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Land Grants


LAND GRANTS This entry includes 3 subentries:
Land Grants for Education
Land Grants for Railways


The public lands of the United States consisted of all the land acquired from American Indian tribes, stretching west from the trans-Appalachian region to the Pacific coast, excluding only the original thirteen states, along with Kentucky, Tennessee, Vermont, and Texas. The public domain consisted of about 1.25 billion acres of land. Its potential included some of the following natural resources: the richest farmlands in the world in what became the Corn Belt and Wheat Belt of the Midwest, and the Cotton Belt of the Lower Mississippi Valley; the California gold fields and the Nevada silver fields; the oil and gas lands of Oklahoma; the coal lands of Wyoming; the Iron Range of Minnesota; and the great forests of the Pacific Northwest. In short, the public lands of the United States represented an extraordinary patrimony for the nation. It is no exaggeration to say that the American industrial revolution of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was fueled by the enormous riches extracted in one way or another from the public lands.

A Public Trust

The public lands of the United States were (and are) a public trust of the federal government, every bit as much of a trust as the dollars in the U.S. Treasury. So the judgment of history is directed toward determining how well the federal trustees managed their trust. Consider a trustee managing a simple undeveloped parcel of land. The trustee has a number of choices about how to best execute the trust. The trustee can sell the property and try to maximize income for the trust. The trustee can develop the property to promote future revenues. Or the trustee can hold onto the real estate asset for future generations. These three choices were also the ones that the Congress of the United States faced in managing the trust of the public lands. And it exercised all three of those choices from the time that the public lands were established in 1785 through the end of the twentieth century. The focus is rightly on the Congress, for it was the legislative body that set the specific policies for public land management. The Executive Branch, including the president, the secretary of the Treasury, and after 1849, the secretary of the Interior, carried out laws passed by Congress on managing the public lands.

With the benefit of historical perspective, it is possible to see that the Congress exercised its trusteeship of the public lands in three broadly defined chronological eras that correspond with the three abstract choices of a trustee of an undeveloped real estate parcel. First, from 1785 through 1819, the Congress passed a set of public land laws that had the intent of maximizing income to the Treasury through outright sales. Second, from 1820 through about 1902, the Congress made use of the public lands for a host of development projects. Instead of selling land for cash, the Congress established a set of donation programs with the idea that recipients would use their land grants to conduct congressionally approved projects. Finally, beginning about 1900, and especially after 1933, the Congress determined that the public lands should no longer be sold outright, but rather should be held in trust for the long term.

To be sure, there was overlap in policymaking among these three separate historical eras. During the first era, between 1785 and 1820, for example, the Congress legislated the policy that one square mile out of every thirty-six-square-mile township should be dedicated to support public education. After a township was surveyed by federal land surveyors into thirty-six square-mile sections, the sixteenth section was withheld for public education. This policy was later doubled to two square miles per township held from sale or donation, sections 16 and 36 in each township. In practice, this did not mean that the little red schoolhouse was invariably located in section 16 or 36. Rather, the acreage of those sections was turned over to state officials who then became the trustees for the land. Usually, the state land commissions sold the so-called school lands for cash and then used the proceeds to build and maintain public schools.

The Nineteenth Century

The most interesting period of trusteeship was the second phase, the nineteenth-century phase, when Congress passed laws donating public lands for a wide variety of purposes. This was the era of land grants: land-grant universities; land-grant railroads; land-grant old-age pensions; and especially land-grant homesteads for farmers. These land grants were made by Congress to four types of recipients: the states; business corporations; veterans and their dependents; and farmer-settlers.

The land-grant donation from Congress to the states is the element of continuity between the first, or income-producing phase, of public lands policy history and the second phase after 1820. The congressional thinking was that the states were the proper political bodies to carry out national goals, but that the states lacked the resources. For that matter, so did the national treasury lack resources in the form of cash reserves, but the public domain provided a sort of bank account from which to fund what today we would call federal block grants to the states. At first, the form of federal land grants was limited to supporting public primary education in the new states from Ohio on west. But, in 1862, Congress extended the goal of supporting public education to the college and university level with the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act. The Congress provided the means for each state to build and support a public college that would promote agriculture. In time, these institutions became the state universities that were the pillars of American public higher education in the twentieth century. The funding idea for the Morrill Land Grant Act was simple: each state in the Union was entitled to select undeveloped public land and use that land as a trustee to support the new state agricultural college. Thus, New York, which had no public lands, was able to secure almost 3 million acres of public land from Congress with which to support the new Cornell University. It is no accident that Cornell was named in honor of the state's land agent, Ezra Cornell, who operated so successfully as a land trustee in managing the 1 million acre endowment. In most other states, the land grant college became the University, as in the University of Illinois. States that had a preexising state college or university before 1862, such as the University of South Carolina or the University of Michigan, later established a separate land-grant college specifically for agricultural education, for example respectively, Clemson University and Michigan State University. Overall, Congress granted about 90 million acres in public land grants to the states for primary and higher education.

