Public Lands, Fencing of

views updated May 18 2018


PUBLIC LANDS, FENCING OF. During the nineteenth century, Congress enacted several laws that allowed individuals to stake a claim to public land, yet none of the laws permitted a claim of enough acreage to sustain the raising of stock in the arid west. Therefore, the range cattle industry that emerged on the Great Plains after the Civil War was based on the use of the public domain for grazing purposes. Few objected to this practice as long as the range remained open and the country was not wanted by settlers.

During the 1870s, however, the number of settlers and the number of cattle increased substantially. Farmers and new cattlemen began to use public land that established cattlemen had considered theirs. After the invention of barbed wire, complaints began to pour into the General Land Office that large ranchers and cattle companies were making illegal enclosures of public land. A series of investigations revealed a startling situation. In 1884 the commissioner of the General Land Office reported thirty-two cases of illegal fencing. One enclosure contained 600,000 acres; another included forty townships. And one cattleman had 250 miles of fence. Investigations during the succeeding years showed a rapid increase in illegal fencing, until 531 enclosures were reported in 1888, involving more than 7 million acres of the public domain.

Cattlemen, sheepmen, and farmers who had been fenced out of public land sometimes responded by cutting the fences. In the mid-1880s, fence cutters in Colfax County, New Mexico, cut a line of wire almost ninety miles long. Unable to defend their claims to the public domain in court, large ranchers often responded with violence. Fence-cutters' wars erupted in several states.

Cattlemen's associations urged that Congress resolve the fencing conflicts by leasing public land to ranchers. Instead, on 25 February 1885, Congress passed a law prohibiting the enclosure of the public domain. And on 7 August 1885, President Grover Cleveland issued a proclamation that ordered the removal of the fences. These measures were not vigorously enforced, however. Bad weather, mismanagement, and overstocking of the range probably did more than the law to eliminate the illegal practice of fencing public land.

The federal government allowed leasing and fencing of public lands for grazing in 1934.


Dale, Edward Everett. The Range Cattle Industry: Ranching on the Great Plains from 1865 to 1925. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960.

Gates, Paul W. History of Public Land Law Development. New York: Arno Press, 1979.

McCallum, Henry D., and Frances T. McCallum. The Wire That Fenced the West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.

O'Neal, Bill. Cattlemen vs. Sheepherders: Five Decades of Violence in the West, 1880–1920. Austin, Tex.: Eakin, 1989.

Pelzer, Louis. The Cattlemen's Frontier: A Record of the Trans-Mississippi Cattle Industry from Oxen Trains to Pooling Companies. New York: Russell and Russell, 1969.

Dan E.Clark/c. p.

See alsoCattle Drives ; Fencing and Fencing Laws ; Land Acts ; Land Office, U.S. General and Bureau Plans Management ; Land Policy .

Public Lands

views updated May 21 2018


Land that is owned by the United States government.

Public land refers to the public domain, unappropriated land belonging to the federal government that is subject to sale or other disposal under general laws and is not reserved for any particular governmental or public purpose.

Much of this land was acquired early in the history of the United States as a result of purchases, wars, or treaties made with foreign countries. The federal government used this land to encourage growth, settlement, and economic development. Land that was not developed, homesteaded, or sold remained in federal ownership as public land. Today, the federal government employs principles of land use planning and environmental protection to preserve the natural resources and scenic beauty found on public land.

Texas Public Lands

views updated May 23 2018


TEXAS PUBLIC LANDS. The 1845 treaty of annexation between the Republic of Texas and the United States made Texas the only state aside from the original thirteen colonies to enter the Union with control over its public lands. The state has since disposed of these lands in various ways. It sold land to settlers through various preemption acts and granted land as compensation for war service, bonuses for construction of railroads and other public works, payment for the construction of the state capitol, and support for education. By the Compromise of 1850, Texas also ceded claims to lands that now lie in other states. At the end of the nineteenth century, Texas had no unappropriated public lands left.


Miller, Thomas L. The Public Lands of Texas, 1519–1970. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.

Morgan, Andrea Gurasich. Land: A History of the Texas General Land Office. Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1992.

W. P.Ratchford/c. p.

See alsoLand Grants: Overview .

Public Land

views updated May 23 2018

Public land

Public land refers to land owned by the government. Most frequently, it is used to refer to land owned and managed by the United States government, although it is sometimes used to refer to lands owned by state governments. The U.S. government owns 262 million acres, about one eighth of the land in the country, the bulk of which is located in the western states, including Alaska. The lands are managed primarily by the Bureau of Land Management , the Department of Defense, the Fish and Wildlife Service , the Forest Service , and the National Park Service .

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Public lands