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

I

Land Precedents of the
Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

FREE OR CHEAP LAND was the lodestone that pulled multitudes of Europeans to America for three centuries following the first English settlement in 1607. It also was the motive that irresistibly drew the easterner to brave the danger of Indian hostilities and endure the loneliness and hardships of a life in the untamed wilderness. In contrast to many of the great migrations of world history, the steady flow of American settlers to the West was not primarily the result of political or religious oppression; it was rather an economic response to the call of opportunity. To the venturesome getahead individual, "out West" was the land of new beginning, and during the centuries of its existence it continued to be synonymous with opportunity. Glowing reports of rich bottomland, woodlands teeming with game, springside building locations, damsites for mills, and natural townsites where great cities would grow up to enrich the one who had the foresight to lay out the urban community -- all these lured the venturesome.

When John Oldham brought back favorable reports from the Connecticut Valley in 1633, the record reads that the people of eastern Massachusetts began to have "a hankering after it." Visions of rich land continued to agitate them, and one year later the people of Newtown, under the leadership of Thomas Hooker, asked permission of the General Court to move west. As support for their request they cited the shortage of pasture for their livestock, "the fruitfulness and commodiousness of Connecticut, and the strong bent of their spirits to remove thither." Astute observers are certain that the real motives lay in the phrase "the strong bent of their spirits to remove thither." It was the same spirit which led west, ever west -- not only to Connecticut but to the shores of the Pacific.

The urge to own land in colonial days was not based wholly upon economics, however. There was a political and a social basis. Just as gaining an

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