The nineteenth-century era of congressional land grants to states also coincided with the widespread development of the corporate form of enterprise as the way that Americans conducted business. As the size and scale of corporate enterprises grew, so too did the demand for capital and financing of corporate enterprise. Private capital markets, such as the New York Stock Exchange, supported a limited number of corporate businesses, but private investors shied away from supplying capital to the biggest of projects, the long-distance transportation projects that united the different states into a single national market for production and exchange. Here was a dilemma for congressional policymakers: if they trusted the stock exchange only to underwrite the capital needs of the builders of turnpikes, canals, and railroads, then private business would only construct such projects in the more densely populated parts of the nation. In practice, this meant that transportation would follow population, and not the other way around. So starting in the 1820s, and then increasingly each decade up through 1870, Congress donated grants of public land to private entrepreneurs who pledged to construct the road, canal, or railroad, and then operate it as a private business. The congressional thinking was that land-grant support of transportation would speed the settlement of the West. Especially for railroads, Congress thought that jump-starting transportation connections would speed settlement and subsequent development. Between 1850 and 1870, Congress donated about 91 million acres to numerous private railroad companies. The results were twofold: the transcontinental railroads that linked San Francisco and Omaha, Duluth and Puget Sound, and New Orleans and Los Angeles, were built way ahead of when private enterprise would have done the task. The nation was bound together in a national transportation network and a national market in goods and services developed thereafter. The second result was that almost all the land-grant railroads were unprofitable and defaulted on their obligations and went into bankruptcy by the early 1890s. Yes, the transportation network was completed, but settlement did not occur rapidly enough to make the railways profitable as ongoing private enterprises. "Premature enterprise," as one scholar termed it, had its benefits, but also its costs.

A third type of land grant was made to American veterans of past wars as a sort of old-age pension. This particularly applied to veterans of the War of 1812 (1812– 1815) and the host of Indian wars that the United States fought between 1800 and 1860. Pensions in cash were strictly limited to those soldiers who had been wounded and disabled in battle, a relatively small number of individuals. By contrast, more than 400,000 men had done some military service in the War of 1812, and collected little for it. As the surviving War of 1812 veterans became old men in the 1840s and 1850s, they began to demand of Congress that the public lands be used as pension grants. Congress eventually agreed in a series of laws passed in 1850, 1852, and 1855. Some 60 million acres of public land were granted to more than half a million veterans of the various American wars. The old veterans got their land pension in the form of what was called a military bounty land warrant, or certificate for land. Almost invariably, the veterans sold their warrants for cash, which provided them a modest one-time pension. The sold warrants were collected by New York bankers, who in turn sold them with interest to would-be farmer-settlers in western states and territories. In effect, the private capital markets worked very efficiently to turn veterans' land warrants into both pensions for the old men and credit for young farmers.

The fourth and largest type of land grant in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the homestead grant. This was also known as a free-land donation. It, too, was passed as policy by Congress in the year 1862, the same year as the Morrill Land Grant Act. The Homestead Act provided that settlers on the public lands could have five years to live without charge on a parcel of up to a quarter-section of 160 acres (a quarter-mile in area). At the end of five years, if the settler had made improvements to the unimproved quarter-section, then the United States would pass title to the land to that settler. Today, we would call such a policy a "sweat equity" program, where the settler or dweller trades labor today on a property for eventual ownership of an improved property in the future. In America between the Civil War (1861–1865) and World War I (1914–1918), the homestead policy was an enormously popular federal program. The homestead idea combined Jeffersonian veneration for the farmer with the Lincolnian active use of the federal ownership of the public lands to speed development. Some 1.4 million settlers began homestead claims on more than almost 250 million acres of western lands, especially concentrated on the northern Great Plains in Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Montana. Despite droughts, grasshoppers, and sometimes low farm commodity prices, the majority stuck out their five years and earned farm ownership by their own hard work.

