At the close of the Revolutionary War, a major focus of the new country was
westward expansion. Land speculation became a fever. Pioneers into western New
York purchased their land not from the state, but by a contract with the Holland
Land Company. This consortium of Dutch bankers purchased 3.3 million acres
comprising present-day Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, western Genesee,
Niagara, Orleans, and Wyoming counties. (View a map of this area here.) The first contracts were written in 1801. In 1810 the
population exceeded 23,000, and by 1820, when approximately half of the land had
been sold, it exceeded 100,000. In this article we look at the Holland Land
Company, the Holland Purchase, and the men who administered it. A subsequent
article will discuss the genealogical information available in the archives of
the Holland Land Company and how to access those records.
At the close of the Revolutionary War, John Adams helped to negotiate
sufficient financial backing from Dutch investors to stabilize the fledgling
government of the United States. By 1796 the Dutch held the entire foreign debt
of the new country – about twelve million dollars. In 1789, a joint venture was
proposed by four Amsterdam banking houses with experience in American investing
– Pieter Stadnitski and Son, Ten Cate & Vollenhoven, Nicholass and Jacob Van
Staphorst, and P. & C. van Eeghen. Later, in 1795, two other firms – W.
& J. Willink and Rutger Jan Schimmelpenninck – were added to form the
Hollandische Land Compagnie.
On November 30, 1789, the company hired Theophilus Cazenove as their General
Agent. He was to manage all of their U.S. investments, one of which was to be a
3.3 million acre tract west of the Genessee River. This transaction became known
as the Holland Purchase. Unlike Pennsylvania, where the company also made large
purchases, New York State law forbade aliens from owning land. Thus, for
the New York purchases Cazenove created a board of trustees to hold the land for
the company. In a series of five deeds in 1792 and 1793, Robert Morris sold
this land to Herman LeRoy, John Linklaen, Gerrit Boon, William Bayard, and
Matthew Clarkson. Although the sale included an agreement by Robert Morris
to assist in the extinction of Indian rights to the land, this was not
accomplished until the Treaty of Big Tree on September 15, 1797. Several tracts,
ranging in size from one to seventy square miles, were not part of this treaty,
and these were the reservations of Cannawagus, Little Beard’s and Big Tree,
Squakie Hill, Gardeau, Canadea, Oil Spring, Allegany, Cattaragus, Buffalo,
Tonawanda, and Tuscarora. The larger reservations may still be located
on a current state map.
Before the land could be sold, this vast territory had to be mapped and
surveyed. Cazenove had engaged Joseph Ellicott as principal surveyor in 1794.
This was a logical choice considering that Joseph Ellicott’s older brother
Andrew, who became Surveyor General of the United States, trained Joseph and
made him his assistant in surveying the city of Washington. Joseph Ellicott
served the Holland Land Company at other locations, principally in western
Pennsylvania, until the Treaty of Big Tree was signed. He then began the task
of surveying the boundaries of the New York land and subdividing it into
townships and ranges. He and his crew of about one hundred fifty men began in
March 1798 and finished in October 1800, at a total cost to the company of close
to seventy-one thousand dollars. He employed the transit method to avoid the
types of errors that plagued the eastern boundary of the Phelps-Gorham
purchase. This method required line-of-sight measurements, which in turn
required the crews to cut clear swathes along each line. The survey was slow,
labor intensive, and accurate.
The company needed the survey in order to describe the land involved in each
sale. When the state later created towns and counties, the political boundaries
often, but not always, followed the existing township and range boundaries.
Thus the present-day boundary between Cattaraugus and Erie counties divides
ranges 5, 6, 7, and 8 of township 6 between the two counties.
In 1799 Theophilus Cazenove resigned as General Agent of the Holland Land
Company. His successor was Paul Busti . Busti had worked for the company
since 1796, and continued to do so until he died in office on July 23, 1824.
His chief clerk, John J. Vanderkemp, succeeded him. It was Busti who suggested
the name of Batavia for the community in which the first local land office was
located, taking it from the republic in which Amsterdam was located. On
November 1, 1800, the company named Joseph Ellicott as their local agent, in
charge of the sale of the land he had surveyed. Settlement was initially slow
but picked up from about 1807 until the outbreak of the War of 1812. Some
settlers in present-day Niagara and Erie counties were devastated by that war.
O. Turner, in his Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase, speaks of “the
smoking ruins of the once pleasant, delightful and flourishing village of
Buffalo” and describes refugees streaming into Canandaigua.
Recovery from the war seems to have been speedy. Even so, lack of access to
markets and the resulting shortage of cash meant that the majority of settlers
became delinquent in their payments. Economic depression in 1819 further slowed
sales and payments. Joseph Ellicott became involved in local politics, leading
to difficulties for the company. In 1821, Paul Busti demanded, and received,
Ellicott’s successor was Jacob S. Otto, who served until his death in
1826. During his tenure the company began to accept payment in kind from
farmers who had little cash, an idea originally proposed by Joseph Ellicott and
resisted by the company. Cattle and grain were delivered to depots that the
company established. Each year agents advertised the time, place, and price for
Upon Otto’s death, his assistant (and Ellicott’s nephew) David E. Evans
became the last local agent in Batavia, and he remained in office until 1837,
when company business ceased. In September 1827, the company decided to
refinance contracts, rather than begin foreclosure proceedings. The following
year they sold sixty thousand acres of lands in Chautauqua County to the Cherry
Valley Company .
