Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001

The Aviation and Transportation Security Act was enacted following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

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Burlingame Treaty of 1868

The Burlingame Treaty permitted almost unlimited and unrestricted immigration by Chinese to the United States.

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Cable Act of 1922

From the creation of the United States during the late eighteenth century, it was assumed that people would immigrate to the country. The first law setting standards and processes for immigration was passed in 1790.

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Chinese Student Protection Act of 1992

The passage of this law indicated that U.S. immigration policies could be influenced by domestic political developments of other countries.


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U.S. Congress

Since 1875, Congress has played the major role in determining U.S. immigration law and policy.

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U.S. Constitution

As the fundamental law of the United States, the U.S. Constitution empowers the U.S. Congress to pass federal immigration and citizenship laws providing such laws do not violate the provisions of the Constitution itself, particularly those included in the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment.

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Dillingham Commission

The forty-one volumes of statistical material on immigration eventually published by the Dillingham Commission contained a wealth of information that provided support for limiting immigration, thereby helping lead to passage of the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924.

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Displaced Persons Act of 1948

Under this law, refugees became for the first time a major factor in U.S. immigration, and the administration of this law would influence subsequent policies on refugees, notably those from communist countries, including Hungary, Cuba, and Vietnam.

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Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917-1918

The Law: Federal legislation that made it illegal to speak out against the government during World War I

Dates: Espionage Act enacted on June 15, 1917; Sedition Act enacted on May 16, 1918

Significance: Enacted soon after the United States entered World War I in 1917, the Espionage Act prohibited individuals from expressing or publishing opinions that would interfere with the U.S. military’s efforts to defeat Germany and its allies. A year later, the U.S. Congress amended the law with the Sedition Act of 1918, which made it illegal to write or speak anything critical of American involvement in the war.

While the Espionage Act dealt with many uncontroversial issues such as punishing acts of spying and sabotage and protecting shipping, the act, as amended by the Sedition Act, was extremely controversial for many immigrants who were opposed to war, the military draft, and violations of their free speech rights. Specifically, the Espionage Act made it a crime willfully to interfere with U.S. war efforts by conveying false information about the war, obstructing U.S. recruitment or enlistment efforts, or inciting insubordination, disloyalty, ormutiny.

The Sedition Act made the language of the Espionage Act more specific by making it illegal to use disloyal, profane, or abusive language to criticize the U.S. Constitution, the government, the military, the flag, or the uniform. The government had the authority to punish a wide range of speech and activities such as obstructing the sale of U.S. bonds, displaying a German flag, or giving a speech that supported the enemy’s cause. Persons convicted of violating these laws could be fined amounts of up to ten thousand dollars and also be sentenced to prison for as long as twenty years.

Under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, the U.S. postmaster general had the authority to ban the mailing of all letters, circulars, newspapers,pamphlets, packages, and other materials that opposed the war. As a result, about seventy-five newspapers either lost their mailing privileges or were pressured to print nothing more about the war. These publications included German American or German- language newspapers, pacifist publications, and publications owned by the American Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World.

No one was convicted of spying or sabotage under the Espionage Act during World War I. However, more than two thousand people were arrested for sedition. One thousand of them— including many immigrants—were convicted. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Espionage and Sedition Acts, ruling that the government had the authority to punish speech that would create a “clear and present danger.”

The Espionage Act was intended to be in effect only during wartime, but the law continued to be invoked following the end of World War I during the Red Scare of 1919-1920 and again after World War II during the Cold War. The Sedition Act was repealed in 1921, but major portions of the Espionage Act remained in effect as part of U.S. law.

Eddith A. Dashiell

Further Reading

Kohn, Stephen M. American Political Prisoners: Prosecutions Under the Espionage and Sedition Acts.Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994.

Manz, William H., ed. Civil Liberties in Wartime: Legislative Histories of the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. Buffalo, N.Y: W. S. Hein, 2007.

Stone, Geoffrey R. Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.

See also: Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798; Constitution, U.S.; History of immigration after 1891; Immigration Act of 1903; Immigration Act of 1917; Loyalty oaths; Red Scare; World War I.

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Fiancées Act of 1946

An extension of another piece of post-World War II legislation, the War Brides Act of 1945, the Fiancées Act granted the fiancés of American servicemen a special exemption from previously established immigration quotas that allowed them to enter the United States.

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Filipino Repatriation Act of 1935

This federal law provided free transportation for Filipino residents of the continental United States who wished to return home but could not afford to do so.

