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PUBLIC DOMAIN. The public domain differs from national domain and acquired land. National domain arises from political jurisdiction while the federal government either buys acquired land or receives it as gifts for national parks, monuments, forests, wildlife refuges, post-office sites, and other such purposes. Cessions of their western land claims by Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, seven of the original thirteen states, created the first portion of the public domain or public land. These seven states retained the ungranted land within their present boundaries as did the other original states and Maine, Vermont, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas. Between 1802 and 1867, huge additions to the national domain and the public domain occurred through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Florida Purchase in 1819, the annexation of Texas in 1845 and the Texas cession of 1850, the division of the Oregon country in 1846, the huge purchase from Mexico in 1848, the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, the purchase of Alaska in 1867, and the annexation of Hawaii in 1898 (see Table 1).

From the outset, there were two views concerning the policy that should govern the disposal of the public lands. The first, sponsored by Alexander Hamilton, was that the government's need of money to retire its Revolutionary War debt and to meet its expenses required it to pledge the public domain for the payment of that debt and to extract from it the greatest possible income. The other view, held by Thomas Jefferson, was that farmerowners with a stake in the land made the most responsible citizens and that they should have easy access to the public lands at little cost. Hamilton's view prevailed for a time, and Jefferson, who yielded to necessity, reluctantly accepted it. The basic established price varied from $1.00 to $2.00 per acre until 1820, when credit was abolished and the minimum price became $1.25 per acre. This may not have been a high price to the investors Hamilton hoped would purchase large tracts of land, but to frontier settlers lacking capital or credit, it was more than they could raise. Their solution was to squat on public land, improve it, and try to raise a crop or two to make their payments before the government discovered their trespass. Squatters wanted protection against speculators who might try to buy their somewhat improved tracts. Squatters protected themselves through claim associations, which provided mutual assistance to all members. Nonetheless, the squatters also wanted the legal recognition of their right of preemption; that is, a prior right to purchase their claim before auction at the minimum price, without having to bid against speculators. They won a number of special preemption acts and in 1841 sustained a major victory with the adoption of the Distribution-Preemption Act, which permitted persons to settle anywhere on surveyed land in advance of its official opening; to improve the land; and, when the auction was announced, to purchase up to 160 acres at the minimum price of $1.25 an acre. Squatterism had thus prevailed, and a major breach in the revenue policy occurred.

Table 1

Summary of Accessions of the United States
* Between 40 million and 50 million acres included in the public domain
were in private claims of land granted by Great Britain, France, Spain,
and Mexico, which when proved valid were patented and were not
subject to disposal by the United States.
Area conceded by Great Britain in 1783
and by the Convention of 1818 (Lake
of the Woods boundary)
Cessions of seven states to the United
Louisiana Purchase (1803)523,446,400523,446,400*
Florida Purchase (1819)43,342,72043,342,720*
Red River Basin (Webster-Ashburton
Treaty, 1842)
Annexation of Texas (1845)247,050,480 
Oregon Compromise (1846)180,644,480180,644,480
Treaty With Mexico (1848)334,479,360334,479,360*
Purchase From Texas (1850) 78,842,880
Gadsden Purchase (1853)18,961,92018,961,920*
Alaska Purchase (1867)365,481,600365,481,600
Hawaiian Annexation (1898)3,110,820 

In 1854 the Graduation Act provided a further breach by reducing the price of land that had been on the market for ten or more years in proportion to the length of time it had been subject to sale. In 1862 the West gained its major triumph in the Homestead Act, which made public lands free to settlers who would live on and improve tracts of up to 160 acres for five years. Unfortunately, a substantial portion of the best arable lands had already been alienated through sale to speculators, grants to states, and direct grants to corporations to aid in the construction of canals and railroads. These new owners sold all this land for the market price, which was beyond the reach of many pioneer settlers.

