In spite of the politicians and the press, wars are seldom fought for high ideals. Those advertised high principles and lofty ideals are incentives for the soldiers and the families who send the soldiers, but most wars are more often fought for economic reasons, to gain territory and power, or in retribution.
That may sound cynical but just think about it in terms of the wars you’ve known. I don’t want to get into a heated argument here, I just have some problems with wars in general, and in my genealogical studies, I’ve been reading about the Revolutionary War or the War for Independence.
The patriots who fought in the Revolutionary War, our ancestors, fought for independence from Britain, freedom from the oppressive taxes that England imposed, the ability to govern themselves and the land on which they lived. Lofty and admirable as those principles were, that war was also fought mostly because some of the prominent citizens of our country were unhappy that Britain was blocking their ability to claim and sell (at huge profits) the vast territories to the west of the settled lands of the 13 colonies.
For those of you who slept through jr. high American history, the 1700s were chaotic times in the Colonies. With Indians to the west of us and the Atlantic Ocean to the east of us, with more and more immigrants landing on our shores, owning and selling property became more and more profitable and desirable.
Some of the more well-known patriots, those men we call the “fathers” of our country early on began to look at acquiring ownership of large tracts of land to the west of the Allegheny and Appalachian mountains. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason all were eager to acquire rights to property that lay in what we now know as Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. And they wanted those lands, not for the greater good…they intended to claim and own those lands for their personal gain.
One particular early land transaction in 1774 that sets the scene involved a man named Jacob Hite, an unapologetic land speculator in the Shenandoah Valley. Jacob’s father Jost Hite had made a great deal of money buying and selling land. Jacob aspired to build his own reputation and fortune in the same way.
Hite and a partner, Richard Pearis, conspired to acquire a large tract of land in the unsettled territories west of what is now South Carolina. This was Indian land, land the natives had hunted and lived in for centuries, but Hite and Pearis had a plan. Pearis had a son named George by a Cherokee Indian woman. Using the son’s standing with the Indians, the two men backed George to buy 150,000 acres of the Cherokee land which he then sold to his father and Hite.
It was a smart plan and should have worked to make the men rich. They would survey the land, divide it into smaller lots and sell it to settlers eager to move into the area and establish their own land holdings.
There was only one serious problem with the plan.
British officials had severe reservations about the wisdom of angering the Indians who had not been consulted or signed on to the sale of the land. The British were at that time on shaky ground as to their relations with the Indians who were attempting to form an anti-British confederation of several tribes.
In the interest of keeping the peace with the Indians, the British convinced a South Carolina court (which after all, ultimately answered to their British rulers) to void the deal.
This left Jacob Hite in severe financial jeopardy. As a land speculator, he had gambled heavily on the sale of these lands to acquire the funds to pay off debts which he now could not pay. In the domino effect often created by gambling and speculation, his creditors also had loans to pay off and at their insistence officials were ordered to seize personal property of Jacob Hite and auction off said property to raise the money to pay his debts.
Jacob was not happy about this solution to his money problems, and he vowed to stop any sale that took place. Gathering together some friends, Hite and a gang of armed men stormed the jail to take back his horses, slaves and other property. Unable to convince the jailor to turn over the keys or open the door, they chopped the door down with axes and then broke the lock on the stable door to retake his property.
Following the raid, Hite fled with his family and his belongings to the land he attempted to purchase in the Cherokee country.
Some of the perpetrators were subsequently arrested and charged with breach of the peace, but were acquitted due to sympathy by the locals for debtors who they felt were wrongly deprived of their personal property. British intervention in local business deals was an unpopular action and was already a factor in the increasing unrest in the colonies.
Following the failure of the legal system to punish Hite’s “gang,” heated verbal battles ensued as accusations flew back and forth between the sheriff, Adam Stephen, whose job it was to seize the property and Hite whose very livelihood depended on not losing his possessions.
Over the next few years Hite and Stephen carried on a bitter rivalry that involved letters in local newspapers and court cases, until in the fall of 1776 when a newspaper report stated: “…Mr. Jacob Hite, who lately removed from Berkeley county to the neighbourhood of the Cherokee country, with his family and a large parcel of negroes, were murdered at his own house by those savages, with most of his slaves, and his wife and children carried off prisoners; his son, who was in the Cherokee country, was likewise murdered.”
This incident was just one example of how important and life-altering ownership of the wilderness land to the west could be to individuals in Colonial America and how anger at the British style of government was simmering.
Next week, I’ll tell you how our patriotic forefathers were involved in similar schemes leading up to the Revolutionary War.