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Geary Act of 1892

Enacted to reinforce and extend provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Geary Act prevented further immigration from China and required established Chinese residents of the United States to carry certificates of residence.

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Homestead Act of 1862

The Homestead Act accelerated settlement of western lands in the United States. Initiated in response to pressure for the disposition of public lands, the act transferred ownership of property to U.S. citizens or immigrants willing to establish residence on the land and to make improvements and cultivate crops.

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Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996

Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996The Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act, or IIRIRA, was enacted to prevent the flow of undocumented aliens into the United States.

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Immigration Act of 1882

Setting the basic course of United States immigration law and policy, the Immigration Act of 1882 established categories of foreigners deemed “undesirable” for entry and gave the U.S. secretary of the treasury authority over immigration enforcement.

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Immigration Act of 1891

Beginning in 1882, responsibility for administering U.S. immigration law, excluding the Chinese exclusion law, rested with the individual states.

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Immigration Act of 1903

The Immigration Act of 1903 expanded the federal government’s power to regulate immigration.

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Immigration Act of 1907

This law created the Dillingham Commission to collect data used in future immigration laws, further narrowed Asian immigration, limited Muslim immigration, and expanded the definition of undesirable women immigrants.

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Immigration Act of 1917

The Law: Federal law imposing major new restrictions on categories of people allowed to immigrate

Date: Went into effect on May 1, 1917

Significance: The Immigration Act of 1917 was the first federal law to impose a general restriction on immigration in the form of a literacy test. It also broadened restrictions on the immigration of Asians and persons deemed "undesirable” and provided tough enforcement provisions.

President Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson, with his wife, Edith, at his second inauguration in 1917. Wilson twice vetoed the Immigration Act of 1917, only to see Congress pass it over his objections. (Library of Congress)

Through the first century of American independence, immigration into the United States was largely unrestricted. This open-door policy began to change during the 1870’s and 1880’s, with the introduction of federal legislation aimed at barring two classes of immigrants: Asian laborers to California and immigrants deemed physically and mentally "undesirable.” In 1882, for example, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to bar the immigration of Chinese workers and a general immigration act to bar the immigration of persons judged likely to become "public charges.”

The general Immigration Act of 1882 also imposed a "head tax” of fifty cents on each immigrant. The U.S. Congress, which was constitutionally empowered to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over immigration, continued to increase restrictions through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The head tax was increased to four dollars by the Immigration Act of 1907. The Chinese Exclusion Act was amended and tightened in legislation enacted in 1884, 1888, 1892, and 1902. In the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, Japan agreed to bar its citizens from emigrating to the United States. The Immigration Act of 1891 added more categories of people to the list of "undesirable aliens,” including persons with contagious diseases and polygamists. The Immigration Acts of 1903, 1907, and 1910 added rules to exclude persons with mental and physical defects, persons with tuberculosis, and anarchists. However, congressional provisions to add a literacy requirement to the immigration laws were vetoed by Presidents Grover Cleveland in 1896, William Howard Taft in 1913, and Woodrow Wilson in 1915.

Provisions of the 1917 Law

The Immigration Act of 1917 updated and codified much of the previous immigration legislation, thereby effectively repealing the Immigration Acts of 1903, 1907, and 1910. President Wilson vetoed the law, but Congress overrode his veto and the act went into effect on May 1, 1917. A long and comprehensive piece of legislation, the act contained thirty-eight subsections and took up twenty-five pages in the Congressional Session Laws.

The law was significant in five major areas; it

  • increased the head tax 
  • expanded categories of "undesirable aliens” 
  • excluded South Asian immigrants 
  • added a literacy requirement 
  • contained new enforcement provisions 

The new law increased the head tax levied on every adult immigrant to eight dollars and required liens to be was placed on passenger ships for nonpayment. The law’s expansion of categories of "undesirables” who would be barred fromentry reflected new theories of comparative psychology. The act excluded so-called "idiots, imbeciles, and feeble-minded persons;” persons of "constitutional psychopathic inferiority;” "mentally or physically defective” persons; the insane; alcoholics; persons with epilepsy, tuberculosis; or contagious diseases; paupers and vagrants; criminals; prostitutes; anarchists; polygamists; political radicals; and contract laborers.

The Immigration Act of 1917 also barred most immigration from Asia. Chinese immigrants were already barred by the Chinese Exclusion Acts and the Japanese by the Gentlemen’s Agreement. In addition, the act created the "Asiatic Barred Zone,” which encompassed India, Afghanistan, Persia (now Iran), Arabia, parts of the Ottoman Empire and Russia, Southeast Asia, and the Asian-Pacific islands.