By the end of the nineteenth century, much of the arable lands of the West had passed from public ownership into private hands. Congress increasingly had to turn to public monies in the Treasury to fund its development projects rather than public lands.

The historian's judgment is that in the nineteenth century, Congress was determined to support public education, transportation development, veterans' benefits, and new farm settlement. The Treasury simply did not have enough dollars to fund these policies. But the public lands offered a way to convert a wealth in land into material support for congressional policies. So the public lands passed into private ownership by the hundreds of millions of acres between 1820 and 1900. In return, what the modern United States has to show for this spending of its national wealth in land is the establishment of a national commitment to public university education, a national transportation network, a belief that veterans should be supported in old age, and a long-term support for farming as a way of life. That is a fair legacy of trusteeship that the Congress established with its grants of land from the public domain.


Feller, Daniel. The Public Lands in Jacksonian Politics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

Fogel, Robert William. The Union Pacific Railroad: A Case in Premature Enterprise. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1960.

Gates, Paul W. The Wisconsin Pine Lands of Cornell University: A Study in Land Policy and Absentee Ownership. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1943.

———. History of Public Land Law Development. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1968.

Oberly, James W. Sixty Million Acres: American Veterans and the Public Lands before the Civil War. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1990.

Opie, John. The Law of the Land. Two Hundred Years of American Farmland Policy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

Pisani, Donald J. To Reclaim a Divided West: Water, Law, and Public Policy, 1848–1902. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.

Robbins, William G., and James C. Foster. Land in the American West: Private Claims and the Common Good. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Souder, Jon A., and Sally K. Fairfax, eds. State Trust Lands: History, Management, and Sustainable Use. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1996.


See alsoLand Policy ; Public Domain ; School Lands ; Western Lands .

Land Grants for Education

The American colonies generally followed the practice of making land grants to aid in supporting public schools. The Confederation, borrowing from the New England land system, provided in the Land Ordinance of 1785 that the sixteenth section (640 acres) of each township, or 1/36 of the acreage of the public land states, should be granted to the states for public schools. New states after 1848 were given two sections, or 1,280 acres, in each township. Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma were given four sections in each township when they entered the Union. At the same time, states were given a minimum of two townships, or 46,080 acres, to aid in founding "seminaries of learning," or state universities. Such great institutions as the Universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana benefited from these grants.

The next important step in federal aid to education came in 1862 as the result of an energetic campaign undertaken by Jonathan Baldwin Turner of Illinois, Horace Greeley through the New York Tribune, and various farm and labor journals. The Land Grant College Act, generally called the Morrill Act, was fathered in the House of Representatives by Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont. This measure gave each state 30,000 acres of public land for each representative and senator it had in Congress to aid in establishing colleges of agriculture and mechanical arts. States that had no public lands received scrip that could be exchanged for public lands available elsewhere. As a result of this act, agricultural colleges were established in every state, with two in each southern state because of the states' insistence on segregation. Special land grants were made also to endow normal schools, schools of mining, reform schools, and a women's college.

Congress was unusually generous in sharing its public lands with Alaska for education and other purposes upon its admission to the Union in 1959. In place of numerous grants for education, internal improvements, and public buildings, Congress granted a total of 103,350,000 acres to be allocated as the new state wished and promised 5 percent of its net return from all land sales in the state for school use.

This liberal distribution of public lands reflects the ever growing interest of the American people in free public education. It encouraged the states early to create schools, helping to finance them when local resources were unequal to the task. It also made it easier for those of a later generation who favored direct money grants for education by setting a constitutional precedent for the practice of granting land for schools. Altogether, Congress granted to states for public education an area much larger than California. The first public land states recklessly mismanaged their bounty, while others, such as Minnesota, managed theirs so well that they built up a large endowment for education.


Dick, Everett N. The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands from the Articles of Confederation to the New Deal. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970.

Gates, Paul W. History of Public Land Law Development. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968.

Zaslowsky, Dyan. These American Lands: Parks, Wilderness, and the Public Lands. New York: Holt, 1986; Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1994.

Paul W.Gates/c. w.

See alsoAlaska ; Education ; Morrill Act ; Ordinances of 1784, 1785, and 1787 ; Universities, State .

