Land Law and Land Speculation Over the Appalachians

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Land Law and Land Speculation Over the Appalachians


Dividing Up the West. American colonists moved into the land west of the Appalachian Mountains in the eighteenth century. After achieving independence in 1783, Americans crossed these mountains in greater numbers. The Land Ordinance of 1785 made the process of Western land ownership easier. Federal surveyors divided the land into six-mile-square townships, which were further sorted into 36 sections of 640 acres each. These sections, in turn, could be further subdivided into 320-, 160-, 80-, and 40-acre units. The end result was the partitioning of large sections of the Trans-Appalachian West into neat squares. Dividing land into orderly squares facilitated sales and, later, ownership. However, the system ignored the topography of the land. As a result some farmers were stuck with uplands without access to waterways. Further, because the surveyed lines ignored the contours of western watersheds, erosion led to land degradation in some parts of the country.

Government Support. Yet however ill-suited to the terrain, the arrangement of the land into sections nonetheless promoted American expansion in the West. Three conflicting groups determined the distribution of Western land: the newly created federal government, farmers, and land speculators. The federal governments goal was straightforward: sell public lands to provide funds to finance the national debt. Of course, government officials also saw the benefit of peopling the West with citizens loyal to the new republic.

Yeoman Farmers. Independent farmers and their supporters comprised the second group. While hoping to make a living, some farmers also believed, along with Thomas Jefferson, that a republic could survive only if it were composed of virtuous farmers; but farmers could not easily move West on their own. They needed new lands to be acquired, explored, and surveyed by the government. Jefferson thought the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 would solve any problems of land shortage. American explorers, starting with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1804, investigated the new lands of the Far West. Federal surveyors slowly moved west from the Appalachian Mountains (sometimes at a pace slower than settlers), but even this was not enough. For farmers to thrive as virtuous Americans, the land had to be available and cheap so that they, not land speculators, received the best, most productive lands. Arguing that they were the bedrock of the new nation, small farmers repeatedly fought for new legislation to support their move westward.

Land Speculation. Businessmen who participated in one of Americas oldest activitiesland speculationmade up the third group. The 1785 Ordinance benefited these men more than the federal government or the small farmer. The government sold some land in huge blocks at small prices to large speculators. Federal officials sold other lands at public auctions in 640-acre sections for a minimum of one dollar per acre. Accumulating at least $640 (and the bids could go higher) was beyond the means of most farmers. As a result less-prosperous farmers often had to purchase land from wealthy speculators.

Changes in the Land Laws. The perpetual conflict between farmer, government, and speculator became a fundamental feature of western settlement. The federal government, for its part, was inconsistent. Wooed by speculators on the one hand and pressured by farmers (who were gaining a stronger voice in the nineteenth century) on the other, Congress revised the land laws time and time again. Gradually the federal government sold land in smaller blocks: from 640 acres in 1785 to 320 in 1800, 160 in 1804, and 80 acres in 1820. The price per acre for public land fluctuated: from $1 in 1785, $2 in 1796, $1.25 in 1820, and a variable rate (from $1.25 to 12.5¢ an acre) in 1854. Recognizing that many farmers lacked sufficient capital to purchase even small tracts, the federal government offered credit to buyers in 1796. The policy (canceled in 1820) was ostensibly created to encourage investment by actual farmers, but it tended to benefit land speculators instead.

Squatters. Settlers without a title to their land (called squatters) constituted another source of conflict in the West. A farmer who found a desired piece of land became a squatter by clearing and planting it with the hope of one day purchasing the acres he had improved. However, when the cleared lands went up for auction, a speculator could out-bid the squatter, gain control of the small farm, and later sell it for a profit. Profiting from the toil of ones fellow citizens was anathema to those who thought that virtue sprang from working the land. It was not until 1841, with the passing of the Preemption Act, that the squatter was able to be the sole purchaser (for $1.25 an acre) of 160 acres of his improved land. Theoretically, the small farmer benefited even more when in 1862 Congress passed the Homestead Act. A citizen, or an individual who planned to become one, was then able to acquire 160 acres of public land for virtually no costpaying only a small filing fee. Although many small farmers in the West benefited from this policy, Americans frequently, sometimes flagrantly, abused the Homestead Act.

Thomas Jefferson on Farmers

The expansion of the United States over the Appalachian Mountains raised questions about who should benefit from the new lands. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and later president of the United States, believed that the country, including the West, should be composed primarily of independent yeomen farmers. Although his vision never became a reality, he nonetheless offered perhaps the most eloquent defense of American farming. Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example.

Source: Thomas Jefferson, Manufactures, in Notes on the State of Virginia, edited by William Penden (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), pp. 164165.

A Mixed Legacy. It would be a mistake to make rigid distinctions between the small farmer (whether squatter or landowner), the speculator, and the government in the West. Congressmen often purchased large sections of

land to be sold; in fact, some of the founding fathers actively speculated in land. Further, many farmers came to the West with an eye to future land sales. Some squatters moved in, improved and claimed a small area, and then sold it to another person before it was even officially available for sale. Other farmers bought a parcel, accumulated the adjacent acreage, and then sold all or parts of the large holding to incoming settlers. These small-time speculators either stayed in the area or moved on and repeated the process elsewhere. As the historian Paul Gates reminds us, financiers living in the East profited most by American land policies. Although these big-time speculators sometimes got stung by a bad purchase or a depression, they were also able to obtain larger sections and lend money to land-hungry farmers at high interest rates. Conflicting goals and the quest for wealth prevented a fair distribution of public land in the United States.


Paul Gates, The Jeffersonian Dream: Studies in the History of American Land Policy and Development, edited by Allan G. and Margaret Beattie Bogue (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996);

Howard R. Lamar, ed., The Readers Encyclopedia of the American West (New York: Crowell, 1977);

Elliot West, American Frontier, in The Oxford History of the American West, edited by Clyde Milner and others (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 115149.

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Land Law and Land Speculation Over the Appalachians

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