Business and Labor

Continental Currency and the Grasshopper Plains Swindle

Continental currency constantly depreciated in value. Rather than tax people to raise funds for the Revolutionary War dragged on, the Continental Congress issued currency, batch after batch 0f it.

With each new batch of paper notes, however, the currency lost some of its purchasing power. The government did its best to prop it up, but to no avail. It got so bad George Washington complained, “A wagon load of money will scarcely purchase a wagon load of provisions.”

Continental currency

Continental Currency in Bradford

News of a new release of currency reached Massachusetts troubled a group of businessmen in Bradford. They had a lot of money on hand and feared that it would soon lose much of its value.

Putting their heads together, they decided they would look for someone who hadn’t yet learned of the coming depreciation. They’d then try to foist the currency onto him. The mark they chose was Parson Oliver Noble of Newbury.

The parson had considerable land, including Grasshopper Plains, land useful for growing early crops. But the parson was not nearly as naïve as the men thought.

Sunlight and Shadow: Newbury Marshes by Martin Johnson Heade. National Gallery of Art.

Sarah Anna Emery tells the story in her Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian. Her mother, Sarah Smith Emery, had told her the story first.

Grasshopper Plains Swindle

“Though the land on the plains had all the good qualities the Bradford men had mentioned, everyone at all conversant with that locality knows that there are several acres back from the river consisting of sandy knolls, a somewhat singular conformation, which are almost worthless,” wrote Sarah Anna Emery. Those acres “would scarcely subsist a small number of the insects from which the plains derive their name.”

The Parson at that time had quite a lot of this land which he was desirous to put into a more profitable investment,” she wrote. “He was therefore willing to bargain, not too eager, but to accommodate the gentlemen, after a time the purchase was affected.

“Father Noble, shaking with inward chuckles, received the condemned bills, which before the news of their loss of value became general he disposed of very satisfactorily.”

Bitten

Snow then covered the land, and the men anxious to get rid of their Continental currency took a cursory look. They had “not been particular in enquiries respecting it,” wrote Sarah Anna Emery.  “As the spring advanced somehow the story of the sale became bruited about, and the would-be biters were informed that they had been unmercifully bitten. Accordingly they rode down to take a survey of the land. Scarcely liking the lay of it they went with their protest to the Parson.

“Father Noble was all fair and square. He should be sorry to do anything wrong, he was to exchange the next Sunday with Parson Dutch: he would remain in Bradford overnight, and Monday morning the gentlemen might call upon him and talk the matter over ” Accordingly, on Sunday Parson Noble appeared in the pulpit of the Bradford meeting-house.

First Church of Christ in Bradford, Mass.

Pulpit Eloquence

“The morning service passed as usual, but in the afternoon the congregation were favored by a specimen of pulpit eloquence which caused a universal sensation,” she wrote.

Knowing what would happen, the people in the crowded house felt an unusual expectancy, she wrote.

“The psalms and prayer over, the preacher with peculiar emphasis named his text “I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go to see it.”

Parson Noble then lectured the men from the pulpit about knowing what they were buying and the evils of trying to swindle others. Afterward, he passed the day pleasantly with the men who had tried to cheat him. They said not a word about the land.


This story updated in 2022.

Image: First Church of Christ, Bradford, By Fletcher6 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6269477.

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