Land Grants for Railways

The liberality with which Congress subsidized canal construction by land grants suggested to early railroad promoters that they might also obtain land donations to aid their enterprises. Most persistent were the advocates of a central railroad for Illinois to connect the extreme northwestern and southern parts of the state. When, in 1850, boosters expanded their proposed railroad scheme into an intersectional plan by extending it to the Gulf of Mexico, Congress adopted a measure that gave Illinois, Mississippi, and Alabama a broad right-of-way for the railroad tracks through the public lands. The grant also included alternate sections in a checkerboard pattern for a distance of six miles on both sides of the road, amounting to 3,840 acres for each mile of railroad.

This generosity not only gave railroads the necessary right-of-way but also allowed railroad companies to finance construction by selling adjacent land to prospective farmers. Because the presence of a railroad increased property values, the plan gained approval, even of many strict constructionists, who noted that the government could price its reserved sections within the twelve-mile area at double the ordinary minimum of $1.25 an acre. This assured the government as much return from half of the land as it would receive for all of it without the line. Furthermore, land grants required railroads to provide free transportation for troops and supplies and to offer rate concessions for transporting mail.

Swift completion of the Illinois Central Railroad portion of the intersectional line aided in opening areas to settlement thitherto inaccessible and gave great impetus to immigration, farm and urban development, and rising real estate values in Illinois. This spectacular success produced a scramble for railroad land grants in all existing public land states. The federal government made numerous grants between 1850 and 1871, totaling, with state land grants, 176 million acres, or more than the area of Texas.

Most important and grandest in their conception were the transcontinental railways, which were to connect the Mississippi Valley with the new communities on the Pacific coast. The first of the transcontinentals to be chartered and given land grants, plus loans in 1862, were the Union Pacific, to build west from Omaha, and the Central Pacific, to build east from Sacramento. They met near Ogden, Utah, in 1869. In 1864 the Southern Pacific, the Atlantic and Pacific (a portion of which later became part of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe), and the Northern Pacific were generously endowed with land, the latter receiving 39 million acres.

All land-grant railroads undertook extensive advertising campaigns at home and abroad to attract immigrants to their lands, which the companies sold on easy credit at prevailing prices. When settlers found it difficult to meet their payments, especially in the poor years after 1873 and in the late 1880s, a chorus of complaints grew against the policies of the land-grant railroads. Critics demanded that the railroads forfeit their undeveloped and unsold lands. Reformers condemned the land grants as inconsistent with the free homestead policy and, in 1871, succeeded in halting further grants. Continued agitation over the large amount of land claimed by railroads that was not in the hands of developers led to the General Forfeiture Act of 1890, which required the return to the government of land along projected lines that had not been built. However, this measure had no effect on the grants earned by construction of the lines. When the railroads succeeded in 1940 in inducing Congress to surrender the government's right to reduced rates for government traffic, it was proposed that the railroads be required to return the unsold portion of their grants to the public domain; Congress did not so provide. Retention of these unsold lands by the railroads was a sore point with many westerners, and agitation for compelling the forfeiture of these lands continued into the twenty-first century.

Land grants encouraged capitalists to invest in railroads and enabled the lines so benefited to advance far beyond the zone of settlement. More than anything else except the free land given to homesteaders by the government, these grants contributed to the rapid settlement of the West.


Ambrose, Stephen E. Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863–1869. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Gates, Paul W. History of Public Land Law Development. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968; Washington, D.C.: Zenger, 1978.

Mercer, Lloyd J. Railroads and Land Grant Policy: A Study of Government Intervention. New York: Academic Press, 1982.

Paul W.Gates/c. w.

See alsoLand Policy ; Public Domain ; Railroads ; Transcontinental Railroad, Building of ; Western Lands .

