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Evolution of Land Ownership in America: Filling Up the Space

Many strategies were employed to encourage settlement of the widely expanding United States as the country moved east to west.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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During the earliest of European occupation of America, the greatest barrier was not from purchasing land, it was how one filled up the vast unpopulated and unoccupied space. It did not help to have hundreds of acres of fertile land waiting to grow lucrative cash crops if you did not have anyone to work the land. Researchers will discover a series of ideas designed to fill up the wide open spaces of America from the first settlements along the East Coast to the later settlements on the Pacific West Coast. It was also courted by the necessity of governments to gain revenue from such activities. The supply and demand for property seemed unending in the beginning.

Before the Revolutionary War

One of the first systems employed to solve the labor shortage and increase the occupation of unsettled land was the headright system, which was a legal grant of land to anyone who would pay for the passage of individuals to America. When such passage was paid by a third party, most often by an investor who stayed in Europe, the passenger was known as an indentured servant and was expected to work off the debt by a number of years in servitude.

Another common practice was large tracts of lands under proprietors who resold portions and had great control over the dealings of estates. William Penn, having received a grant of land in Pennsylvania was one of the more famous of these proprietors.

After the Revolutionary War

After the Revolutionary War, the United States continued to grow in size. Space opened up for use from the original thirteen colonies to a nation which expanded from east to west. After setting up shop, the United States government needed revenue. This was the primary purpose for the establishment of property policies and rights with a series of congressional acts.

The first was the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which were designed to control the survey, sale, and settling of new lands. Of course, at that time, the term, "Northwest" was quite a bit different than what we think of it today. The Northwest included, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi.

The system developed to survey land was known as the rectangular survey system, which employed basic units of townships and sections. Prior to this act, parcels of land were mostly surveyed by a meandering method known as metes and bounds. In some areas the French system of long lots were employed, which created narrow plots of land along banks of rivers and lakes. Most researchers will find a stark contrast of property descriptions associated with metes and bounds. They often have such descriptions as; "three poles to the white oak," or "two chains to the big rock," etc. These early descriptions were in the East and in the original thirteen states. By the time one finds property in western Ohio, you will find descriptions in terms of townships and sections.

Part of the 1785 land ordinance limited the amount of land one could buy from the government at 640 acres. Such land had to be offered at public auction before it could be offered to individuals. This provision lasted until 1841. It wasn't long before the restrictions by the government were a source of controversy. The Harrison Land act of 1800 was intended to attract more immigrants to the western United States by reducing the size of land purchased from 640 to 320 acres and make the financing easier by the use of credit.

The Land act of 1804 refined the provisions for the purchase of U.S. public land north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River. It was another effort to attract migration to the western states.

The Military Tract of 1812 set aside bounty lands in western territories as payment to volunteers for the War against the British. This land was in present day Arkansas, Michigan, and Illinois. However, Missouri was later used as a substitute for Michigan. Bounty Land Warrants had been issued prior to 1812 for other vets and were often used as barter. The original veterans, not wanting land in Ohio and other portions of the country, would trade the warrant for other more desirable things. Thus, often the family which headed west to occupy areas opening up were not the original party that was issued the warrant.

Many settlers had already moved west before the government had surveyed the land. In 1841 the Preemption Act permitted squatters on public land under specific conditions, whereby the land could be purchased prior to a public auction. It was mainly used in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Michigan. The act was widely used in the Kansas and Nebraska territory until the homestead act of 1862.

The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 was used to settle the Oregon Territory by giving 160 acres to any single white male and 320 acres to any married couple who arrived before December 1, 1850 in the territory. The Act also provided half the amount of land to arrivals by 1854.

The homestead Act of 1862 was the culmination of the push to fill up the western states and create income for the government. It gave the applicant up to 160 acres of undeveloped federal land outside the original thirteen colonies. One had to file an application, improve the land, and file for a deed of title. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 ended homesteading.

Researchers can study most of the above Acts in greater detail on the Internet by entering the name and year of the Act in a search engine. Apparently, the desire to "fill up" the space called America worked. Despite vast waste lands which are mostly unwanted, it seems the present day complaints are concerned with too many people and not enough space.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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