Timeline of U.S. Public Land Laws & Acts

Featured, History and Laws, Land Records, U.S. Genealogy

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Congressional Act of 1776 | Land Ordinance of 1785 | Land Act of 1800 | Preemption Acts of 1799 & 1801 | Land Act of 1804 | Preemption & Intrusion Acts of 1807 | Illinois Preemption Act of 1813 | Land Act of 1820 | Preemption Act of 1841 | Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 | Bounty Land Act of 1855 | Homestead Act of 1862

Beginning with the Congressional Act of 16 September 1776, a wide variety of Congressional acts have governed the transfer of federal land to its first individual owner. These land laws opened up new territories in the thirty public land states, established the practice of offering land as compensation for military service, and extended preemption rights to squatters. Understanding if and how these acts may have affected your ancestor’s migration and settlement can lead to additional records!

This list does not include acts that temporarily extended the provisions of earlier acts or private acts that were passed for the benefit of individuals.

Major U.S. Public Land Acts

The Congressional Act of 16 September 1776 established provisions for granting lands of 100 to 500 acres, termed “bounty land,” for those officers and soldiers who enlisted in the Continental Army to fight in the American Revolution.

“That Congress make provision for granting lands, in the following proportions: to the officers and soldiers who shall so engage in the service, and continue therein to the close of the war, or until discharged by Congress, and to the representatives of such officers and soldiers as shall be slain by the enemy…“

“To a colonel, 500 acres; to a lieutenant colonel, 450; to a major, 400; to a captain, 300; to a lieutenant, 200; to an ensign, 150; each non-commissioned officer and soldier, 100…“

Enacted on 20 May 1785, the Land Ordinance of 1785 laid the foundation for American land policy until the Homestead Act of 1862. It was the first legislation passed by Congress to manage the public lands resulting from the relinquishment of the western land claims of the thirteen now independent states and Native Americans and set up a standardized system whereby settlers could purchase title to this land. The 1785 Ordinance provided for the survey and sale of this land in the Public Land States in tracts of no less than 640 acres. This was the beginning of the cash-entry system for federal lands. The Land Ordinance of 1785 also introduced federal support for public schooling, granting Section 16 (one square mile) of every township to be used “for the maintenance of public schools within said township.”

“Be it ordained by the United States in Congress assembled, that the territory ceded by individual States to the United States, which has been purchased of the Indian inhabitants, shall be disposed of in the following manner…“

The Land Act of 1800, also known as the Harrison Land Act for its author William Henry Harrison, was approved by Congress on 15 May 1800 to encourage settlement in the Northwest Territory. The Land Act of 1800 reduced the minimum purchasable unit of land from 640 acres to 320 acres at a minimum cost of $2 per acre. It also introduced the option of credit sales to encourage land sales. Land purchased under the Harrison Land Act of 1800 could be paid for by putting down half of the required payment upfront and the remainder in equal installments over a period of four years. The government ultimately ended up foreclosing on thousands of individuals who could not make the repayment of their loans within the set period. Some of this land was resold by the federal government multiple times before defaults were rescinded by the Land Act of 1820.

An act providing for the sale of the land of the United States, in the territory north-west of the Ohio, and above the mouth of the Kentucky river.

The Act of 2 March 1799 and Preemption Act of 1801 were the first of many laws passed by Congress giving preemption or preference rights to settlers in the Northwest Territory who had purchased lands from John Cleves Symmes, a judge of the Northwest Territory, who sold land outside of the area eventually covered by his patent. Technically, these settlers were squatters on unsurveyed federal land. To correct this, Congress passed the relief acts of 2 March 1799 and 3 March 1801, giving these settlers the first right to buy this land from the federal government. This was the first time the right of preemption was granted by Congress.

An Act giving a right of pre-emption to certain persons who have contracted with John Cleves Symmes, or his associates, for lands lying between the Miami rivers, in the territory of the United States northwest of the Ohio.”

The United States Congress passed the Land Act of 1804 to refine provisions for the sale of federal lands north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River (the State of Ohio and Indiana Territory). This act replaced the Harrison Land Act of 1800. The cost per acre was still set at two dollars, but the minimum purchase was reduced to 160 acres. This was still too much for many settlers to pay at one time so the federal government continued the option to purchase the land on credit and pay in installments.

“That all the public lands of the United States, the sale of which is authorized by law, may, after they shall have been offered for sale to the highest bidder in quarter sections, as herein after directed, be purchased at the option of the purchaser, either in entire sections, in half sections, or in quarter sections…”

On 3 March 1807, Congress passed a law granting preemption rights to certain settlers in Michigan Territory, where a number of grants had been made under both prior French and British rule.

…to every person or persons in actual possession, occupancy, and improvement, of any tract or parcel of land in his, her, or their own right, at the time of the passing of this act, within that part of the Territory of Michigan, to which the Indian title has been extinguished, and which said tract or parcel of land was settled, occupied, and improved, by him, her, or them, prior to and on the first day of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety six…the said tract or parcel of land thus possessed, occupied, and improved, shall be granted, and such occupant or occupants shall be confirmed in the title to the same, as an estate of inheritance, in fee simple…

The Intrusion Act of 1807, or “an act to prevent intrusion on the Public Lands,” attempted to discourage squatters on lands ceded to the United States government, especially lands not yet offered for sale. The act also authorized the government to forcibly remove squatters from privately-owned land upon petition of the landowner. Existing squatters on unoccupied land were allowed to remain on up to 320 acres as “tenants of will” if they registered with the local land office by the end of 1807. They also agreed to give “quiet possession,” and move off of the land when the government ultimately sold it.

