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This Day in Georgia History

January 07, 1795

Yazoo Act Signed

Gov. George Mathews signed a laudable-sounding piece of legislation that had as its title:

An Act supplementary to an Act entitled ‘An Act for appropriating a part of the unlocated territory of this state for the payment of the late state troops, and for other purposes therein mentioned, declaring the right of this State to the unappropriated territory thereof, for the protection and support of the frontiers of this State, and for other purposes.’
To view a bid for the Yazoo lands, see the Georgia Archives

This was the formal description of what would become known as the Yazoo Act – the most controversial single piece of legislation ever enacted by the General Assembly. Four private land companies had bribed state legislators to pass the law, which allowed them to purchase 35 million acres of Georgia’s western lands for less than 2 cents per acre. Because many of the legislators who voted for the act owned stock in the land companies, this became known as the Yazoo Land Fraud. Once the people of Georgia learned what had been done, there was immediate reaction, resulting in election of a new legislature which not only repealed the Yazoo Act but demanded that every copy of the legislation be destroyed. Members of the legislature met on the statehouse grounds to publicly burn the act. Rather than use ordinary fire, legislators used a magnifying glass to focus the sun’s rays to start the fire, thus symbolizing calling on “fire from heaven” to destroy the despicable act. However, attempts to reclaim lands sold by the companies by refunding the purchase price were less successful, with some purchasers refusing to sell the land back. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court would rule against Georgia’s attempts to reclaim land sold as a result of the Yazoo Act.

To view an image of the burning of the Yazoo Act, see the Digital Library of Georgia.