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Politics. The English Crown had a specific interest in wealthy investors creating a colonial empire. There were a variety of strategies to entice men to settle and develop the American colonies. The Crown could grant charters for land to individuals or groups, with political rights and privileges. King James I approved a joint-stock charter for Virginia in 1607 which would later include Plymouth Colony. Investors raised capital by selling stock in a company. This strategy shared profits and distributed economic risks of overseas business ventures. The Crown approved such ventures because they used private capital rather than royal funds. In 1629 the Massachusetts Bay Company received permission for its own charter, intending more to protect its Utopian religious ideals than to secure a profit for investors. Expansion in the region resulted in individual Crown charters for Rhode Island (1644), Connecticut (1662), and New Hampshire (1681). Proprietary charters granted an individual or group of individuals outright ownership and control of large areas of land. This type of charter rewarded loyal subjects and promoted continued loyalty. The proprietor could then decide who settled the land and what terms would rule the colony. King Charles I awarded Lord Baltimore title to ten million acres in 1632, property he later named Maryland. In 1663 King Charles II awarded all of the land south of Virginia and north of Spanish territory to eight proprietors. They called the area Carolina. He then awarded the proprietary rights of New Netherland in 1664 to his brother, James, Duke of York. The Dutch originally settled New Netherland, but the English claimed the land and took it without a shot being fired. The smaller regions of Delaware and New Jersey received royal charters in 1665. Finally, William Penn received a proprietary charter for Pennsylvania in 1681 from King Charles II, who needed to settle a debt. The final form of charter was a trusteeship. In 1732 Parliament granted a charter to a group of trustees who agreed to establish Georgia as a colony that would serve as a military buffer against Spanish invasion from Florida. This protection was necessary to safeguard the lives and investments of the colonies to the north.

Headrights. Colonists who paid their own way received land from some of the colonies. Virginia awarded fifty acres and South Carolina granted fifty to one hundred acres to each person. An enterprising settler could increase a land allotment by paying the travel costs of other people, including extended family, indentured servants, and slaves. Ambitious migrants would collect and control the land allotted to their group. Margaret Brent, in the Chesapeake Bay region, took advantage of such an opportunity by sponsoring immigrants. The Dutch paid the costs of transportation of up to fifty immigrants who would agree to work the land as tenant farmers. They were obliged to pay rent in cash or with a share of the crops.

Availability. Land was relatively cheap in all the colonies in the seventeenth century. By offering land at reasonable rates, colonial governments hoped to stimulate settlement and development. The combination of cheap land and high wages in the seventeenth century meant laborers could establish themselves as independent farmers. Headrights were the first stage of land acquisition. Later, colonists could purchase varying amounts of land. Wealthy farmers could buy parcels of ten thousand acres of fertile soil in Pennsylvania. Indentured servants in the Chesapeake region in the seventeenth century could buy land cheaply at the end of their contract if they survived and did not receive land as dues for their service. Some squatters simply laid claims which were often honored once the area had been cleared and developed. New England communities divided communal land among themselves. Elite planters in New York rented rather than sold their property. By 1670 the best land in the Chesapeake was claimed, and the price of other land was going up. By the eighteenth century cheap, fertile regions lay to the west. Some colonists chose to cultivate marginal acres while others headed into the interior in search of land that would support their families.

Tenancy. Agreements to rent land for cash or a share of the crops prevailed in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. These were areas where mixed crops to be sold at market were important. This arrangement

suited immigrants who needed work and proprietors who needed settlers. Some landowners provided initial provisions, farming equipment, and livestock as an enticement. A customary practice that involved livestock was to share the increase of stock. In addition to the rental payments, some tenant farmers had to make capital improvements on the property they farmed. That could include building a house, planting an orchard, raising a fence, or cultivating the soil. This was a particularly efficient way for landowners to improve their property. Men like Stepahnus Van Cortland and Robert Livingston developed massive tracts of land in New York this way. Another form of payment, common in New York, was the provision of services such as maintaining roads or hauling wood. Tenant farmers agreed to varying terms of time, knowing their rates could go up or they could face eviction at the whim of the owner. Because tenants were subsistence farmers, they had little cash to pay their annual rent. This cycle of poverty prevented tenant farmers from improving their economic status. Their lack of money also prevented tenant farmers from changing to nonagricultural occupations or to resettling on distant frontiers. By the end of the colonial period tenants in long-settled areas of Maryland and Pennsylvania equaled nearly half of the men who did not own land. They could not climb out or move away from their economically precarious situations.

