Land Policies

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During the early history of the United States, land and the policies governing its distribution, disposition, and transferal from public to private ownership were of great national interest. Land policies were crucial to a range of nationdefining issues including federal Indian policy, westward expansion and settlements, the spread of democracy, and the development of a strong national agricultural economy. Geographically, they imposed a rational order upon the land, most notably in the form of a grid-pattern, geometric landscape that was devised by politicians, marked and drawn by surveyors, and domesticated by the western farm people.

state claims to western lands

The 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended America's Revolutionary War left unresolved the matter of state claims to western lands north and south of the Ohio River that stemmed from old royal charters. Considering the political advantages afforded to larger states, smaller states without western land claims, such as Maryland, held out and refused to ratify the Articles of Confederation until states gave up their western lands. When Virginia, the largest state, gave up its claims in 1784, others followed. By 1786 all state claims to Old Northwest lands had been ceded to the federal government in return for the creation of a vast public domain that encompassed more than 230 million acres. This public domain represented both a veritable windfall of untapped land revenues for a cash-strapped fledgling government and a seemingly boundless western space for a land- and agriculturally minded nation to grow. Additional land cessions followed: North Carolina in 1790 and Georgia in 1802.

Although states ceded their rights to western lands, other claims and contingencies on the public domain existed for the government to handle. Numerous states retained a considerable amount of lands for their own disposal, whereas Virginia and Connecticut held on to "reserves" so as to meet their obligations to holders of military bounty land warrants issued to Revolutionary War soldiers. Far more complicated and vexing to the government was the process of confirming private claims to land granted to settlers by prior French, Spanish, and English authorities. More important with respect to land policy, however, was the government's active and aggressive securing of land cessions and the extinguishing of tribal claims from Native Americans, whether through warfare, deception, or treaties. From the beginning land policy was predicated on the dispossession of the native peoples.

the emergence of land policies

Given the unique American circumstances, early government land policies reflected the tentative, innovative, and idealistic nature of the new Republic, and some practices persisted and became distinctive features of U.S. land policy. A national land disposal policy emerged in 1784–1785 only after lively congressional debates had taken place over such fundamental issues as whether Virginia's system of indiscriminate location with surveys following was more expedient than New England's orderly course of surveying and sectioning townships prior to land sales, along with reserving lots for churches and schools. The latter won out (minus the church lots) and formed the basis of the Land Ordinance of 1785. It bore a significant measure of Thomas Jefferson's influence and his interest in surveying. Among the stipulations was that Indian titles must be extinguished before surveys were done; herein also were the beginning stages of an administrative process of record-keeping to legitimate and safeguard land transactions.

The survey was important for a number of reasons. Besides the appearance of security, familiarity, and a simple grid pattern, the rectangular survey was an exercise in rationality. The land ordinance specified that a presidentially appointed geographer, in this instance Thomas Hutchins, would oversee a corps of surveyors and chain carriers whose job was to mark off the land, by way of recorded descriptions and actual markings on trees, into townships that were six miles square and then into sections of 640 acres each. These were numbered from south to north beginning in the southeastern corner. After seven ranges of townships had been surveyed, the geographer would convey a scaled diagram of this tract, called a plat, to the Board of the Treasury in advance of a public sale minus reserves for public schools (sixteen in each township) and military bounty lands.

The Seven Ranges represented the first of these organized surveys and was inaugurated where the Ohio River crosses into Ohio from Pennsylvania. This method, however, proved slow and costly, especially in the opinion of Congress, which noted that by February 1787 only four ranges had been completed. That fall, Congress acted at variance with the Land Ordinance and auctioned off the four completed ranges at one dollar per acre with disappointingly low sales. Although the land parcels and price failed to attract the average yeoman farmer, speculators and land companies, including the Ohio Company, the Scioto Company, and John Cleves Symmes, received Congress's blessing for one-million-acre purchases in the hopes that they would generate federal revenue and encourage settlement. With organized settlement Congress sought to diminish the chronic appearance of squatters on the public domain who it believed were robbing the federal Treasury of land revenue and whose illegal settlement also precipitated Indian hostilities. Nevertheless, as land historian Paul Gates observed, squatters' persistence on the landscape influenced land policy by constantly bringing the matter of preemption (a squatter's "right" to first consideration in gaining title to land he and his family have worked by being allowed to circumvent competitive bidding for it at the public auction) to Congress's attention such that it was finally sanctioned by law in 1841. Altogether, as fellow land historian Malcolm Rohrbough contends, the Land Ordinance fostered a break from the Old World's feudalistic landholding patterns by instituting a large-scale, democratic system of land ownership in the new American Republic.

the northwest ordinance

The question of how the public domain would yield politically functioning territories and ultimately add new states to the Union was answered by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Integral to U.S. land policy, this ordinance of governance was considered vital to the success of speculative land company enterprises such as the Ohio Company. Moreover, it provided for the creation of three to five territories northwest of the Ohio River, from which the present-day states Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin would emerge. Concurrent with national expansionist objectives, the land area comprising the public domain expanded with the federal acquisition of additional territories, including the Louisiana Purchase (1803), Florida (1819), Texas (1845), Oregon (1846), and the Mexican cession (1848).

