Business and Labor

Continental Currency and the Grasshopper Plains Swindle

Continental Currency was constantly depreciating in value. Rather than tax people to raise funds in the late 1770s as the Revolutionary War dragged on, the Continental Congress would issue currency, batch after batch.

Continental Currency

Continental Currency

With each new batch of paper notes, however, the currency would lose some of its purchasing power, despite the government’s best efforts to prop it up. It reached the point where George Washington would complain, “A wagon load of money will scarcely purchase a wagon load of provisions.”

When news of a new release of currency reached Massachusetts, a group of businessmen in Bradford were troubled. They had a lot of money on hand and feared that it would soon lose a large portion of its value.

Putting their heads together, they decided they would look for someone who hadn’t yet learned of the coming depreciation and 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 that was useful for growing early crops, but he was not nearly as naïve as the men thought.

Sarah Anna Emery tells the story as relayed to her by her mother Sarah Smith Emery in her Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian :

“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, 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; 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.

“At the time of the purchase the land was covered with snow, and the gentlemen anxious to get rid of the notes, took but a cursory look, and had not been particular in enquiries respecting it. 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 gentle- men might call upon him and talk the matter over ” Accordingly, on Sunday Parson Noble appeared in the pulpit of the Bradford meeting-house.

“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. The house was crowded, and knowing what was pending, an unusual expectancy was felt. 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.”

After lecturing the men from the pulpit about the necessity of knowing what they were buying and the evils of trying to swindle others, Parson Noble passed the day pleasantly with the men who had tried to cheat him and not a word about the land was said.

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