Oliver Phelps was a political leader, soldier and early investor in land in Ohio after the American Revolution.
Oliver Phelps was born near Poquonock, Connecticut, on October 21, 1749. His father died when Oliver was three years old. His mother was then solely responsible for raising and providing for seventeen children. To assist his mother, Oliver took a job in a local store at the age of seven. In 1770, he moved to Granville, Massachusetts, and opened his own store. At the beginning of the American Revolution, Phelps joined the Continental Army. He left the service in 1777 to become the Massachusetts Superintendent of Purchases of Army Supplies. He held this position until the war was over. He also served in the Massachusetts legislature from 1778 to 1780 and as a delegate to the state's constitutional convention in 1779 and 1780.
After the war, Phelps served in the Massachusetts Senate in 1785 and on the Governor's Council in 1786. He also became involved in real estate investment in the West. The British relinquished all of their land claims east of the Mississippi River and south of Canada in the Treaty of Paris (1783). American settlers moved west to make their fortunes. The English had tried to prevent the Americans from moving west of the Appalachian Mountains in the Proclamation of 1763. The British had hoped to prevent an expensive war with the Native Americans in the Ohio Country.
Phelps hoped to profit from this westward migration. In 1788, he and Nathaniel Gorman purchased six million acres of land from Massachusetts. The land was located in western New York, but Massachusetts had received the land from the King of England when the colony was first settled. Separated from the land by the bulk of New York and facing a shortage of funds, Massachusetts was more than happy to sell the land to Phelps and Gorman. The two men agreed to pay Massachusetts 175,000 dollars for the land. They were unable to pay the full amount at the required time. In 1790, they returned two-thirds of the land to Massachusetts.
Despite this initial setback, Phelps continued to invest in real estate. By 1796, he had acquired roughly a million acres of land along the Mississippi River. He also helped organize the Connecticut Land Company. This organization had purchased all but the extreme western portion of the Connecticut Western Reserve in the Northwest Territory from the state of Connecticut. The company purchased the land for 1.2 million dollars. Lacking sufficient funds to make all of these purchases, Phelps borrowed heavily. By 1796, Phelps's creditors were demanding payment. Facing debtors' prison, Phelps went into seclusion. He eventually settled in New York. He served as one of New York's members of the House of Representatives from 1803 to 1805. Phelps died on February 21, 1809.