Alien Landholding

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ALIEN LANDHOLDING. The common-law disability of aliens to inherit lands in the United States has always been removable by statute and by treaty. The Treaty of Peace, 1783, for example, overturned laws against British landholding occasioned by the American Revolution and required Congress to recommend to the state legislatures restitution of confiscated estates. Jay's Treaty went a step further by guaranteeing existing titles wherever held and treatment of British subjects with respect as equal to citizens. But the guarantee held neither for lands acquired thereafter nor for aliens other than the British. The Convention of 1800 removed the disability of alienage for French citizens in all the states. A treaty with Switzerland (1850) similarly affected Swiss citizens. In the absence of such a treaty, however, state laws applied. For example, in Kansas the disability was expressed in the state constitution. In California the state constitution authorized aliens to acquire, transmit, and inherit property equally with citizens. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld California's provision and similar ones in other states.

A number of factors, including a vast increase in European immigration, an extensive flow of British capital into the purchase of land and cattle companies in western states, and, along with this capital, establishment of Old World systems of land tenure, produced a contrary sentiment. The Nimmo Report of 1885, on range and ranch cattle traffic in the West, included a table showing the purchase by foreign companies of some 20 million acres of land, mostly in the West. Although the table somewhat exaggerated actual ownership, it did reveal how the benevolent land system had enabled English and Scottish capitalists to take over large segments of the ranch and cattle business (see Foreign Investment in the United States). Even more startling to many who worried about the way large owners of foreign capital were benefiting from American policies was the purchase by William Scully, a notorious Irish landlord, of 220,000 acres of prime agricultural land in Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri, much of which he purchased from the government at a cost of $1.25 or less an acre. Scully rented this huge acreage to twelve hundred tenants under a modification of the Irish land system, which required that the tenants make all improvements and pay both the taxes and a cash rent. These requirements kept the tenants in poverty and their improvements substandard while limiting the social amenities of the Scully districts. Leaders of the growing antimonopoly movement and others troubled about the large foreign ownerships in the Great Plains excoriated Scully and demanded legislation that would outlaw further acquisition of land by aliens. Illinois led in 1887, when it denied aliens the right to acquire land. Nine other states rapidly followed suit either by constitutional amendment or by legislation, and Congress banned further acquisition of land by aliens in the territories. Since the measures could not apply retroactively, they succeeded only in halting further expansion of alien ownership.


Dick, Everett. 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. Landlords and Tenants on the Prairie Frontier. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973.

Zaslowsky, Dyan, and T. H. Watkins. These American Lands. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1994.

Paul W.Gates/c. w.

See alsoAliens, Rights of ; California Alien Land Law ; Jay's Treaty .