National Archives | RG 49

RG 49




The Public Land System

Title to all land in the thirty public land states belongs to the federal government or to persons deriving their title from it.  Upon the establishment of the central government under the Articles of Conferation in 1781, states with claims to western lands ceded those areas to createthe federal public domain.  Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and New York voluntarily gave up thegrants they had received as colonies to lands west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River.  In return for this generositycalculated to strengthen the union, the central government promised to dispose of the public domain in such manner as would benefit the wholenation.  In 1803 President Jefferson expanded the public domain through the Louisiana Purchase, which added over 500 million acres between theMississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.  Additional acquisitions in the first half of the nineteenth century included lands that now make upthe states of Florida, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Texas.  The last largeaddition was the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, which added over 375 million acres to the public domain.

From the outset many in Congress looked upon the public domain as a source of revenue for the central government; indeed it was the only sourceover which Congress had exclusive authority.  In May 1785 Congress established a federal land system to survey and sell the public domain, andintroduced means to accomplish it that remained unchanged for the next two centuries.  The Ordinance of 1785 provided for surveying townships sixmiles square, subdivided into square-mile (640 acre) sections numbered from one to thirty-six.  Townships were aligned next to one another from east to west starting along a baseline; tiers of them were aligned in ranges starting along a north-south meridian.  The lands so divided were to be sold at auction at the minimum price of $1.00 per acre; the proceeds of sales from one section (section 16) were reserved for the support of public education in the township.  These elements of rectangular survey, sale at auction for a minimum price, and reserved school sections, became abiding features of the public land system in the United States.

The Confederation's land system was administered by the Board of Treasury.  With the establishment of the new federal government in 1789 its administration became the responsibility of the Secretary of the Treasury and the Register of the Treasury.  The Secretary sold land to settlers, speculators, and land companies for cash or credit and issued documents of ownership called patents (which were countersigned by the Secretary of State).  As official keeper of land status records, prices, monies deposited, land locations, dates of patents granted, etc.  Early sales were slow because of large minimum acreages and a doubling of the price per acre in 1796.  Also, several of the former colony states sold their own land more cheaply and the Secretary of War, in conjunction with the Secretary of Treasury, distributed land to veterans for military service.  Howerver, the turn of the century saw Congress pass a series of laws that eventually quickened land sales by offering for sale smaller tracts and extending liberal credit terms.  In 1800 district land offices were established in Ohio, enabling settlers ready access to land auctions.  Land not sold during initial auctions (and most was not) could be "entered," or sold at the minimum price ($2.00 per acre) anytime thereafter.  Credit purchases required one fourth of the purchase price down and one fourth with interest each succeeding year.  In 1804 Congress reduced the minimum size of entry to 160 acres, so that anyone with eighty dollars in cash could start payment on a frontier farm.  These circumstances all placed a heavier administrative burden on the Office of the Treasury for conducting the land business.

In April 1812 Congress consolidated the administration of land sales and military bounty land warrants by establishing the General Land Office (GLO) within the Treasury Department.  The GLO assumed responsibility for the survey and sale of the public domain, the distribution of bounty lands formerly administered by the Secretary of War, the issuance of patents conferring title from the United States, and the keeping of complex and voluminous records to document these processes.  Eighteen district land offices, located in Ohio, Louisiana, and the territories of Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Mississippi, existed upon its organization.  By 1849, when it was moved to the newly organized Department of the Interior, it had opened seventy-five additional district land offices to transfer the public domain into private hands.  The same period saw nine additional public land states organized as territories and six admitted as states.  In 1820 Congress abolished credit sales, the reckless expansion of which precipitated the Panic of 1819, and passed a series of extension acts that allowed debtors additional time to complete their payments without losing their land.  It fixed the minimum price at $1.25 per acre and reduced the size of smallest purchase to eighty acres.  Until passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, most public land transactions were outright cash sales or resulted from the burgeoning market in the assignment and sale of military bounty land warrants.  Passage of mineral, desert land, timber culture, and other acts over the next several decades expanded the means of access to the public domain.  While the GLO's primary emphasis remained the disposition of public lands and resources into private hands, these acts showed that it had become involved and would deepen its involvement in land development policies, land management, and regulation.  This evolution in emphasis was highlighted in 1946, when the GLO merged with the Grazing Service to form the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  Its current authority in managing public lands and resources comes from the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.


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