Towards a History of Privatizing Public Lands in Michigan 1785-1860

By E. Mitchell, Robert | Michigan Academician, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Towards a History of Privatizing Public Lands in Michigan 1785-1860


E. Mitchell, Robert, Michigan Academician


ABSTRACT

The pre-1860 history of federal and state efforts to privatize public lands in Michigan is covered under six operational and policy themes: (1) quieting Native American claims to their lands, (2) surveying and platting the state's land, (3) reviewing the federal and state offices administering the privatization process, (4) analyzing federal and state land policies, (5) discussing the role that speculators had in the privatization process, and (6) reviewing the effects that privatization had on the settlement of the state. Privatization was both a partial success and a deeply flawed process.

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From its very beginning under the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Michigan was a public land territory and state. (1) This meant that the new national government, even under the Articles of Confederation, was responsible for disposing all of the state's land except for a small number of private claims. Of course the various American Indian groups could claim sovereignty over the state's acres as well. Before Michigan could be settled, these sovereignty claims had to be resolved, the Native Americans themselves removed from their lands, and the land surveyed and then sold (patented).

Historians have largely overlooked the privatization of Michigan's lands during often-trying economic times, high population mobility, and weak governments. The major works are two unpublished doctoral dissertations (2) and an unpublished Master's thesis. (3) Although Kenneth Lewis and others have covered selected portions of the results attributable to federal programs, (4) few scholars have responded to Paul W. Gates' 1960 challenge that "a great deal of intensive research in the entry volumes of various land offices needs to be done preparatory to the history of [land] disposal in states like Michigan." (5)

The present article revisits this under-reported history, one that can be seen both as a partial success and as a deeply flawed process. Success refers to the federal government's privatization of nearly 14 million Michigan acres by 1860 as well as over 12 million acres granted to the state for its own follow-on sale or pass-through to private interests. (6) By 1860, 53 percent of the approximately 26 million acres in the 68 counties of Michigan's Lower Peninsula had been privatized by the federal government and another four percent was privatized from the various federal land grants given to the State. (7) While these large numbers represent a significant success, the privatization process also suffered flaws, including cases of fraud, consequences attributable to a weak credit system, and the major role that speculators played in the market for Michigan land. Large landowners claimed 57 percent of all Lower Peninsula land patented as of 1850. (8)

Rather than follow a traditional time line history of the major federal and state land-disposal laws, agencies and their programs, the present review focuses on six operational and policy challenges that privatization programs had to address. First, we begin with the transfer of Native American sovereignty and native peoples themselves from lands they occupied and used. Second, completing the rectangular surveys was a major accomplishment performed under often very trying circumstances. Third, the national and state offices created to administer the privatization process accomplished much hut there were also occasional problems, some of them quite serious. Fourth, the design of federal programs and mistakes by the State of Michigan together helped create barriers to patenting land by fanner-settlers, Fifth, in line with prior research, we discuss speculation and speculators. Finally, we revisit one of the founding purposes of privatization - - to encourage settlement. Neither the state nor the federal governments developed comprehensive settlement policies for Michigan in specific and nationwide more generally. …

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