The Land Business
The Land Business
A Restless People. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of America in 1803, but as late as 1812 only one out of fourteen Americans lived west of the Appalachians, and two-thirds of the population still lived within fifty miles of the Atlantic. That changed dramatically after victory in the War of 1812 removed the British and their native allies as barriers to white settlement of the West. Between 1810 and 1820 the population west of the Alleghenies doubled, and by 1840 one-third of number of people only three decades before. By 1850 almost half of the American population lived outside their state of birth. The federal government encouraged this overland migration, first by selling public land with liberal credit terms, then by reducing the required minimum acreage purchase, not to mention the six million acres worth of Western land bounties handed out to enlistees during the War of 1812. As a result of these policies land sales in the West leaped from a mere sixty-eight thousand acres in 1800 to 1.3 million acres in 1815 and more than 20 million acres in the peak year of 1836.
Farmers from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and various points south crowed the Crawfordsville, Indiana, Federal Land Office on Christmas Eve in 1824. Some had been the for weeks scouting the best farm sites or waiting for their favorite parcel to come up for auction. They read surveyor’s notes in the office, rode out into the thick forests to investigate land parcels themselves, imagined timber stands becoming cabins and profitable lumber, assessed the quality of springs and streams for drinking water and market transport, smelled the dirt to test for fertility, and maybe took a shot or two at the still-abundant wildlife. In the evenings the farmers returned to town, visited with relatives and acquaintances, drank whiskey in the local taverns, and slept on the floors of log cabins. Then it was time for the auction itself, when the government agent began selling parcels of land by their survey designations, starting with the southern tier of townships in that federal district and working his way north. By unspoken agreement settlers did not bib against each other for the same piece of land but worked out private arrangements in advance or cast lots to determine who would get to bib first. Without completion, land usually sold at the “Congress price” of $1.25 an acre on a minimum purchase of 80 acres (originally 160, and later reduced to 40), cash only
Source: Paul Wallace Gates, The Farmer’s Age: Agriculture, 1815–1860 (New York: Holt, 1960).
Speculators . As the federal government sought to sell off its vast landholdings, it attracted the attention of businessmen who had little or no intention of settling the land themselves. Chief among these were the land speculators and their agents, men who wanted to buy land cheap, hold onto it until the area grew up around them, and then sell their parcels for or five times the purchase price. Speculators were unpopular even though it was sometimes difficult to distinguish speculators from settlers, and many speculators helped the economy to grow by leasing their land to cash-poor farmers who could not have afforded to buy it outright. At one federal land auction an observer noted that if someone even looking like a speculator “makes a bid, or shows a disposition to take a settler’s claim from him, he soon sees the
white of a score of eyes snapping at him, and at the first opportunity he crawfishes out of the crowd.” But speculators did not always lose out. At the Huntsville, Alabama, land office a bidder commented on the “rapacious horde of speculators who seemed disposed to monopolize the whole country … outbidding people who attended the sale to purchase lands for settlement.” Eastern capitalists snapped up millions of acres of Western lands at sixty cents an acre by buying at a discount the land bounties of war veterans who needed the ready cash or had no desire to move. Some individual speculators owned as much as a hundred thousand acres.
Paper Cities. Speculators did not limit their purchases to farmland. Gambling on the future value of potential town sites in the West became so common that it seemed almost as much a sport as a serious business. Town promoters sought out promising locations on waterways (to give the future town access to faraway markets via steamboat), purchased blokes of unsettled land, surveyed the area, laid out a street grid, cleared a few acres, and touted the location as the next great commercial metropolis of the West. Commenting on the tendency of town promotors to boast of their community’s future, one bemused writer noted that every “miserable waste of sand and fens which lay unconscious of its glory on the shore of the lake [Michigan], was suddenly elevated into a mighty city,” and “not the puniest brook … was suffered to remain without a city at its mouth,” despite the fact that most of the spots were “suitable only for the habitation of wild beasts.” If enough unsuspecting or greedy Eastern investors believed the advertising and bought lots, or if (as sometimes happened) people actually settled there to start a town, the promoter could sit back and reap the profits from the rise in land values. When the little village of Chicago got world in the mid 1830s that it might become the terminus of a canal, lots selling for two hundred dollars were suddenly worth thousands; one Chicago lot that sold for thirty-three dollars in 1829 was offered for a hundred thousand dollars in 1836, the peak year of Western land speculation.
Conflicts. The Panic of 1837 brought the speculative land frenzy to a temporary halt, but the issue of land sales continued to agitate the political scene for the remainder of the century. Because the self-sufficient, landowning yeoman farmer was the central cultural icon of nineteenth-century America, anything that affected the disposition of land affected the nation’s idea of itself. Passionate debates arose over whether squatters (people who settled in advance of the federal survey) should be given a right of preemption (the first chance to buy the land on which they had lived for years) rather than allow some new purchaser to eject them. This seemed consistent with both the “Empire for Liberty” Jefferson had promised to America and the ideal of the yeoman farmer. Questions of land-distribution policy often made their way to the floors of Congress and were endlessly discussed in Western taverns. But when the issue of slavery’s expansion into the Western territories took center stage again in the late 1840s, the debate over what to do with the Western lands quickly became a debate over the fate of the Union itself.
William Cronon, Nature’s Chicago and the Great West (New York: Norton, 1991);
Paul Wallace Gates, The Farmer’s: Agriculture, 1815–1860 (New York: Holt, 1960);