Individual speculators and land companies invested heavily in land during boom periods, 1816–1819, 1833–1837, and 1853–1857. By anticipating settlers, investors, as well as land grant railroads and states, raised the cost of farmmaking; dispersed population widely on the frontier; delayed the introduction of roads, churches, and transportation facilities; contributed to the early appearance of tenancy; aggravated relations with the Indians; and in some regions, were responsible for the development of rural slums. On the other hand, they provided credit to hard-pressed pioneers, aided in bringing settlers to the West through their advertising and promotional works, and introduced improved farming techniques that by example contributed to better agricultural practices. At the time, public attention centered on the damaging effects of intrusions by speculators and led to demands for the limitation in the sale of public land and the halt to further grants to railroads. After the adoption of the Homestead Act, little newly surveyed land became available for unlimited purchase although unsold land that had been offered previously continued to be subject to unrestricted entry.

Farmers in the High Plains west of the ninety-ninth meridian, where the annual rainfall was less than 20 inches and where a portion of the land had to be left fallow each year, needed more than 160 or even 320 acres for the extensive cultivation that was necessary. Congress met this difficulty by increasing the quantity that farmmakers could acquire by enacting the Timber Culture Act of 1873, the Desert Land Act of 1877, and the Timber and Stone Act of 1878. Combined with the Preemption and Homestead acts, these measures permitted individuals to acquire up to 1,120 acres in the semiarid High Plains and in the intermountain and desert regions. Like all poorly drafted land legislation, the acts became subject to gross abuse by grasping persons anxious to engross as much land as possible through the use of dummy entry people and roving, uprooted people willing to serve their ends.

Growing criticism of the abuse of the settlement laws and the laxity of the land administration led in 1889–1891 to the adoption of a series of measures to restrict total acquisition of public lands under all laws to 320 acres, to halt all purchases of potential agricultural lands other than those specifically intended for farmmaking, and to eliminate or insert additional safeguards in acts most subject to abuse.

Notwithstanding the extensive abuse of the land system and its incongruous features that somewhat minimized the effectiveness of the measures designed to aid homesteaders in becoming farm owners, the public land states enjoyed a remarkable growth rate. In the 1850s, the first decade for which there are statistics, 401,000 new farms sprang up in the public land states. Thereafter, the number grew even more rapidly. By 1890 settlers had established an additional 2 million farms in the public land states. Never before had so many farmers subjected such a large area to cultivation.

The censuses of 1880 and 1890, giving alarming figures of mortgage debt outstanding on farms and the high proportion of farms that were tenant-operated, combined with the growing feeling that soils, minerals, and forests were being wastefully used, turned people's thoughts to further reform in land management and to conservation. Instead of a policy of transferring all public lands to individuals, railroads, and states as rapidly as possible, Congress determined to retain a portion of the land in public ownership. To this end, an amendment to the General Revision Act of 1891 authorized the president to withdraw from public entry forest lands on which organized management policies could be introduced. Under President Theodore Roosevelt's leadership, gross withdrawals reached nearly 160 million acres.

Next in the planned use of the natural resources by government was the Reclamation Act (Newlands Act) of 1902, which provided that the income from the sale of public lands be used for construction of high dams on western rivers to store water for the irrigation of dry lands and thus to provide for a new farmers' frontier. With supplementary appropriations for construction of dams, the government gave an enormous boon to the development of the eleven far western states, but the provisions of the act that aimed to make small farmers the major beneficiaries have proved ineffective. Instead, large individual and corporate owners have derived the greatest returns.

In 1916 the National Park Service came into existence to administer areas of superlative natural beauty that the federal government was setting aside from the public lands as permanent reserves: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Hot Springs, Glacier, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Grand Canyon, and Crater Lake. Thus, curiousity seekers and commercials interests could not despoil these and other places of outstanding aesthetic, geologic, and historical interest.

Rapid and unscientific exploitation of mineral lands by destructive and wasteful practices induced Roosevelt to order the withdrawal of 66 million acres suspected of containing valuable coal deposits and a smaller acreage of suspected oil-bearing land. Lands having coal, potash, phosphate, and nitrate deposits also gained protection, although the surface rights might remain alienable. In 1920 the Mineral Leasing Act provided some control over the exploitation of these withdrawn lands for the first time. Moreover, as a sweetener to the West, it allocated 37.5 percent of the proceeds from leasing to the states in which the lands were located and 57.5 percent to reclamation projects, thereby ensuring a principal and growing source of funds for such projects. The remaining 5 percent went to the states in which lands were allocated for schools.