“That any person or persons who, before the passing of this act, had taken possession of, occupied, or made a settlement on any lands ceded or secured to the United States…and who at the time of passing this act does or do actually inhabit and reside on such lands, may, at any time prior to the first day of January next, apply to the proper register or recorder…such applicant or applicants to remain on such tract or tracts of land, not exceeding three hundred and twenty acres for each applicant, as tenants at will, on such terms and conditions as shall prevent any waste or damages on such lands…“

The Illinois Preemption Act of 5 February 1813 granted preemption rights to all actual settlers in Illinois. This was the first law enacted by Congress which conveyed blanket preemption rights to all squatters in a specified region and not simply to certain categories of claimants. This went against the recommendation of the House Committee on Public Lands, which strongly opposed granting blanket preemption rights on the grounds that doing so would encourage future squatting.

“That every person, or legal representative of every person, who has actually inhabited and cultivated a tract of land lying in either of the districts established for the sale of public lands, in the Illinois territory, which tract is not rightfully claimed by any other person and who shall not have removed from said territory; every such person and his legal representatives shall be entitled to a preference in becoming the purchaser from the United States of such tract of land at private sale…“

The Land Act of 1820, also referred to as the 1820 Sale Act, reduced the price of federal land (Northwest Territory and Missouri Territory) to $1.25 acre, with a minimum purchase of 80 acres and downpayment of $100. The act also granted squatters the right to preempt these conditions and purchase the land even more cheaply if they had made improvements to the land such as the building of homes, fences, or mills. This act eliminated credit sales, the purchase of public land in the United States on credit.

That from and after the first day of July next [1820] , all the public lands of the United States, the sale of which is, or may be authorized by law, shall when offered at public sale, to the highest bidder, be offered in half quarter sections [80 acres] ; and when offered at private sale, may be purchased, at the option of the purchaser, either in entire sections [640 acres] , half sections [320 acres] , quarter sections [160 acres] , or half quarter sections [80 acres] 

Following several early preemption acts, a permanent preemption law went into effect on 4 September 1841. Commonly referred to as the Preemption Act of 1841, this legislation permitted an individual to settle and cultivate up to 160 acres of land and to then purchase that land within a specified time after either survey or settlement at $1.25 per acre. The preemption act of 1841 was repealed in 1891.

And be it further enacted, That from and after the passage of this act, every person being the head of a family, or widow, or single man, over the age of twenty-one years, and being a citizen of the United States, or having filed his declaration of intention to become a citizen as required by the naturalization laws, who since the first day of June A.D. eighteen hundred and forty, has made or shall hereafter make a settlement in person on the public lands…is hereby, authorized to enter with the register of the land office for the district in which such land may lie, by legal subdivisions, any number of acres not exceeding one hundred and sixty, or a quarter section of land, to include the residence of such claimant, upon paying to the United States the minimum price of such land…“

The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, also called the Donation Land Act, was passed on 27 September 1850 and provided free land to all white or mixed-blood Native American settlers who arrived in Oregon Territory (the present-day states of Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and part of Wyoming) before December 1, 1855, based on four years of residence and cultivation of the land. The law, which granted 320 acres to unmarried male citizens eighteen or older, and 640 acres to married couples, split equally between them, was one of the first that allowed married women in the United States to hold land under their own name.

That there shall be, and hereby is, granted to every white settler or occupant of the public lands, American half-breed Indians included, above the age of eighteen years, being a citizen of the United States….the quantity of one half section, or three hundred and twenty acres of land, if a single man, and if a married man, or if he shall become married within one year from the first day of December, eighteen hundred and fifty, the quantity of one section, or six hundred and forty acres, one half to himself and the other half to his wife, to be held by her in her own right…“

The Bounty Land Act of 1855, also referred to as the Scrip Warrant Act of 1855, entitled U.S. military veterans or their survivors to receive a warrant or certificate which could then be redeemed in person at any federal land office for 160 acres of federally owned land. The warrant could also be sold or transferred to another individual who could then obtain the land under the same conditions. This act, enacted on 3 March 1855, extended the conditions of several smaller bounty land acts passed between 1847 and 1854 to cover more soldiers and sailors, service for a period of only 14 days or engagement in a single battle. It also provided additional acreage and in case of death the right extended to the widow or minor children.

That each of the surviving commissioned and non-commissioned officers, musicians, and privates, whether of regulars, volunteers, rangers, or militia, who were regularly mustered into the service of the United States, and every officer, commissioned and non-commissioned seaman, ordinary seaman, flotilla-man, marine, clerk, and landsman in the navy, in any of the wars in which this country has been engaged since seventeen hundred and ninety, and each of the survivors of the militia, or volunteers, or State troops of any State or Territory, called into military service, and regularly mustered therein, and whose services have been paid by the United States, shall be entitled to receive a certificate or warrant from the Department of the Interior for one hundred and sixty acres of land…“

Probably the best recognized of all land acts in the United States, the Homestead Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on 20 May 1862. Taking effect on 1 January 1863, the Homestead Act made it possible for any adult male U.S. citizen, or intended citizen, who had never taken up arms against the United States, to gain title to 160 acres of undeveloped land by living on it five years and paying eighteen dollars in fees. Female heads of household were also eligible. African-Americans later become eligible when the 14th Amendment granted them citizenship in 1868. Specific requirements for ownership included building a home, making improvements, and farming the land before they could own it outright. Alternatively, the homesteader could purchase the land for $1.25 per acre after having lived on the land for at least six months. Several previous attempts to pass homestead acts failed in 1852, 1853, and 1860.

“That any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such, as required by the naturalization laws of the United States, and who has never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid or comfort to its enemies, shall, from and after the first January, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, be entitled to enter one quarter section [160 acres] or a less quantity of unappropriated public lands…“


©2022Kimberly Powell. Use of this article elsewhere without permission violates copyright. Short excerpts and links are welcome, with credit and a link back to Learn Genealogy.
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