OLIVER PHELPS (1749-1809)

        Oliver Phelps (born in 1749) was a great land speculator. A native of Windsor, young Phelps came to Suffield apprenticed to a local merchant and later became a tavern keeper in Granville, Mass. As Deputy Commissary of the Colonial army during the Revolution, he supplied troops and was commended by General Washington. With a partner, Phelps contracted to buy 6,144,000 acres in the Genesee Country, New York (then Massachusetts), for $1 million between 1787-1788. After meeting the Indian owners of the land at Buffalo Creek, he ended up with 4,940,000 acres of the tract. By 1789 he had returned to Suffield, bought the Hatheway House where he opened one of the first land offices in America (and another in Canandaigua, N.Y.). At the time of the Western Reserve purchase (some 3,300,000 acres), Phelps was also negotiating for land in Georgia, West Virginia and Maine, and considered to be the largest land holder in the country.

        Although he was a founder and large stock holder in the Hartford National Bank and Trust Co., about 1800 his financial troubles became acute because of the effect of changing money values on mortgages held on the tracts of land sold and a depressed land market. Forced to sell his Suffield home, Phelps moved to Canandaigua, N.Y., where he built a grist mill and endowed an academy. He was appointed the first judge of Ontario County and between 1803 and 1805 he served in Congress. Although a man of great ability and broad vision, Oliver Phelps was ahead of his time. He tried to help settlers who could not fulfill their contracts, but he was doomed to poverty and died in 1809 in debtor’s prison.

        His memory is honored in Canandaigua, where the inscription on his tombstone reads: “Enterprise, Industry, and Temperance cannot always ensure success but the first of these will be felt by Society.”