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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Strange Tale of Petersylvania, Wis.


Not 'Pennsylvania' but 'Petersylvania' -- that's the name that Rev. Samuel Peters (1735-1825) gave to his hypothetical 10,000-square-mile empire in northern Wisconsin. Like most dreams, it didn't come true. But it's certainly an odd story.

The Wanderings of Jonathan Carver

It all began with Jonathan Carver (1710-1780), the first English-speaking traveler to journey through Wisconsin. Carver crossed from Green Bay to Prairie du Chien in 1766-1767 on reconnaissance for a military expedition. He then went up the Mississippi to the site of modern St. Paul, where he was supposed to meet supporters with enough supplies for a trip overland to the Pacific. When the supplies didn't show up, he went home by skirting Lake Superior's southern shore and voyaging down the Great Lakes to the East.

Carver continued on to England, where he hoped to get reimbursed for his expenses by the government. By then, however, the American colonies had rebelled and the government had bigger problems than the remote western wilderness of Wisconsin. Carver died in poverty in 1780, but not before writing a bestseller called, Travels through the Interior Parts of North America.

Carver's Grant

In the introduction to the third (1781) edition of Carver's book, which came out shortly after his death, the editor claimed to have discovered a deed supposedly dated at the "Great Cave, May the 1st, 1767" in which Sioux chiefs gave Carver and his family "the whole of a certain tract or territory of land." On a modern map, the territory described in the deed stretches from Minneapolis southeast to Pepin, then due east to near Stevens Point, and from there northwest roughly through Eau Claire and back to Minneapolis (map). Unfortunately the deed vanished after the death of Carver's widow, whom the editor confessed he had seldom seen when she was not drunk. None of the maps in the various editions of the book, nor Carver's manuscript map drawn before the book was published, show any such grant of land.

Carver's heirs were nonetheless excited to learn that they might possess 10,000 square miles of North American real estate and they hired a London agent to search for the deed. This was Rev. Samuel Peters (1735-1825), a Connecticut Loyalist who had fled to England during the Revolution. In exchange for large amounts of territory and cash advances, he became the principal advocate for the legitimacy of the so-called Carver Grant.

When he couldn't find the deed in England, Peters returned home to the U.S. and in 1804 began to besiege the U.S. Congress with requests to honor the Carver claim. To raise money, Rev. Peters also advertised the vast potential of the region, which he christened Petersylvania. He claimed he was starting a religious colony, complete with missions, vocational schools to teach Indians how to farm, and a college to educate them in Christian ways.

Congress Investigates

With Carver's heirs and other investors, Rev. Peters badgered lawmakers to legitimize the title to Petersylvania. After the War of 1812, Congress decided that the petitioners needed to bring forth Sioux leaders to verify the deed's existence and agree to its terms.

So in the summer of 1817 two groups set out independently to consult the Sioux. The first group, led by two of Carver's grandsons, made it to modern St. Paul where tribal elders told them that no chiefs with the names on the supposed deed had ever existed.

Rev. Peters, then 83 years old, headed west separately by steamship, wagon, and canoe, hoping to find Indian elders who would remember Carver. He took with him a young Vermonter named Willard Keyes, who kept a diary of the trip (now online in our Wisconsin Magazine of History). They made it as far as Prairie du Chien, where the commander of Fort Crawford refused to allow them to go up the Mississippi because of military tension on the frontier.

Carver's Grant Debunked

After lingering a few months in Prairie du Chien, Rev. Peters returned east, where Congress finally concluded on Jan. 29, 1823, that he and Carver's heirs had no legitimate right to any lands in Wisconsin or Minnesota. In announcing their decision, they argued that English law at the time of Carver's visit prohibited any land grants to private individuals, so even if a deed had existed it would be invalid. They further pointed out that Carver himself had never made any mention of such a grant in his book or afterwards, and that no Indians could be found who had any knowledge of such a transaction having been made by their grandparents' generation. There was simply no legal evidence to support Rev. Peters' claims for Petersylvania.

That, however, didn't prevent unscrupulous real estate speculators from offering parts of Carver's Grant for sale to unsuspecting investors for another half-century.

[Sources: Parker, Robert, ed. The Journals of Jonathan Carver (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1976): 47-51; Middlebrook, Samuel. "Samuel Peters: A Yankee Munchausen." The New England Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 1. (Mar., 1947), pp. 75-87; Quaife, Milo M. "Jonathan Carver and the Carver Grant." The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 7, No. 1. (Jun., 1920), pp. 3-25.]
:: Posted in Bizarre Events on February 2, 2012

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