Land disposal policies underwent constant revision in the quest to generate more federal revenue to apply against the national debt. Added incentive came through a series of Indian land cession treaties that followed hostilities and afforded the opening up of more land for sale and settlement, including the 1795 Treaty of Greenville. At this point, Pennsylvania Democratic congressman Albert Gallatin took a leading role in reformulating what would become the Land Act of 1796. Policymakers debated whether it was more profitable to tailor prospective land sales to settlers or to speculative groups, who would then presumably sell to those settlers; the terms of sale reflected the most substantive policy reform. The minimum purchase size remained at 640-acre tracts, although the minimum price was raised from one to two dollars per acre. Modest credit was now extended so that a purchaser could put down one-twentieth of the price, one-half within thirty days, and the rest within one year. However, this translated to $1,280, a considerable amount for the average settler. Cash purchases were discounted by 10 percent, but this was still out of reach for many. Additionally, the act called for more detailed surveys, and it made the receipt of land sales monies the responsibility of the new secretary of the treasury, Oliver Wolcott. Although western settlers benefited from the designation of two convenient points of sale (Pittsburgh and Cincinnati), overall sales were low and the act failed to achieve anything close to revenue objectives.

evolution of land policies

Almost immediately Congress recognized the need to liberalize its land policies in order to compete for sales against the major land companies in Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania as well as with large investors. Many of the private landholders had acquired military bounty lands so cheaply that they offered settlers many more advantages than the government could: the best prices, smaller lots, longer credit, payment in produce and livestock, local agents, as well as developing tracts that encompassed towns, roads, and improvements. Ohio Territorial delegate William Henry Harrison was keenly aware of these circumstances and figured prominently in the drafting of what became the Harrison Land Act of 1800. This act finally facilitated increased revenues, largely because it met the needs of western settlers by reducing the minimum purchase tract to 320 acres, creating four western land office districts (Marietta, Cincinnati, Chillicothe, and Jeffersonville), and by extending favorable credit terms to meet the retained minimum two-dollar-per-acre price. The terms allowed the purchaser to pay in fourths: one-fourth of the price within forty days, another within two years, another within three years, and the final fourth within four years. The unpaid balance incurred 6 percent interest. If the tract was not fully paid within five years, it was subject to forfeiture. However, pleas from delinquent purchasers led Congress to suspend this clause and pass numerous relief measures that granted additional time during the next two decades.

By 1820 the West was taking shape in the form of spreading land offices north and south of the Ohio River as well as in the admission of new states to the Union—from Ohio (1803) to Illinois (1818) on the one hand, and Mississippi (1817) to Alabama (1819) on the other. The General Land Office was established in 1811. Yet the experiment with credit sales had a ruinous effect on the economy as evidenced by the Panic of 1819, a time when western land buyers owed the government more than $24 million. Through the Land Act of 1820, Congress abolished credit sales, mandating that land must now be paid in full with cash on the day of purchase, although the minimum price was reduced to $1.25 per acre and the tract size to eighty acres. Predictably, land sales plummeted to nothing; the government, on the other hand, succeeded in reducing the land sales debt to just over $6 million by 1825. This act seriously hurt western pioneers—as much by denying them much-needed credit as by not incorporating preemption, which at least would have given them some means of acquiring a farmstead without credit. One consequence was a greater visibility of squatters' claims clubs in places such as Iowa during the 1830s. These clubs operated as self-protection associations to prevent competitive bidding by speculators against farmers' interests at public auctions.

Despite the hardship to settlers caused by ending credit land purchases and insisting on cash, Congress recognized that it had a revenue interest in reforming land policies to further the transfer of as much of the public land into private ownership as possible. The graduation of land prices represented one of these reforms. Between 1820 and 1854 the issue consistently appeared before Congress, usually at the urging of its chief proponent, Missouri Democratic senator Thomas Hart Benton. The Graduation Act, passed in 1854, addressed the problem of undesirable lands that stayed unsold because the government minimum prices were too high, leaving potentially workable land unimproved and untaxed. As a result of the act, the price of public land that had been on the market for ten years, with some exceptions, would be reduced to graduated levels. For example, the price for land that had been unsold for ten to fifteen years would now be valued at one dollar per acre, and valued even lower, at seventy-five cents per acre, if unsold for fifteen to twenty years. Policymakers hoped that by imposing a 320-acre limitation on the purchase size, broad speculation of these lands would be difficult. According to Gates, however, the act prompted substantial abuses and runs on land. Less than a decade after the Graduation Act, Congress passed its most liberal, ambitious, and optimistic land reform in the Homestead Act of 1862, a pivotal policy that would define America to many and encourage land-hungry immigrants to flock to the United States. Prospective farmers could enter 80- or 160-acre tracts at the nearest land office, pay nothing more than the ten-dollar filing fee and the four-dollar commissions, and take five years to "prove up," after which the land belonged to them.

land as national symbol

From the beginning, Americans invested complex national meanings in the public domain. Although flawed and constantly revised, early American land policies simultaneously generated revenue and provided a means to gain access to the soil for the predominant agricultural populace as well as for the land entrepreneurs. They were also inherently bound up with national expansionist goals and Native American dispossession. Equally important were the seeds of republican ideals, which were transplanted and widely spread as the public domain was progressively marked, surveyed, sectioned off, and sold. As townships were laid out, the lot reserved for education aimed to ensure—with poor results in this period—that the new American Republic would contain an educated populace, while the Northwest Ordinance stipulated that the West would be fashioned after republican principles of governance. Americans' beliefs in "progress" and in the benefits of a market economy were evident in land policy as well, particularly in the area of land grants to states for internal improvements in roads and canals—which also served to raise land values. Indeed, railroads were given grants totaling 127 million acres. Land policies, then, embodied the broad aspirations of an ambitious early American Republic.

See alsoExpansion; Frontier; Land Speculation; Northwest and Southwest Ordinances; Surveyors and Surveying; Trails to the West; West .


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. History of Public Land Law Development. Washington, D.C.: Zenger Publishing, 1978.

Johnson, Hildegard B. Order upon the Land: The U.S. Rectangular Land Survey and the Upper Mississippi Country. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

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

Robbins, Roy M. Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776–1970, 2nd ed., rev. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976.

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

Ginette Aley