Lands Sold to Cherry Valley
Company in 1828
Kiantone & Busti
In spite of all efforts to avoid foreclosures, relations between the company
and settlers went from bad to worse, although the completion of the Erie Canal
contributed to growing prosperity. In 1833 the legislature passed a law taxing
the company for debts still owing to it upon land sales. Efforts to collect
arrears were largely ignored. Newspaper articles were published painting the
company as composed of evil, grasping foreigners. The settlers tried,
unsuccessfully, to challenge the company’s title to the land, and soon the
company carefully began to divest itself of its holdings in New York.
In 1834, some mortgages newly subject to taxation were sold to the New York
Life Insurance & Trust Company. Evans recommended selling a few of the more
troublesome townships in order to demonstrate that the new landlord would not be
an improvement. In the summer of 1835 three townships were sold: Orangeville in
Genesee County (T9R2), Charlotte in Chautauqua County (T4R11), and Boston in
Erie County (T7R8). In the same year, men interested in a projected Erie
Railroad bought reverted and unsold land in Allegany and Cattaraugus
counties, and the towns of Java and China in Genesee County. The Farmers Loan
& Trust Company of New York bought out the interests in Erie, Orleans,
Niagara, and Genesee counties.
Paul Evans describes the settlers’ change of heart. “When it became known
early in 1835 that the Company was making preparations to sell out its interest
to native landlords, the news was greeted by the settlers with something like
consternation. Though they had been quick to criticize the faults of the
Company, most of them realized perfectly well that it had been extraordinarily
lenient in its treatment of backward debtors. Petitions poured into the Batavia
office from the settlers praying the Company not to ‘sell them out’. … Had it
not been so serious it would have been comic. Those who had protested most
loudly in the past years were now rushing to get deeds before the Holland
company should turn them over to the tender mercies of the native landlords.
Remaining lands and securities in Chautauqua County were sold to Trumbull
Cary and George Lay of Batavia. Company agents Evans and Vanderkemp could
scarcely believe the favorable terms they were offered and readily agreed.
These new proprietors made the same demands – that back interest and deferred
payments be paid. They also offered, like the Holland Land Company, to renew
expired, unpaid contracts. However, the new contract would be based on
then-current land prices, not the price at the time of the original contract.
They threatened to evict the current occupant and sell the land to a new tenant
if payments were not made.
The settlers refused and on February 6, 1836, they destroyed the land office
in Mayville, Chautauqua County. This led to the fortification of the land
office in Batavia, which staved off a similar mob attack. Some leniency on the
part of the new proprietors, a new local agent in Mayville, and the passage of
time eventually restored calm. The estimated profit to the Holland Land Company
shareholders was five to six percent per year.
• Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase; O. Turner; G.H. Derby Co,
1850 (reprinted by: James Brunner; Geneseo, 1974.
• Joseph Ellicott and the Holland Land Company; William Chazanof;
Syracuse University Press, 1970.
• The Holland Land Company; Paul D. Evans; Buffalo Historical Society,
• History of Chautauqua County, Andrew W. Young, Buffalo, 1875.
• A History of New York State, David M. Ellis, James A. Frost, Harold
C. Syrett, Harry J. Carman, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1967.
 Later the state would pass a series of acts making the use of trustees
unnecessary. The first, passed April 11, 1796, was titled “An act for the
relief of Wilhem Willink, Nicholaas Van Staphorst, Christiaan Van Eeghen,
Hendrick Vollenhoven, Rutger Jan Schimmelpenninck, and Pieter Stadnitski, being
 Robert Morris’s wife, Mary, received an annuity from the Holland Land
Company of fifteen hundred dollars for release of dower on lands sold. Although
a seeming pittance at the time these deeds were executed, the sum became crucial
some five years later when Morris’s financial position collapsed and he found
himself facing debtors’ prison.
 Paul Busti was born October 17, 1749, in Milan, Italy, and was employed
in his uncle’s counting house in Amsterdam. He was a brother-in-law of Ten Cate,
one of the bankers in the Holland Land Company, and had no children. The town
of Busti in Chautauqua County bears his name.
 Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase; O. Turner; G.H. Derby Co,
1850 (reprinted by: James Brunner; Geneseo, 1974, p. 605
 Otto attended the celebration of the completion of the Grand Canal in
Lockport on October 26, 1825. He caught cold and died May 2, 1826. The town of
Otto in Cattaraugus County bears his name.
 James O. Morse, Levi Beardsley, Alvan Stewart
 E. Lord, S. B. Ruggles, Nicholas Devereaux of Utica
 The Holland Land Company; Paul D. Evans; Buffalo Historical
Society, 1924, p. 394