Monday, March 27, 2017

Success in DC Eludes New Englander James Greenleaf: Tale No. 8

Portrait of James Greenleaf by Gilbert Stuart, 1795
(Image: Portland Art Museum via Wikipedia Commons)

By Collin Illar

Revised November 27, 2021
First Published by Black and Red United, March 27, 2017

Preface: This is the eighth in a series of Tales from Buzzard Point that explores the rich traditions and myths surrounding the legendary DC United soccer team and its fabled history at Buzzard Point. The Tales from Buzzard Point are historical fiction and parody. 

Editor Note to Reader: While researching the New England literary renaissance of the mid-Nineteenth Century, DC United stalwart fan Colin Illar unearthed this early, unpublished poem attributed to John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). Whittier was an ardent abolitionist, founder of the Liberty Party, and widely-read poet. His best-known poem today is the Civil War ode “Barbara Frietchie” (“Shoot if you must this old grey head, but spare your country’s flag, she said.”)

The unpublished poem found by Colin Illar recounts the rise and fall of James Greenleaf (1765-1843) undoubtedly written shortly after Greenleaf’s death in gentile poverty in the City of Washington in 1843. James Greenleaf (whom Tales from Buzzard Point readers have already met in “The Aurochs and the Eagle”) is considered by historians to have been “the most important land speculator that the United States has produced” ... at least until January 20, 2017.

James Greenleaf’s Nemesis

Published by Unknown Author
Circa 1843

Gather round, friends and folk,
I wish to tell you a cautionary tale of a Boston bloke.
He came to our bog full of ambition, money and hope,
Only to leave this earth lonely, forgotten, and broke.

The year is Seventeen Sixty-Five,
and James Greenleaf is about to arrive.
Born to a wealthy family of husband and wife,
And a dozen children occupying their life.
His father was a merchant and sheriff,
And even fought to oppose a British tariff.

True to the Revolution he rose to City Hall’s balcony,
And declared American independence happily.
A hero father, embedded in history;
But what became of his son is a tale of misery.

A family of wealth, the Greenleafs became,
And little James started a business bearing his name.
Watson and Greenleaf the company was known,
They imported goods from the rich Dutch throne.
To Holland James went in search of some cash,
Selling bonds to aristocrats and making a splash.

Four years in Europe earned James a million or so,
So back to the States he went – wealthy baroness in tow.
Everything was looking up for good ol’ James,
He had money, love, and a powerful name.

Back in the states he found our Potomac swamp,
Buying acre upon acre in a purchasing romp.
Not content with his investments in Lake Placid,
Greenleaf soon had a third of DC as a land-holding asset.
From Northeast to Alexandria, his empire spread,
but Buzzard Point would soon encompass him in dread.

At discount, he managed to acquire some lots,
Around 648 to be exact, on the Anacostia’s rocks.
At Buzzard Point, a plan hatched in James’ head;
“The city will be home in this watershed!
I’ll develop this area and make some dough,
And the name Greenleaf, they will all soon know!”

Greenleaf's Point Still on Boschke Map of Buzzard Point, 1861
(Image: Library of Congress, A. Boschke et. al.) 

But this hallowed ground would only cause him to stumble,
And soon Mr. Greenleaf’s reputation would crumble.
A land deal upstate brought legal trouble,
And Greenleaf’s fortune burst like a bubble.
Kicked from his home and mired in legal suits,
He refocused on his Southwest DC business pursuits.

The North American Land Company was his latest brand,
And snatching up more real estate was his profitable plan.
But in Europe war broke out after France went awry,
Causing his Dutch investors to finally run dry.

Six million acres couldn’t save him from debts,
With Buzzard Point being the worst of his bets.
Thirty-two years old, penniless in and prison,
Greenleaf was losing sight of his grand vision.

A second marriage would help fill his coffers,
After wealthy Ann Penn Allen accepted his romantic offers.
Back to DC James went, chasing his dream,
And hopefully by now you can sense a common theme.

Success eluded James as he tried to reconcile,
His debts and his creditors, who now found him vile.
Buzzard Point remained empty, a lost cause,
Taunting James, a reminder of his flaws.

In the Eighteen Forties, James finally passed away,
In DC, alone, but with no debts to repay.
Of all the land in this nation Mr. Greenleaf did own,
One parcel of land, he did clearly bemoan.

On the soil James hoped would be DC’s crown,
Now stood nothing, not even a town.
One road and two buildings from the six hundred lots he owned,
Buzzard Point stood barren, defiant and alone.

AAcouple hundred years since James died and much has changed,
But public housing and a rec center are all that bear his name.
The streets no longer barren, and development is afoot,
With residents questioning if the air will be full of soot.
With high-rise condos and rent prices soaring,
Southwest DC has become far from boring.

Down by the water, on grass James used to own,
D.C. United has come to re-establish their throne.
So, my friends, take heart when the Revolution come to this city;
Buzzard Point has seen Boston’s best, and taken no pity.


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