The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands from the Articles of Confederation to the New Deal

By Everett Dick | Go to book overview

XII

Timber and the Public Domain

THE FRONTIER ATTITUDE toward timber on public lands was based on the pioneers' belief that government land belonged to the people as much as the sunshine and air; moreover, during the first quarter of the nineteenth century the settled areas were so densely wooded that the great problem was to clear the land and burn the logs in preparation for farming. As settlement reached the lightly timbered region, the early settler felt it was not wrong "to visit Uncle Sam," as it was called, for wood or rails. As a result, later settlers would often find that their claims had been stripped of their valuable timber; then, when they were ready to fence their fields, they might have to buy rails from the intact oak groves of the identical persons who had denuded their claims. It was only one step from this custom of domestic use to exploitation of the timber resources.

Timberlands were denuded even before the land of "oak openings" and prairies were reached in the westward march of settlement. One of the earliest recorded instances occurred in 1811, near the mouth of the Homochitto River, where the citizens cut cypress trees, made rafts of the logs, and floated them down the Mississippi.1 People also sought bark for the tannery trade. John Badollet, on April 25, 1814, wrote to Edward Tiffin, Commissioner of the General Land Office, that persons holding Virginia treasury warrants were cutting timber in Illinois and Indiana territories near the Ohio River. They defended their trespass on the pretense that the lowlands in these territories, which occasionally were flooded, were islands in the Ohio River that belonged to Kentucky and that the land was subject to entry with the warrants they held. On May 4, Badollet wrote:

Large speculations in oak and other bark for tanneries are, I am told, going on under colour of those pretended titles, and the great devasta

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1
Governor David Holmes to Mr. Taylor, in Clarence Edwin Carter (ed.), The Territorial Papers of the United States, VII ( Washington, D:C.: Govt. Printing Office, 1938), 224.

-179-

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