Land Scrip

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LAND SCRIP and land warrants were certificates from the Land Office granting people private ownership of certain portions of public lands. Congress authorized issues of scrip—some directly, others only after trial of claims before special commissions or the courts. It also placed restrictions on the use of certain kinds of scrip, making them less valuable than scrip with no limitations. Scrip was used primarily to reward veterans, to give land allotments to children of intermarried Native Americans, to make possible exchanges of private land for public, to indemnify people who lost valid land claims through General Land Office errors, and to subsidize agricultural colleges.

The greatest volume of scrip or warrants was given to soldiers of the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and, in 1855, to veterans of all wars who had not previously received a land bounty or who had received less than 160 acres. Warrants of the first two wars were for land located in military tracts set aside for that purpose; those of the Mexican-American War allowed entry to any surveyed public land open to purchase at $1.25 an acre. A total of 68,300,652 acres was thus conveyed to 426,879 veterans, their heirs, or their assignees.

Treaties with the Choctaw (1830) and Chickasaw (1832) Indians of Mississippi and Alabama allocated several million acres in individual allotments and land scrip, all of which became the object of speculation by whites and fell into the hands of powerful white traders and a number of prominent political leaders. For the next thirty years, treaties with Indian tribes were almost impossible to negotiate without the inclusion of similar provisions for allotments and scrip, so powerful were the traders in those negotiations. Three issues of scrip to two bands of Chippewas and Sioux in the 1850s and 1860s, totaling 395,000 acres, similarly fell into the hands of speculators, who used it to acquire valuable timberland in Minnesota and California that they would otherwise have been unable to acquire legally.

In the Morrill Act of 1862, Congress granted each state 30,000 acres for each member it had in the House and Senate to aid in the establishment of agricultural and mechanical arts colleges. Land was given to states containing public domain; states with no public lands were given scrip that they had to sell to third parties to enter land in public domain states. As with military warrants, the scrip—totaling 7,700,000 acres—fell well below the basic price of public lands, thereby reducing the cost of that land to settlers and speculators and minimizing the endowment of colleges.

The next major scrip measure was the Soldiers' and Sailors' Additional Homestead Act of 1872, which allowed veterans of the Civil War to count their military service toward the five years required to gain title to a free homestead. It also authorized those homesteading on less than 160 acres to bring their total holdings to 160 acres. The government-issued scrip was greatly in demand as it could be used to enter the $2.50-an-acre reserved land within the railroad land grant areas and to acquire valuable timberland not otherwise open to purchase. In 1877, scrip owners were using it to enter recently ceded Mille Lac Indian lands in Minnesota, worth from $10 to $30 an acre.

Other measures were enacted to indemnify holders of public-land claims that were confirmed long after the land had been patented to settlers. Claimants were provided with scrip equivalent to the loss they sustained. Indemnity scrip for some 1,265,000 acres was issued, most of which was subject to entry only on surveyed land open to purchase at $1.25 an acre. The chief exceptions were the famous Valentine scrip for 13,316 acres and the Porterfield scrip for 6,133 acres, which could be used to enter unoccupied, unappropriated, nonmineral land, whether surveyed or not. These rare and valuable forms of scrip could be used to acquire town and bridge sites, islands, tracts adjacent to booming cities such as Las Vegas, or water holes controlling the use of large acreages of rangelands. Their value reached $75 to $100 an acre in 1888.

Least defensible of all the scrip measures were the carelessly drawn Forest Management Act of 1897 and the Mount Rainier Act of 1899, which allowed land owners within the national forests and Mount Rainier National Park to exchange their lands for public lands elsewhere. Under these provisions it was possible for railroads to cut the timber on their national holdings, then surrender the cutover lands for "lieu scrip" that allowed them to enter the best forest lands in the public domain. It was charged that some national forests, and possibly Mount Rainier National Park, were created to enable inside owners to rid themselves of their less desirable lands inside for high stumpage areas outside. The Weyerhaeuser Company acquired some of its richest stands of timber with Mount Rainier scrip. After much criticism, the exchange feature was ended in 1905.

As public lands rapidly diminished and the demand for land ownership intensified, values of scattered undeveloped land increased. This was accompanied by the increase in value of the various forms of scrip, without which it was impossible to acquire these tracts, because public land sales were halted in 1889. Peak prices of the nineteenth century seemed small in the twentieth century, when speculators bid up quotations to $500, $1,000, and even $4,000 an acre. By 1966 administrative relaxation had wiped out some distinctions between types of scrip; Valentine, Porterfield, and "Sioux Half-Breed" scrip were all accepted for land with an appraised value of $1,386 an acre, and Soldiers' and Sailors' Additional Homestead and Forest Management lieu scrip could be exchanged for land with a value from $275 to $385 an acre. At that time, 3,655 acres of the most valuable scrip and 7,259 acres of that with more limitations on use were outstanding.


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

———. The Jeffersonian Dream: Studies in the History of American Land Policy and Development. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

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

Paul W.Gates/a. r.

See alsoIndian Intermarriage ; Indian Land Cessions ; Land Bounties ; Land Grants: Land Grants for Education ; Land Policy ; Land Speculation ; Lumber Industry ; Public Domain .