Indian Occupation. Colonial expansion occurred because of the depopulation and dislocation of Indians who occupied the territory all along the Atlantic Coast. Initial encounters were friendly as the Indians sought to engage in trade and in some cases support the immigrants in their feeble attempts at settlement. As it became clear that the settlers were interested in claiming the Indian land and not in promoting a commercial relationship, violence erupted. Opechancanough led the Chesapeake Algonquians against Virginia settlers in 1622. Battles ensued for twenty-three years before the Algonquians signed treaties relinquishing their land to the English. While intermittent skirmishes between New England settlers and Indians obstructed western expansion, English officials compelled Indians to surrender land throughout New England. Tensions increased to the point that war exploded in 1675 between the English colonists and the Wampanoags and Narragansetts. One year later, four thousand Algonquians and two thousand settlers lay dead. In 1711 Tuscaroras attacked a Swiss frontier village in North Carolina because of land encroachment. More than one thousand Tuscaroras died or were enslaved before they surrendered their land in 1713. Two years later the Yamasees attacked South Carolina settlers out of frustration over trade violations. In all of these cases settlement and expansion to the frontier were temporarily halted. Pennsylvania was the only colony to maintain peaceful relations with Indians, as a result of William Penns attempts to negotiate for inhabited lands in 1682-1683. Coercion and deceit altered that relationship between 1729 and 1735 when colonists made false claims to land they later sold to speculators. Eventually many tribes migrated further west to avoid the spreading settlement. Those Indians who remained behind became economically dependent on the settlers.


Peter A. Coclanis, The Shadow of a Dream: Economic Life and Death in the South Carolina Low Country, 1670-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989);

Wiyland F. Dunviwav, A History of Pennsylvania, second edition (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964);

Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole, eds., Colonial British America: Essays in the New History of the Early Modern Era (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984);

Sung Bok Kim, Landlord and Tenant in Colonial New York: Manorial Society, 16641775 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978);

James T. Lemon, The Best Poor Mans Country: A Geographical Study of Early Southeastern Pennsylvania (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972).

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Possession of property in outer space is an area of space law that is complex and controversial. There exists a tension between the desire to encourage scientific exploration that will benefit all humankind and the economic reality that no one wants to invest billions of dollars in a space endeavor that has to be shared with others who have not contributed financially.

Consequently, the question remains: How does one clarify who owns what in space, or, what is called in law, "property rights"? How can an infinite area be divided up? Or should it belong to everyone? If so, how are decisions to be made that involve everyone on Earth? Since the beginning of space exploration nations have been struggling with these questions.


Many countries, through the United Nations General Assembly, have entered into international agreements, international conventions, or charters, which are usually called treaties. A treaty is similar to a law in that it is officially written and is binding, but it is binding only on the states that have signed it.

The Outer Space Treaty.

The United Nations facilitated the enactment of one of the first treaties that addressed this issue, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Operating under the philosophy that "there is a close interrelationship between the prosperity of the developed countries and the growth and development of the developing countries," the treaty holds that space is the heritage of all humankind.

Land grants inherently convey the idea of private property rather than communal or public property. The concepts of community and property have developed over time within most societies. In the majority of societies, possessing land or property is thought of as a natural right that must be protected from intrusion by those who would violate it. However, outer space, which requires enormous financial outlays to even enter, falls between the notions of communal property and private property.

Often, ownership of the high seas is used as an analogy for ownership of space and planets, which are sometimes referred to as "celestial bodies." Maritime law is involved in definitions of and concerns about the utilization and conservation of resources such as fish and oil beneath the seabed. National defense is also a concern in regard to the appropriation of the high seas and outer space.

Resources in outer space could sustain Earth once a growing population has exhausted the planet's natural resources. The Outer Space Treaty addresses the goals of resource management in Article 11 (7):

  1. The orderly and safe development of the natural resources of the Moon;
  2. The rational management of these resources;
  3. The expansion of opportunities in the use of these resources;
  4. An equitable sharing by all States Parties in the benefits derived from these resources, whereby the interests and needs of those countries which have contributed either directly or indirectly to the exploration of the Moon, shall be given special consideration.

The Outer Space Treaty prohibits any single country from colonizing outer space but does allow the use of space resources.

The Moon Treaty.

The 1979 Moon Treaty forbids ownership of the natural resources found on the Moon or other celestial bodies. The purpose of this treaty is to ensure that the wealth of outer space is shared among all nations. Only seven countries have ratified this treaty. Neither the United States nor Russia has agreed with its strict guidelines and thus neither has signed the treaty.

Comparison of Outer Space and New World Land Grants

Land grants in outer space may seem as alien as the colonization of the New World to us, but some of the concerns are the same. A trip to the New World was costly and required the financial backing of a sovereign nation. Initially, the New World was seen as a source of resources for countries such as Spain and England. With colonization, different groups, such as the Puritans in New England, founded settlements that relied on a philosophy of communal property.

In colonial America an emphasis on agriculture shifted to an emphasis on more commercial endeavors, and so communal rights gave way to speculative land policies that the colonial governments endorsed. Speculators were granted large tracts of land that they then sold to emigrants who had recently come to the country. The promise of plentiful, cheap land drew groups of colonists from the Old World. A family generally owned its own farm. Land was plentiful, but laborers were lacking.

