Working the Range: Essays on the History of Western Land Management and the Environment

By John R. Wunder | Go to book overview

HOMER E. SOCOLOFSKY


8
American Land Policies and William Scully

With the acquisition of a vast public domain in the late eighteenth century the infant United States began the evolution of a federal land policy. Potential purchasers were at first located along the coast, a great distance from these new land areas. Different states claimed fragments of the region to pay off Revolutionary War obligations. Even before the adoption of the Constitution, a system of rectangular survey of the public domain was begun which was followed, with minor alteration, into the thirty public land states. 1 There the man-made marks on the land reflected the north-south, east-west grid initiated in 1785. 2 Natives of those states, much more than other Americans, use cardinal directions for identifying locations or for providing information.

Of far greater diversity were the procedures employed by the federal government for transferring to private ownership that great national treasure of more than a billion acres of land. Two contradictory ideas surfaced for the evolving federal land policy. Strongest at first was the intention to dispose of land for cash to large-scale purchasers. This view, backed by political leaders such as Alexander Hamilton, looked on the land owned by the federal government as a significant source of revenue. Another-pattern of public land disposal emphasized small- sized tracts to be made available to actual settlers at low cost

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