Reflecting public hostility to southern and eastern European immigrants, the act required all adult immigrants to demonstrate an ability to read. Any language sufficed. Finally, the act contained extensive provisions for enforcement. Penalties were imposed on any persons or corporations who encouraged or assisted the immigration of persons barred by the act or contract laborers. The act required all ships carrying immigrants to provide detailed information about each passenger’s name, age, sex, physical description, literacy, nationality, destination, occupation, mental and physical health, and criminal record. Immigration inspectors, medical examiners, and Boards of Special Inquiry were authorized to carry out these regulations and decide on the admissibility of immigrants.

Impact of the Law

The act of 1917 represented a further tightening of the immigrant restrictions begun by Congress during the 1870’s. Although the 1880’s witnessed the exclusion of "undesirables” and Chinese and the imposition of a head tax, the 1917 act greatly expanded these restrictions. The list of undesirables was couched in vague terms of mental and physical health, and could thus be interpreted in almost unlimited ways. The eight-dollar head tax was a significant levy on impoverished immigrants. The literacy requirement, which had been vetoed by three presidents, appeared to be a significant impediment to many immigrants. Heavy penalties and fines were imposed on any persons who seemingly assisted immigration in violation of the law. This expansion of restrictions can be explained, in part, by the rise of psychological and eugenics theories categorizing inferior individuals and races and nativist sentiments exacerbated by World War I.

The restrictions culminating in the 1917 act ultimately proved to be more qualitative than quantitative. In fact, the first two decades of the twentieth century saw the greatest numbers of immigrants up to that time: 8,795,386 people entered the United States between 1901 and 1910, and another 5,735,811 entered between 1911 and 1920. In the fiscal year between July, 1920, and June, 1921, more than 800,000 immigrants entered the country. Only about 1,450 persons were actually excluded by the literacy test. The 1917 act prefigured but differed from the immigration quotas that would be imposed by new immigration laws during the 1920’s. These quotas greatly restricted immigration for the first time in American history and did so in an attempt to preserve the ethnic heritage of the United States as it was perceived at the turn of the century.

Howard Bromberg

Further Reading

  • Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill&Wang, 2004. General history of immigration restrictions. Notes that the 1917 law represented the first major categorical restriction of immigration in American history. 
  • Hing, Bill Ong. Defining America Through Immigration Policy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. Chapter 3, on the 1917 literacy test, sees its origins in American animosity toward Italian and Jewish immigrants. 
  • King, Desmond. Making Americans: Immigration, Race, and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Scholarly study of the history of immigration that describes the 1917 act as replacing the tenet of individual selection for admission with group criteria. 
  • Lee, Erika. At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Highlights the creation of the Asiatic Barred Zone as a milestone in restricting Asian immigration. 
  • Shanks, Cheryl. Immigration and the Politics of American Sovereignty, 1890-1990. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Historical study of the relationship between immigration law and policy and notions of American sovereignty. Portrays the Asiatic Barred Zone as the predecessor of the quota laws of the 1920’s and the literacy test as motivated by exclusionary rather than educational sentiments. 

See also: Asian immigrants; Asiatic Barred Zone; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Chinese immigrants; Congress, U.S.; History of immigration after 1891; Immigration Act of 1882; Immigration Act of 1891; Immigration Act of 1903; Immigration Act of 1907; Immigration law; Literacy tests.

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Immigration Act of 1943

Immigration Act of 1943At the height of World War II, when the United States needed to promote goodwill with China, Congress repealed an 1882 federal immigration statute restricting all Chinese from entering the country and considerably eased the process of naturalization for those Chinese already residing in America.

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Immigration Act of 1990

This legislation has been seen as a return to the pre-1920’s open door immigration policy of the United States.

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Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952

This federal law upheld the national origins quota system established by the Immigration Act of 1924, which gave preference to individuals of northern and western European lineage.

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Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965This first major change in U.S. quota policy greatly altered the ethnic makeup of immigrants entering the United States during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and prompted a massive increase in total immigration.

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Immigration law

The gatekeeper of the borders of the United States, federal immigration law determines who may enter the country, how long they may stay, their status, their rights and duties while in the United States, and how they may become resident aliens or American citizens.

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Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986

The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was designed to balance public concerns about increasing illegal immigration with business’s need for cheap labor and the need to address issues of racial and ethnic discrimination.

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Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975

Strongly supported by President Gerald R. Ford and opposed by those who feared an influx of Southeast Asian refugees after the end of the conflict in Vietnam

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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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