HILLHOUSE, JAMES

HILLHOUSE, JAMES H. (20 October 1754-29 December 1832) a lesser-known but important figure in the early days of the WESTERN RESERVE, did much to stabilize the finances of both settlers and the Connecticut School Fund. Born in Montville, in the Connecticut Colony the son of Judge William Hillhouse and Sarah (Griswold) Hillhouse, James Hillhouse was adopted in 1762 by his uncle, James Abraham Hillhouse, an attorney. 

Hillhouse was a Yale law school graduate (1773), an officer during the Revolution and returned to be the Yale’s treasurer for fifty years. Among notable accomplishments during his tenure as Yale’s Treasurer, Hillhouse helped incorporate the city of New Haven, landscape its green with the elms that would give it the name “Elm City,” and incorporate the Grove Street Cemetery. He was prominent in Connecticut Federalist politics, a leader in the Senate’s anti-slavery legislation, and was a delegate to the Continental Congress when the state relinquished its trans-Appalachian land claims, except for the Western Reserve lands.

The Connecticut School Fund was the outgrowth of the State’s pioneering implementation of self-financing for common school education dating back to 1733, but it was not significant until the purchase of the Reserve to the CONNECTICUT LAND COMPANY for $1,200,000 in 1795. The sale of the Reserve lands was to be for the benefit of the Fund, but Company’s investors, seeking rapid turnarounds, put up little cash and gave back mortgages. Consequently, the Fund became entangled with their fiscal health and that of their subsequent land purchasers. Initially a Board of Managers had been set up to administer the Fund. The Fund, however, suffered from slow sales, underfunded mortgages, insolvent and scattered investors, and settlers balancing on the edge of bankruptcy after the Company distributed the last of its lands and closed its books in 1809.

The State abolished the Board of Managers in 1810, and appointed Hillhouse the Fund’s sole administrator. Eschewing punitive lawsuits, he repeatedly traveled throughout the Reserve, meeting with land owners, working to get them on a sound financial footing so they could make their payments to the Fund. He also became the de facto personal attorney and financial planner for many settlers and handled the estates of large investors Oliver Phelps and Gideon Granger. Held in high esteem when he stepped down as Commissioner, in 1825, he left the Fund in solid financial shape. Apparently unmarried and without children, Hillhouse died on December 29th, 1832, in New Haven. He is buried in Grove Street Cemetery, where his grave was dedicated in 2001 as a feature of the Connecticut Freedom Trail. New Haven’s stately Hillhouse Avenue and James Hillhouse High School are named for him.

William Barrow

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