Land laws

Definition: Federal legislation pertaining to the transfer of public lands to private ownership

Significance: From the time that the United States was established as an independent nation in 1783, the U.S. Congress has passed land laws defining the procedures by which new territory can pass from public ownership to individual ownership. While agriculture was a major source of employment during the nineteenth century, the acquisition of land became a fundamental inducement to immigrants to come to the United States. Many were pushed off their lands in Europe as population rose dramatically during the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century. Owning land individually became in the eyes of many immigrants the pathway to a secure future.

 Homesteaders crossing the Plains during the 1880’s, looking for land in the West

Homesteaders crossing the Plains during the 1880’s, looking for land in the West. (Getty Images)

When European immigrants first came to what became the United States, they brought with them a concept of land ownership fundamentally different from that held by the aboriginal Native American inhabitants. The concept of individual ownership, in Europe restricted by the surviving elements of feudal society, stood in sharp contrast to the concepts prevailing among the Indian tribes, which favored communal ownership with individual rights to use land temporarily. However, striving for land over which they had full control had propelled the first European discoveries in America. Although titles to New World lands were first vested in the monarchs whose subjects "discovered” them, as governments developed into their more modern forms, they found themselves constrained by shortages of funds during an era when possession, or control, of land was considered the primary measure of wealth. As governments sought to expand their territories, they began to use the granting of ownership to pieces of land as a means to collect revenue.


Some of the major grievances that eighteenth century North American colonists had about British rule concerned government restrictions on their freedom to settle and farm lands in the vast open spaces between the Atlantic seaboard colonies and the Mississippi River to the west. Great Britain, which had acquired control over those western lands when it defeated France in the French and Indian War (1756-1763), had tried to block settlement by individuals migrating from the colonies along the Atlantic Coast. In its Proclamation of 1763, the British government forbade new settlements in lands west of the Alleghenies that were reserved for use of Native Americans. Attempts by settlers from the coastal colonies to move into that western area became one of the bones of contention in the American Revolution (1775-1783). After the war, the United States gained title to the area in the 1783 peace treaty with Great Britain. Settling in the region then became a priority for the new nation.

Within the British North American colonies, which had ben populated overwhelmingly by immigrants from Great Britain, laws pertaining to land ownership were determined largely by the individual colonial governments. Although it was technically vested in the British monarch, land ownership was quickly devolved to those who managed the colony in America—either as a company such as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, or as individuals, who through wealth or connections, secured from the British monarchs grants of land in North America. These agents in turn passed over control either to large landowners or to new communities, as was the case in Massachusetts. The latter tended to pass subordinate control to new settlements with provisions for dividing the allotted lands to early settlers.

U.S. Lands Settled by 1890

U.S. Lands Settled by 1890

Land Laws of the United States

One of the earliest problems faced by the new Congress of the United States was how to organize the distribution of land west of the Alleghenies. In 1784, Congress appointed a committee, of which Thomas Jefferson was the leading member, to draw up a plan. The proposal the committee produced set forth the outlines of the plan that followed in the Land Ordinance of 1785. The plan required several things:

• resolution of Indian claims to the land through treaties with local tribes

• surveying of the land into rectangular townships six miles on a side, each township to be then subdivided into 36 sections, one mile square and comprising 640 acres

• reservation of some of the land for military bounties granted during the Revolution

• subsequent sale of the land to private individuals

This subdivision of the United States into units of thirty-six square miles was followed throughout the settlement of the west. When Congress was passing the Land Ordinance of 1785, it added some new wrinkles. It reserved one section of each township to be offered for sale for the schools of the future community; it ruled that the secretary of war could claim some of the sections for payment to veterans of the Revolutionary War; it provided that the townships would be distributed to the various states on whom would fall responsibility for selling the land by sections or as whole townships; and it required that sales should be conducted through public auctions after at least seven (later reduced to four) of the survey (range) lines had been run. By 1787, relatively few sales had actually occurred, so Congress then authorized the sale of large aggregates to wealthy individuals who were prepared to take on the task of finding settlers to work the lands.

Peopling of the West

Although settlers from the seaboard colonies poured into the new Ohio Territory, formal settlement was held up by the slow progress of the survey lines and by the need to secure treaties fromthe Indians then resident in Ohio. Several unsuccessful clashes with tribes that resisted the flood of settlers led, finally, to the conclusive victory of an American force at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. In the ensuing Treaty of Greenville, the Indian tribes then resident in northwest Ohio ceded all their Ohio lands to the United States. The conditions of the Land Ordinance continued to be fulfilled in future years as more victories over the Indian tribes and cession of their rights by treaty were met.

