The history of American land use is largely a story of the country's agricultural
history. In the journey from Europe to the New World, colonists brought
traditions, religious beliefs, customs, laws, and the desire of acquiring land.
Acquiring land in the New World provided colonists with the basis of survival.
Land allowed individuals to provide and maintain their own food source, gain
wealth, and achieve a greater level of social status. Customs and laws of
Europe brought with colonists included the requirement of land ownership to
achieve many "social rights." The ownership of land often conferred the right to
vote on males.
With the British American colonies dominated by settlers intent on farming, land
policy provided methods by which the colonists obtained land and established
land tenure. Six methods generally described acquiring land in the early
colonies. An individual could acquire land by: purchasing lands from the Crown;
the headright system; a grant from the Crown to a supporter, friend, or those
the Crown owed a debt; New England township surveys for churches or
corporate groups; squatting; and renting. Although each method had
drawbacks, the colonist experienced greater opportunity of securing land than
Establishing claims to land required a method of surveying and recording the
land. Colonists adopted the rather imprecise method of metes and bounds.
Using the method, the land owner or surveyor defined the property's boundary
by using imaginary lines that connected to trees, streams, boulders, and other
geographic features thereby forming the outer limits of the land parcel. The
imprecise method and inaccuracy of surveyors and owners left the legal system
overwhelmed with conflicting land claims.
The American Revolution also served as a mechanism to shape the nation's
land policy. Americans looked to the newly secured western lands with
anticipation. However, conflicting claims to the lands limited the utilization of
the lands in an orderly manner. The Continental Congress reached a compromise
after much debate between the states over the issue of claims to western
lands by Massachusetts, Virginia, and Connecticut. In exchange for the states
with western land claims ceding those lands to the national government, all the
states ratified the Articles of Confederation. With the western lands in the
possession of the national government, Congress passed the Land Ordinance of
1785. The ordinance authorized the survey and orderly sale of the lands. The
ordinance also set the precedent of using surveying methods set up on a grid
system that included 36 sections per township. While the system has
undergone several changes, it is relatively recognizable as the precursor to
modern township surveying.
Along with surveying, the Land Ordinance of 1785 also created a means for the
national government to oversee the sale of the western lands, or public domain.
The ordinance initially established the minimum purchase of 640 acres (a full
section) for the price of $1.00 per acre to be decided at public auction. Initial
land sale efforts ran into several barriers. The minimum of 640 acres left many
farmers unable to buy land, while land speculators purchased large tracts of
land by effectively influencing the government to reduce the one dollar per acre
During the early Republic, debate over the nation's land disposal policy raged
between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Federalist such as Alexander
Hamilton called for a policy that saw land prices remain high in order to deepen
the national treasury. They also sought the sale of large parcels of land to
speculators rather than the sale of small parcels to individual settlers.
Anti-Federalists such as Thomas Jefferson envisioned an agrarian nation built
upon the idea of individual land ownership. This plan called for disposal of the
public domain at modest prices, if not free, to individual settlers. The
Anti-Federalist argued that an economically stable nation would develop with
the transfer of the public domain into private individual ownership.
Over the next seventy-seven years, the national government experimented with
various methods and requirements of land sales that allowed individuals to
realize land ownership. The federal government experimented with various
methods of land disposal. The government extended credit to buy land,
encouraged sales of large tracts of land to speculators, adjusted the area
requirements for land purchase from 640 to 80 acres, and experimented with
land prices per acre ranging up to $2.00.
The Civil War brought to the surface numerous areas of tension in the United
States. Western expansion and migration, a national economy, and slavery
pitted the industrial North against the agricultural South. Through theses issues
the role the western territories would play in the destiny of the developing
nation rose to national prominence. The secession of the southern states from
the Union created a power shift in American politics that allowed Congress to
pass a more relaxed land disposal policy. The resulting legislation, the 1862
Homestead Act enabled any head of a household, male or female, 21 years old
or older, who was a citizen to claim 160 acres of the public domain free of
charge. The individual had to live on the land for five years and make
improvements upon it. Improvements included clearing land, establishing fields,
building a home, barns, and other out buildings. If the individual wanted the land
title sooner, he/she could do so after six months by paying $1.25 per acre.
The federal government continued implementing legislation throughout the rest
of the nineteenth century that promoted settlement of western lands. The 1873
Timber Culture Act allowed farmers to claim 160 acres of public domain land in
turn for planting 40 acres of the land with trees. The more arid West required a
different land act to make it viable for a farmer to invest in the land. The 1877
Desert Lands Act offered 640 acres at $1.25 per acre but required that the
owner irrigate the land within three years of purchase. While the Homestead
Act brought a diversity of settlers, the other acts tended to encourage large
scale grazing of the western lands. Although Congress modified the acts, their
primary purpose of disposing of public lands remained in place.
The 1902 Reclamation Act continued the federal government's land disposal
initiatives. While previous attempts focused on assisting settlement of
individuals in the western United States primarily, the Reclamation Act focused
first on the creation of a major irrigation project that brought water to the arid
lands of the West, paid for by western public land sales. Individuals settled the
lands under the Homestead Act's requirements but were responsible for paying
for irrigation improvements on the land over a ten-year period. The Reclamation
Act signaled the twentieth century transition in land policy of not only creating
land disposal mechanisms to place land into private ownership but also provide
means by which private owners held an opportunity to be successful on that
land. The subsequent passage of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934 effectively
closed the era of homesteading in the United States and further entrenched the
federal government in an effort to provide private individuals with opportunities
to be successful the nation's lands.
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