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This story was originally published in the 1993 June/July edition


In his long and controversial career, Aaron Burr served as vice president of the United States, killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, was branded a traitor by Thomas Jefferson and tried for treason. If his alleged conspiracy to create a separate country of the western states had succeeded, today we might all be living in . . .

 

The Kingdom of the Genesee

by J. Sheldon FIsher

Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr, Esq.


In United States history, there are few men whose names stir more controversy than Aaron Burr's. Born in 1756 to one of America's leading families (his grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, was the best known cleric of colonial days), Burr had a successful career as a Revolutionary War soldier, a New York City attorney and later a politician, rising to the position of vice president in 1800.

Then, just a few short years later, after a dizzying fall from grace, Burr was tried as a traitor and chose self-imposed exile in Europe, his political career in ruins. Although Burr was ultimately acquitted of charges that he had conspired to bring about the separation of western territories from the Union, historians have continued to debate the weight of the evidence against him.

In the search for the truth, historians have closely examined Burr's dealings and connections in the Genesee Country. This examination has led to questions about Burr's relationship with Charles Williamson, a colorful figure in the early settlement of western New York. Williamson served as a British army colonel during the American Revolution and later performed valuable work in Turkey and Egypt for His Majesty's Secret Service.

In 1791 Williamson returned to America as a local agent for the British owners of the Pultney Estates, who had acquired large portions of the Genesee Country. After 10 years as a land agent, Williamson returned to his first calling as a British spy.

The air was full of intrigue during the Genesee Country's early years. Conflicting grants from the English kings had created much confusion over land titles. At the same time, many unscrupulous businessmen were trying to cut favorable deals for themselves with the Indians. Two land companies were foremost in this field.

The New York Genesee Land Co. was led by such stalwart and respected citizens as Maj. Peter Schuyler, Assemblyman John Livingston, and State Sen. Caleb Benton among others. Another company, the Niagara Genesee Land Co., was led by Col. John Butler, whose notorious Butler's Rangers had fought alongside the Indians against the Americans during the Revolution.

Butler's group, which included officers from the British stronghold at Fort Niagara, along with American Benjamin Barton, signed 999-year leases with the Seneca Indians. The Indians were paid very little money for this transaction, and the deals were so onerous that the state legislature voided them.

As New York State Attorney General, Aaron Burr was certainly aware of these matters, but he was quietly working on a much larger deal. In 1791 he approved the sale of seven million acres of land that had been appropriated from the Mohawk and Oneida Nations to a private speculator, Alexander McComb, for eight cents an acre. This sale created a scandal, but Burr was still elected a U.S. senator the same year.

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