Roosevelt's conservation-minded advisers, notably Gifford Pinchot, also persuaded him to withdraw 3.45 million acres of public lands as possible sources for power sites. The Water Power Act of 1920 authorized a system of licensing the power sites, but it was not until the 1930s and 1940s that the federal government undertook great hydroelectric power development.

The last important withdrawal of public lands from entry took place in 1934. The harmful effects of overgrazing on the ranges of the West had become so evident that even the livestock industry recognized the need to accept federal control. This withdrawal provided that in the future, the remaining grazing lands in public ownership were to be leased under close supervision. To administer these lands, the federal government set up a Division of Grazing in the U.S. Department of the Interior. Congress preferred to create a new administrative agency rather than to permit the Forest Service, which had gained much valuable experience in administering the range lands within the national forests, because this latter agency had shown independence as well as excellent judgment in protecting its lands. The Division of Grazing started off well, but it also ran into bitter opposition for its failure to play politics. Congress virtually starved it by inadequate appropriations and later consolidated it with the General Land Office in the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Before 1976 the BLM struggled to administer the land under its control following hundreds of separate and sometimes contradictory laws. In that year, however, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), which presented the BLM with its first coherent, unified mission. This piece of legislation overturned the Homestead Act and instructed the BLM to administer the public domain in accordance to the concept of multiple use management. This legislative mandate empowered the BLM to balance as it deemed best the commercial use of public lands, such as through mining and grazing, with environmental protection of the public domain and maintenance of the lands for recreational use.

Over a century and a half of unparalleled prodigality in managing the public domain had made possible the alienation of most of the best agricultural, forest, and mineral lands of the United States, but there still remains a noble fragment in federal ownership under organized management. By 2002, the Bureau of Land Management was administering just over 260 million acres of land, which equals about 13 percent of the total area of the United States. Most of these public lands are in the western states, including Alaska, which presents the BLM with one of its most pressing contemporary problems. This region of the United States has witnessed remarkable population growth in the last few decades. For instance, Nevada, where the federal government administers the highest percentage of land, 67 percent, of any state, also experienced the largest population explosion of any state, an increase of over 66 percent between 1990 and 2000. In response to such pressures, during both of his terms in office, President Bill Clinton took advantage of the powers granted to presidents by the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create numerous new national monuments out of land formerly part of the public domain. No consumptive activities, such as mining or logging, may take place in national monuments. Clinton's administration defended this tactic as a necessary, emergency step to protect threatened natural treasures while critics interpreted it as a way for the Democratic president to bypass potential opposition from a Republican-led Congress and unilaterally make decisions in which the public should have had a voice. Either way, the BLM clearly must develop less controversial yet still effective methods of protecting the public domain in western states while also making it available as a commercial and recreational resource for a burgeoning population.


Durant, Robert F. The Administrative Presidency Revisited: Public Lands, the BLM, and the Reagan Revolution. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

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

Goodman, Doug, and Daniel McCool, eds. Contested Landscape: The Politics of Wilderness in Utah and the West. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999.

Lehmann, Scott. Privatizing Public Lands. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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

Robbins, William G., and James C. Foster, eds. Land in the American West: Private Claims and the Common Good. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Paul W.Gates/a. e.

See alsoConservation ; Interior, Department of the ; Land Acts ; Land Office, U.S. General and Bureau of Plans Management ; Land Policy ; Land Speculation ; National Park System ; Public Land Commissions ; School Lands ; Western Lands .

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public domain The status of a work, such as a program or document, where the author has irrevocably waived any copyright in the work so that it can be freely copied and used. In countries such as Germany and the USA statutes and government publications are considered to be in the public domain. In the computer industry the term is normally applied to the computer programs and data supplied to computer user groups by its active members for circulation among the group as an aid to the operation of computers or the removal of bugs.

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public domain, in law, legal availability for public use, free of charge, of materials, processes, devices, skills, and plans that are not protected by copyright or patent, including those on which copyright or patent has lapsed. Historically in the United States, the term has been important in reference to public land under the administration of national or local authorities.

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Land that is owned by the United States. Incopyrightlaw, literary or creative works over which the creator no longer has an exclusive right to restrict, or receive a royalty for, their reproduction or use but which can be freely copied by the public.


Public Lands.