During the early years of the Republic, the Ogden family of New Jersey and New York parlayed ability, family, fortune, and political resilience into social and economic power. For three generations commencing with the New Jersey jurist and Loyalist, David Ogden (1707-1798), the family exploited some of the most lucrative forms of enterprise the new nation offered, enriching themselves vastly in the process. As skillful attorneys with powerful family and business connections, the brothers David Aaron, Thomas Ludlow, and Gouverneur Ogden positioned themselves to enter into the rabid speculation in newly available lands in western New York State during the 1790s. Their firm, the Ogden Land Company, purchased huge tracts of land from Indians of the Six Nations and resold it to whites at an enormous profit.
Although the family remains best known for its legal pursuits, its members enjoyed a diversity of vocations and avocations that gave them leading roles in several important areas of American life in the early nineteenth century. Through their position as counsel to the Holland Land Company, David Aaron Ogden and Thomas Ludlow Ogden influenced the settlement of western New York, the construction of the Erie Canal, the determination of property law in New York, the political competition between the Bucktails and the Clintonians, and the financing of land development. As land speculators themselves, the Ogdens strove for the development of northern New York in the region near the St. Lawrence River. They attempted to create a system of privately-financed internal improvements, including harbors, mills, and turnpikes that would promote economic development around Ogdensburg and encourage emigration into the surrounding area.
Unlike his father and several brothers, Abraham Ogden was committed to the cause of independence during the Revolution, and fared well in the post-Revolutionary years as a result. After serving as surrogate for Morris County, New Jersey, his friend George Washington appointed him as the first attorney general for the state of New Jersey.
The eldest of Abraham's sons, David A. Ogden (1770-1829), blazed a trail that each of his brothers followed. After graduating from Columbia College (then called King's College), he studied law and was admitted to the New Jersey bar in 1791. After practicing in Newark, N.J., for several years, he became a business associate of fellow Federalist and attorney, Alexander Hamilton, after Hamilton had retired from political life.
In about 1810, David Ogden moved to Ogdensburg (now Waddington), St. Lawrence County, New York, and acquired almost 200,000 acres of land in western New York State from the Holland Land Company, doling out of the enormous sum of $100,000. Although he engaged in land speculation for many years, Ogden did not neglect his law practice, eventually serving on the court of common pleas in St. Lawrence County (1811-1815, 1820-24, 1825-29). He dabbled in politics, as well, earning election to the state assembly in 1814 and 1815, and to the U.S. House for one term (1817-1819). For several years, he was active in lobbying the national government to remove the Seneca Indians from his property.
David's younger brother, Thomas Ludlow Ogden (1773-1844), is said to have ridden on Washington's horse during his inspection tours of the Continental Army when they were encamped near the Ogden family home. Although his father's Loyalism caused brief trouble for the family, Thomas entered Columbia College in 1788, graduating in 1791 with the delivery of a very un-Loyalist oration, "On the rising glory of America."
After studying law with his father and Richard Harrison in New York City, Thomas was admitted to the New York bar in 1796, and in the same year, married Martha Hammond, and entered into partnership with her elder brother, David. Thomas soon became one of the most active corporate lawyers in New York City, specializing in wills, trusts and equity jurisprudence. He was instrumental in convincing the state legislature to grant the Holland Land Company to sell land to aliens on the same term as native-born Americans. For many years served as a trustee of Columbia College (1817-1844), as vestryman or warden of Trinity Church (1807-1844), and delegate to several special councils of the Episcopal Church, among a host of philanthropic and public-spirited appointments.
Like his brothers before him, Gouverneur Ogden (1778-1851) graduated from Columbia (1796) and entered the legal profession. After traveling for several years in the southern and western parts of the nation working for the Federalist Party, he returned to live and work in upstate New York, and became a strong advocate of expansionist (capitalist) investment in the developing west.