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Asylum Company papers


Held at: Historical Society of Pennsylvania [Contact Us]1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19107

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

Robert Morris, John Nicholson, and others organized the Asylum Company in April 1794 to develop and sell land that they had already acquired in Luzerne, Northampton, and Northumberland counties. The company's articles of agreement outlined a business plan for this purpose and allowed for the purchasing of additional tracts of land so that the company’s total holdings would equal one million acres. To achieve the one million acre mark, the company expanded its operations into present day Bedford, Bradford, and Lycoming counties. The men behind the Asylum Company initially hoped to sell the land to French émigrés seeking refuge in America from the French and Haitian revolutions. Many of these émigrés were among the company’s first customers, and several purchased land in Bradford County on the northern branch of the Susquehanna River, establishing the settlement of Azilum (near Towanda). The “Plan of Association of the Asylum Company,” signed on April 22, 1794, named Robert Morris as president of the company and the Vicomte de Noailles, John Keating, and John Nicholson as its managers. It also stated that the company’s office and meeting space would be located in Philadelphia.

Although the business plan of the Asylum Company appeared sound, the company encountered many unanticipated obstacles. Throughout its existence the Asylum Company came into conflict with several land claimants from Connecticut. Title disputes often went on for many years and hindered efforts to sell and develop the land in these areas. Additionally, the proposal to utilize the Susquehanna River for commercial transport, the result of which would have greatly increased the value of the company’s land holdings, did not materialize due to the hazardous nature of particular sections of the river. Moreover, no buyers were interested in much of the company’s land because it was too hard to access. Eventually, in 1796 the land speculating bubble burst, leaving the company and its shareholders land rich, but cash poor.

By 1795, Robert Morris had overextended his credit and all of his shares in the company were transferred to his friend and partner, John Nicholson, who also took over the role of president. Nicholson had earlier served as comptroller general of Pennsylvania, but resigned in 1794 due to scandal. He was also involved in various other land speculation companies including the Pennsylvania Population Company, of which Nicholson was the president and Morris was a manager, and the North American Land Company, co-founded with Morris and James Greenleaf, which owned land from Pennsylvania to South Carolina. Following a path similar to that of Robert Morris, who had declared bankruptcy and landed in debtor’s prison in 1798, Nicholson was incarcerated for debt during the winter of 1800. Nicholson died in prison in December 1800, and in 1801 a board of trustees was created to direct the operations of the Asylum Company. The board consisted largely of Philadelphians, many of them merchants, who were already shareholders or had been associated in another way with the company.

The twenty-first article of the 1794 “Plan of Association of the Asylum Company” stated that the company would exist for fifteen years, at which point all of its remaining assets would be sold for cash at an auction, allowing six months for proper promotion and publicizing of the event. However, company documents, agent accounts, and shares of stock dated after 1809 suggest that the company did not dissolve after fifteen years. A catalog was published in 1819 listing the Asylum Company’s stock and land as being for sale “in pursuance of the 21st Article of Association of the said Company.” The considerable number of unsold land tracts detailed in the catalog illustrates the immense amount of debt incurred by the company and helps to explain its failure.

After the sale, the Asylum Company dissolved, but in 1823 the purchasers of the company's land and stock agreed to form the Contingent Fund of the Asylum Company in order to manage any claims against the Asylum Company that remained after the company's dissolution. The managers of the Contingent Fund included James Gibson, who had previously been a manager, acting president (1801), and legal advisor for the Pennsylvania Population Company, as well as a manager and legal advisor for the Asylum Company; Thomas Astley, who additionally owned many shares in the Pennsylvania Population Company; John Ashley; and Archibald McCall. In 1836, the managers of the Contingent Fund were satisfied that all outstanding claims had been handled, and by the late 1830s the Contingent Fund of the Asylum Company had been disbanded.

The Asylum Company papers include administrative and financial records as well as correspondence, title papers, shares of the company’s stock, and published material from 1773-1851. The collection documents some of the functions of a late eighteenth and early nineteenth century land speculation company and also some of the challenges this type of organization faced. The papers are arranged in rough chronological order.

This collection may be of interest to those researching early American land speculation operations. There are deeds, agents’ expense reports and accounts, and correspondence of the company’s presidents, shareholders, and agents, some of which pertains to title disputes with Connecticut claimants (Box 1, folders 8 and 9). Researchers interested in land ownership may find the draft map for the land tracts in Bedford County of particular appeal, and Pennsylvania historians may wish to view the correspondence regarding the properties at Azilum. For researchers interested in the Asylum Company from a business standpoint, there is correspondence that reveals irregularities within the company, as well as a translation of a letter from a Frenchman who claimed to have been a victim of the company’s methods. There is also an1819 published catalog of the company’s stock and land available for sale, which would be significant to those researching the history of the company. However, this collection does not provide a complete picture of the organization. The bulk of the correspondence and deeds is dated prior to 1800, while a large portion of the material after 1800 consist of transferred stock certificates and the financial accounts of company agents. Information regarding the disbanding of the company is limited, although there is a brief statement from 1836 regarding what happened after the sale of the Asylum Company's lands.