With the fishing industry came commercialization because many more fish were caught than could be consumed. The fishing industry quickly led to trade for commodities such as molasses, ginger, and sugar, which were sold in the West Indies and Europe. Therefore, it seems possible that as in the initial colonization of the New World, where the backing of countries with large financial resources and a vested interest in lining their coffers with newfound riches derived from resource acquisition, space exploration may require incentives for financial investment.

The history of the western expansion of the United States may parallel the promise of space exploration. During the western expansion speculators were able to purchase for practically nothing vast expanses of land that they soon resold to settlers. But acquisition of a land title was often a dispensable technicality for those too poor to purchase one, or who were not inclined to do so because of the vastness of the land.

Only in the future will it be possible to discover what strategies for granting land ownership in outer space to individuals or groups representing private or national interests will best benefit humankind. Perhaps, as in with the move to the New World, the emphasis will shift from communal property interests to private interests. There is some evidence that the pendulum is swinging in that direction. Space is no longer the exclusive preserve of government programs. Commercial companies launch and operate communications satellites, and other commercial ventures will follow.

see also Governance (volume 4); Law (volume 4); Law of Space (volume 1); Property Rights (volume 4).

Nadine M. Jacobson


Fawcett, J. E. S. Outer Space: New Challenges to Law and Policy. Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1984.

Hicks, John D., and George E. Mowry. A Short History of American Democracy. Boston:Houghton Mifflin, 1956.

Larkin, Paschal. Property in the Eighteenth Century with Special Reference to England and Locke. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1969.

Reynolds, Glenn H., and Robert P. Merges. Outer Space: Problems of Law and Policy. San Francisco: Westview Press, 1989.

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Land Patents


LAND PATENTS. In English colonial America, the Crown made large grants of territory to individuals and companies. In turn, royal colonial governors later made smaller grants of land that were based on actual surveys of the land. Thus, in colonial America on the Atlantic seaboard, a connection was made between the surveying of a land tract and its "patenting" as private property.

After the American Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution, the Treasury Department was placed in charge of managing the public lands of the new nation. Public lands came to cover all the territory of the nation except the original thirteen states plus Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas. The Treasury Department, and after 1812, the General Land Office, called the granting of title to a buyer of public land a "patent," so the name continued, even after the end of British rule.

The General Land Office issued more than 2 million patents that passed title to individual parcels of public land. Some patentees bought their land for cash, others homesteaded a claim, and still others came into ownership via one of the many donation acts that Congress passed to transfer public lands to private ownership. Whatever the method, the General Land Office followed a two-step procedure in granting a patent. First, the private claimant went to the land office in the land district where the parcel was located. The claimant filled out "entry" papers to select the parcel, and the land office register (clerk) checked the local books to make sure the parcel was still available. The receiver (bursar) took the claimant's payment, because even homesteaders had to pay administrative fees. Next, the district land office register and receiver sent the paperwork to the General Land Office in Washington. That office double-checked the accuracy of the claim, its availability, and the form of payment. Only then did the General Land Office issue a patent, or title, to the land parcel.

Today some American families, and many more libraries, have land patents from the nineteenth century. They are large parchment documents that bear the signature of the commissioner of the General Land Office and of the president of the United States. Alas, for those possessing an "A. Lincoln" signature on their land patent, it was not actually signed by the Great Emancipator, but rather by a clerk in the General Land Office. The Bureau of Land Management (successor agency to the General Land Office) has an online archive of 2 million patents, containing both the legal descriptions of the parcels and digitized images of the actual patents.


Land Patents of the General Land Office. Available from

Rohrbough, Malcolm J. The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789–1837. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.


See alsoHomestead Movement ; Land Claims ; Land Companies ; Land Office, U.S. General and Bureau Plans Management .

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Land Grant


A conveyance of public property to a subordinate government or corporation; amuniment of titleissued by a state or government for the donation of some part of the public domain.

A land grant, also known as land patent, was made by the U.S. government in 1862, upon its grant to the several states of 30,000 acres of land for each of its senators and representatives serving in Congress. The lands were subsequently sold by the states and, through the proceeds, colleges were established and maintained. Such colleges, which are devoted mainly to teaching agricultural subjects and engineering, are known as land grant colleges.

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