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

IV

Doing a Land-Office Business

AT FIRST, the official in the Treasury Department responsible for both the measurement and dispensing of the land was the Surveyor General, but as new land districts were opened from time to time a surveyor general was appointed for each district and an over-all agency was needed to handle the increasing real estate business of the nation. A law approved on April 25, 1812, established the General Land Office within the Treasury Department, and the official in charge -- whose duty it was to superintend the public lands -- was known as the Commissioner of the General Land Office. In 1849 the General Land Office was transferred from the Treasury Department to the newly established Home Department, or Department of the Interior as it came to be called. As previously stated, the original plan was to sell the lands at Philadelphia, but succeeding laws established land offices in the vicinity of the land to be dispensed as the frontier moved westward.

Since the land offices, in order to be near the land that was passing from public to private hands, were located on the frontier, the fixtures were in keeping with pioneer custom. In 1833 they ordinarily consisted of two plain pine tables, two bookcases, and an iron chest with a padlock. The examiner estimated the value of these fixtures at about twenty dollars for the tables and desks and fifty dollars for the iron chest. The office at Jeffersonville, Indiana, had four bookcases, but the Warren, Ohio, office used an old family bureau in lieu of a bookcase.1

Two officials, appointed by the President of the United States, had charge of each land office. The superior officer, known as the register of the land office, corresponded to an administrative clerk, and his associate next in rank, known as the receiver of public moneys, corresponded to a treasurer.

The register kept two books. The first was a tract book, which contained

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1
See the reports of the examiners of land offices in American State Papers, Public Lands, VII ( Washington, D.C., 1860), 182, 189, 198, 214.

-35-

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