Geoffroy, Rebecca. “Asylum: A Paris in the Wilderness.” Unearthing the Past: Student Research on Pennsylvania History, Penn State University Libraries Digitized Collections. Spring 2007. Murray, Elsie. “French Experiments in Pioneering in Northern Pennsylvania.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 68, no. 2 (April 1944): 173-188. Sequestered John Nicholson papers (Manuscript Group 96), Pennsylvania State Archives. Wilkinson, Norman B. “A French Asylum on the Susquehanna River.” Historic Pennsylvania Leaflet No. 11. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1991.


The papers in the collection were thought to be arranged in chronological order before processing, so the folders were labeled and numbered in that order. However, during processing, some further dates were found on materials and have been added to their folder labels. This has resulted in the arrangement not being in strict chronological order, but more of a rough chronological order.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Sarah Leu.
Finding Aid Date
; 2013.
Processing made possible by a generous donation from Randall M. Miller.
Access Restrictions

This collection is open for research.

Collection Inventory

Draft map for Bedford County land, undated.
Box 1 Folder 1
Bedford County tract descriptions and warrant list, 1773, 1784, 1786.
Box 1 Folder 2
Land patent for Reuben Haines, 1786.
Box 1 Folder 3
Receipt, 1793 November 20.
Box 1 Folder 4
List of donation lands partially in Luzerne County, 1794.
Box 1 Folder 5
Letter to J. Keating, notice of company's formation, 1794, 1795.
Box 1 Folder 6
Deeds poll, financial records, 1788-1794, 1797.
Box 1 Folder 7
Correspondence and patents, 1798.
Box 1 Folder 8
Correspondence, 1798-1799.
Box 1 Folder 9
Letter from John Nicholson to James Gibson, 1800 February 27.
Box 1 Folder 10
Copy of bond from John Nicholson to James Ashley, 1801.
Box 1 Folder 11
Receipts and account expenditures, 1802.
Box 1 Folder 12
Samuel Baird accounts, release of purchase, 1799, 1803.
Box 1 Folder 13
Transferred stock certificates, John Ashley incoming correspondence, 1802, 1805.
Box 1 Folder 14
Transferred stock certificates, 1802.
Box 2 Folder 1
Samuel Baird's accounts, 1802-1810.
Box 2 Folder 2
Samuel Baird's account settlement, Joseph Whitaker account, survey notes, 1802-1812.
Box 2 Folder 3
Thomas Astley stock certificates, 1811.
Box 2 Folder 4
Samuel Baird's accounts, 1812.
Box 2 Folder 5
Joseph Whitaker's account with Samuel Baird, 1813-1818.
Box 2 Folder 6
Samuel Baird's accounts, 1812-1814.
Box 2 Folder 7
Statement of monies collected by Samuel Baird, 1815-1818.
Box 2 Folder 8
Samuel Baird and Joseph Whitaker's accounts, 1814-1818.
Box 2 Folder 9
Asylum Company Catalogue of Lands and Stock, 1819.
Box 2 Folder 10
Samuel Baird's accounts, 1808-1820.
Box 2 Folder 11
Bond receipt; list of bonds, mortgages, and contracts for collection delivered to John M. Read and receipt from Simon Kinney, 1823 [photostatic copies, undated], 1823, undated.
Box 2 Folder 12
Search for judgements on Andrew Griscom, settlement of the Estate of Samuel Baird, 1825.
Box 2 Folder 13
Pennsylvania State papers relating to John Nicholson's Estate, 1826.
Box 2 Folder 14
List of shareholders in the Contingent Fund of the Asylum Company, 1829.
Box 2 Folder 15
Thomas Astley account of cash paid, 1830-1835.
Box 2 Folder 16
Letter from John Read to Thomas Astley, 1832 May 7.
Box 2 Folder 17
Thomas Astley incoming correspondence and land patent, Contingent Fund checks, and receipt, 1830, 1832, 1835.
Box 2 Folder 18
Thomas Astley incoming correspondence, statement of claims against the Asylum Company, Contingent Fund checks, 1836-1837.
Box 2 Folder 19
Receipt from Z. Poulson, 1837.
Box 2 Folder 20
Thomas Astley receipt, 1838.
Box 2 Folder 21
Abigail Physick account with R.R. Dorsey, 1851.
Box 2 Folder 22
Thomas Astley memorials to the Pennsylvania State Assembly, 1839.
Box 2 Folder 23
Miscellaneous administrative and financial documents, undated.
Box 2 Folder 24

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