gorham was also acting as an agent representing Massachusetts in their negotiations with Congress and with New York.(3) These negotiations resulted in the Dec. 16, 1786 Treaty of Hartford, under which the disputed territory was recognized as being part of New York, while Massachusetts was given the pre-emption right to first sale of the approximately 6,000,000 acres involved (equal to 1/5 of the territory of the current State of New York), which would first require persuading the Iroquois inhabitants of the land to abandon their own territorial claims. Connecticut was compensated with several thousand acres along the New York – Pennsylvania border.  Oddly enough, perhaps because he was not available, or perhaps because of a belated sense of propriety, Gorham did not sign the treaty. However, when it was finally submitted to Congress in 1787, he was among those who voted to accept the settlement, thus ending any further involvement in the matter by Congress.


The Senecas and Iroquois. Mural at Chralotte High School. From Charlotte High’s unparalleled and almost lost murals

With the legal loose ends tied up, and doubtless making good use of his inside track, Gorham entered into a land speculation syndicate with fellow Massachusetts politician, Oliver Phelps.  Using their government connections, on April 1, 1788 they purchased the preemption rights for the entire 6,000,000 acre parcel from Massachusetts for $1,000,000 in state currency, to be paid in three annual installments.   (Due to the debased value of that currency, the actual sale price equated to less than 20 cents on the dollar in hard money.)

Phelps& Gorham Purchase showing falls of the Genesee

Phelps & Gorham Purchase showing falls of the Genesee

Because they couldn’t sell the land to settlers until they’d first obtained clear title from the Iroquois, Phelps immediately traveled to the wilds of western New York to enter into negotiations with the tribes, while Gorham stayed in Massachusetts to handle sales. (4)  Running into several stumbling blocks, Phelps was only able to acquired title for Gorham and himself to about 2,000,000 acres east of the Genesee River, including what became all of Rochester and Monroe County on that side of the river. Phelps’ attempts to acquire the rights to land on the west bank of the Genesee River were stymied until he offered to build a grist mill at the falls of the Genesee to relieve the Iroquois of the arduous task of grinding corn by hand. With this incentive, Phelps and Gorham acquired several hundred thousand additional acres, including the western half of today’s Rochester and Monroe County, the final agreement being signed in July 1788 by three Mohawk chiefs, three Oneida chiefs, eight Onondaga chiefs, 22 Cayuga chiefs, 23 Seneca chiefs, and seven “Female Governesses or Chief Women”. This tract became known as the Phelps & Gorham Purchase.

On the west side of the falls of the Genesee, centered on what today is the intersection of Main and State Streets, Phelps and Gorham deeded 100 acres to Ebenezer “Indian” Allen, on the condition that he build the promised grist mill.  This land became known as the “100 Acre Tract” and formed the nucleus of the City of Rochester.

Rochester's 100 Acre Tract

Rochester’s 100 Acre Tract

For the sale of their claims to 2,600,000 acres of western New York, the Iroquois received payment of approximately $5,000 (due to some slight-of-hand by the interpreters, the Iroquois thought they were getting almost $10,000) and a promise of a perpetual annual payment of $500 (these payments ceased after less than 20 years).

Sadly for Phelps and Gorham, what with lower-than-anticipated sales to settlers, the on-going problem of collecting money from land purchases, and with an unforeseen rise in the value of Massachusetts currency as national economic conditions improved, in 1791 the syndicate defaulted on the contracted payments to Massachusetts, who in turn resold the preemption rights for the land west of the Genesee River to money man Robert Morris, the “Finance of the Revolution” and the richest man in America. Likewise, Phelps and Gorham were forced to sell most of the land they had acquired east of the Genesee to Morris at bargain prices.

As to Gorham, both he and Morris went bust when their huge land speculations failed (Morris even wound up in debtor’s prison). Gorham died at the age of 58 and lies buried in Boston. Possibly broken by his financial ruin and loss of political influence, he never held federal office under the constitutional government he had helped to create. The Town of Gorham in Ontario County, named in his honor, remains as the most visible symbol of his involvement in the opening of western New York to settlement, while his one-time ownership of Rochester rates barely a local footnote.


Gorham also owned my town, Brighton.  He went bust before the town really got going. But we can (sort of) count Gorham as a founding father.

Brighton Village

Photo: David Kramer, 10/4/18


Shays Rebellion historic marker

Shays Rebellion historic marker

(1) Gorham’s election was prompted by the resignation of his predecessor, John Hancock. Hancock was returned to Congress after serving as governor of Massachusetts and was elected its president on Nov. 23, 1785.  However, he didn’t want the job, never attended Congressional sessions, and resigned the presidency on June 5, 1786.

(2) Interestingly enough, Daniel Shays is buried in Livingston County, on land that had also been owned by Gorham.

(3) On at least one occasion, a petition from Massachusetts, signed by Gorham as an agent of the commonwealth, was received by him as president.

(4) Despite some popular misconceptions, the Iroquois considered themselves to be the owners of the land. However Phelps managed to convince them that when the British ceded land to the United States under the 1783 peace treaty, the claims of their Native American allies were also ceded so that the literal trinkets and beads the Iroquois were being offered for their land claims were more then they were entitled to.


The Presidential Visits Series in its entirety: James Monroe to Donald Trump


About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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