Land Office, U.S. General and Bureau Plans Management

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LAND OFFICE, U.S. GENERAL AND BUREAU PLANS MANAGEMENT. In 1812 the U.S. General Land Office came into existence as a bureau in the Treasury Department intended to manage the public lands of the United States. The increasing burdens of the secretary of the Treasury, who had to provide for surveying western lands, adjudicating the conflicting private land claims arising from the policies of previous foreign governments, and settling conflicting land claims arising from poorly drafted legislation, brought about the creation of the office of commissioner of the General Land Office. The commissioner's responsibility for more than a billion acres of land and for the patenting of tracts to hundreds of thousands of buyers made him a powerful political figure and made the Land Office one of the largest and most important of federal bureaus. The Land Office issued patents, settled contested claims, and drafted instructions amplifying upon, and clarifying, the public acts.

Able and honest administrators, including John Wilson, Joseph Wilson, and William A. J. Sparks, made no-table records, but weaker men tolerated inefficiency and corruption. Despite complaints from the West and from Congress, the office received little attention. As revenue from the public land became increasingly less important, the office seemed less related to the Treasury Department. In 1849 it moved to the newly created Department of the Interior, where it worked with the Office of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Patents, the Bureau of Pensions, and the Office of Agricultural Statistics. Under the Department of Interior, it made detailed reports on minerals, agricultural possibilities, and forests of the West, which constitute a major source for historians of that section.

Consonant with a change in the attitude of Congress, the General Land Office became increasingly settler-minded until the Homestead Act of 1862 provided free lands. No bureaucrats like having their responsibilities and staff reduced. Consequently, when the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 withdrew from entry large timbered areas of the public lands for conservation and public management, which they had never had, the commissioner of the General Land Office was not happy. Yet these reservations remained under his control until 1905, when they transferred to the National Forest Service under Gifford Pinchot in the Department of Agriculture.

In 1916, by the forfeiture of the land grant of the Oregon and California Railroad for failure to conform to the provisions of the granting act, 2,891,000 acres of richly endowed Douglas fir land in Oregon returned to the Department of the Interior, which enabled it to begin its own forestry development policies. After Harold Ickes became secretary of the interior in 1933, the department became ardently conservationist in administering the grazing districts created under the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 and the Oregon and California Railroad lands. By 1947 the land disposal responsibilities of the General Land Office, which had been chiefly concerned with transferring public lands into private ownership rather than with conserving them in public ownership, were largely over. Its activities transferred to the new Bureau of Land Management. Thereafter, the bureau administered the remaining public lands, the 140 million acres in grazing districts, the Oregon and California Railroad forest lands, and the leasing and sale of mineral rights. The bureau's aims are to protect the public lands from thoughtless exploiters and to develop and preserve the lands for economic use, recreation, wildlife, and scenic beauty.


Clarke, Jeanne Nienaber. Roosevelt's Warrior: Harold L. Ickes and the New Deal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

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

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

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

Paul W.Gates/a. e.

See alsoConservation ; Interior, Department of the ; Public Domain ; Public Land Commissions ; West, American .

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Land Office, U.S. General and Bureau Plans Management

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