It is not known how many immigrants were attracted to the United States by the availability of public land because U.S. immigration records were not kept until 1821. However, there is little doubt that the prospect of securing large plots of land at minimal costs drew many immigrants from Europe. Initially most came from the British Isles, including Ireland, but as the nineteenth century wore on, many more came from continental Europe. Early sales of public lands were intended for citizens of the United States, but over the course of the nineteenth century sales were opened to immigrants who began the naturalization process, thereby affirming their intention to become American citizens. Although U.S. debts from the Revolution and theWar of 1812 had been paid off with the proceeds from land sales by the 1830’s, Congress continued to seek revenue from further sales.

The large number of land laws passed by Congress indicates that the federal government continued to view selling public lands as a major source of revenue. One obstacle to sales was quickly changed: the need to bid at a single, central auction place. As early as the year 1800, Congress designated several on-the-ground sites for land auctions in Ohio— Cincinnati, Chilicothe, Marietta, and Steubenville. Afterward, auctions were held near the sites of the land being sold. Special officials were appointed to handle the sales, and rules spelled out how payments were to be made to the U.S. Treasury. Initially, land was sold for one to two dollars per acre under four-year payment plans. In later years, the prices and payment systems were regularly changed. In 1820, Congress acknowledged that a great deal of land had been occupied by "squatters” and allowed them to "preempt” title to the lands they occupied by paying part of their costs in advance of the auctions.

Meanwhile, Congress often tied land grants to other government programs. For example, by the mid-nineteenth century, its policy of awarding lavish land grants to railroads was becoming notorious. Congress granted large tracts of land to the railroads in the hope that the railroads would pass the land along to settlers. In the 1862 Homestead Act, Congress gave both citizens and prospective citizens a "preemption” right, enabling them to settle on public lands and secure title to those lands after five years for payments of two dollars per acre. TheTimber Act of 1873 gave settlers up to ten years to claim title to the land they occupied if they planted substantial numbers of trees on the land. Homesteaders willing to develop desert lands in theWest that were unsuitable for agriculture could buy title to their lands for only twenty-five cents per acre.

By the 1890’s, Congress was beginning to recognize that public lands suitable for homesteading were becoming scarce, restricting purchasers to those who had not previously claimed land under the Pre-emption or Homestead Acts. It was still unclear to what extent the availability of public land was drawing foreign immigrants. During the early nineteenth century, the attraction of land was no doubt great, and immigration from Germany and Scandinavia undoubtedly was encouraged by the availability of cheap land.

Much of the public land was actually taken up by speculators who had no intention of settling it themselves; they planned to sell it to latecomers. News also got out that the costs of turning public land into useful farms could be high, which meant that immigrants with limited capital would have difficulty developing any land they could afford to purchase. Most immigrants who came to the United States to farm probably arrived during the first half of the nineteenth century; however, major settlement ofWisconsin and Minnesota did not begin until after the U.S. Civil War. Many Europeans who immigrated during the 1850’s and 1860’s settled in the Upper Midwest.

The goal that propelled many immigrants to come to the United States was the prospect of acquiring land for themselves. The federal land acts strengthened that resolve, by making vast tracts of land available at low cost to those prepared to settle and take up farming. Creating farms out of wild lands, however, was not an easy task, and many immigrants who tried failed. Consequently, many immigrants who left farms in Europe to farm in the United States wound up as industrial workers in cities.

Nancy M. Gordon

Further Reading

Dunham, Harold J. "Some Crucial Years of the Land Office, 1875-1890.” In The Public Lands: Studies in the History of the Public Domain, edited by Vernon Carstensen. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968. Long the primary source of material on the public lands, the many useful articles remain relevant.

Freund, Rudolf. "Military Bounty Lands and the Origins of the Public Domain.” In The Public Lands: Studies in the History of the Public Domain, edited by Vernon Carstensen. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968. Close study of the vexing problem that Congress faced in dealing with military bounty lands.

Rasmussen, R. Kent, ed. Agriculture in History. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2010. Collection of essays on specific historical events, including many relevant to U.S. land issues.

Rasmussen, Wayne D., ed. Agriculture in the United States: A Documentary History. 4 vols. New York: Random House, 1975. Reprints the land laws of the United States, mostly contained in volume 1.

Rohrbough, Malcolm J. The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789-1837. London: Oxford University Press, 1968. Exhaustive account of how American public lands were sold to settlers.

See also: Alien land laws; Economic opportunities; Empresario land grants in Texas; European immigrants; History of immigration, 1783-1891; Homestead Act of 1862; National Road; Railroads; Settlement patterns; Westward expansion.

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