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 Extended  American agricultural history bibliography
 Extended  European agricultural history bibliography
We extend a warm thank you to the Iowa State University Center for On-Line Learning and the Iowa State University Department of History for their support of this project.
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 in Europe.

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 requirement.

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.

Rick L. Woten


Danbom, David B. Born in the County: A History of Rural America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Friedman, Lawrence M.
A History of American Law. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

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

Hibbard, Benjamin H.
A History of the Public Land Policies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965.

Hurt, R. Douglas.
American Agriculture: A Brief History. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2002.

Further Readings

Barr, Daniel P. The Boundaries Between Us: Natives and Newcomers Along the Frontiers of the Old Northwest Territory, 1750-1850. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2006.

Bogue, Allan G. "Farming in the Prairie Peninsula, 1830-1890." Gen. Ed. Marvin Bergman.
Iowa History Reader. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1996.

From Prairie to Corn Belt. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963.

Money at Interest: The Farm Mortgage on the Middle Border. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1955.

___________. "The Iowa Claim Clubs: Symbol and Substance."
The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 45 no. 2 (September, 1958): 231-253.

Calef, Wesley.
Private Grazing and Public Lands: Studies of the Local Management of the Taylor Grazing Act. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Clark, Ira G.
Water in New Mexico. A History of Its Management and Use. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.

Ellis, David M., ed.
The Frontier in American Development: Essays in Honor of Paul Wallace Gates. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969.

Fiege, Mark.
Irrigated Eden: The Making of an Agricultural Landscape in the American West. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.

Gates, Paul W.
Fifty Million Acres: Conflicts Over Kansas Land Policy: 1840-1890. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1954.

Land and Law in California: Essays in Land Policies. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1991.

Landlords and Tenants on the Frontier Prairie: Studies in American Land Policy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973.

The Jeffersonian Dream: Studies in the History of American Land Policy and Development. ed. Allan G. and Margaret Beattie Bogue. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

Hall, Kermit L.
The Magic Mirror: Law in American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Harris, Marshall.
Origin of the Land Tenure System in the United States. Ames: Iowa State College Press, 1953.

Horwitz, Morton J.
The Transformation of American Law: 1780-1860. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Horwitz, Morton J.
The Transformation of American Law, 1870-1960: The Crisis of Legal Orthodoxy. New York: Oxford Press, 1992.

Hundley, Norris, Jr.
The Great Thirst: Californians and Water, 1790s-1990s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Hurst, James Willard.
Law and the Conditions of Freedom in the Nineteenth-Century United States. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1956.

Hurt, R. Douglas. "Federal Land Reclamation in the Dust Bowl."
Great Plains Quarterly 6 (Spring 1986): 94-106.

Opie, John.
The Law of the Land: Two Hundred Years of American Farmland Policy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

Passell, Peter.
Essays in Economics of Nineteenth-Century American Land Policy. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Pisani, Donald J.
From the Family Farm to Agribusiness: The irrigation Crusade in California and the West, 1850-1931. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

To Reclaim A Divided West: Water, Law, and Public Policy, 1848-1902. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.

Water and American Government: The Reclamation Bureau, National Water Policy, and the West, 1902-1935. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Water, Land, and Law in the West: The Limits of Public Policy, 1850-1920. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1996.

Stoll, Steven.
The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Making the Industrial Countryside in California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Webb, Walter Prescott.
The Great Plains. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1931.

Worster, Donald.
Rivers of Empire Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.