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

V

Squatters and Pre-emption

FROM EARLY COLONIAL TIMES until the latter part of the nineteenth century the indifference of frontiersmen to the property rights of the great landholders and the government was a real problem. In New England, New York, and especially in Pennsylvania the immigrant paid no attention to the landlord's demands, and the Virginia frontiersmen regarded the king's land as lightly as Robin Hood regarded His Majesty's deer. As early as 1768 the Pennsylvania Assembly had passed an act which required all persons who had settled illegally on western lands to remove within thirty days or suffer death without benefit of clergy, but the intruders ignored the threat. By 1775, in defiance of the Proclamation of 1763, there were between 25,000 and 30,000 persons beyond the Appalachians in the Fort Pitt district.

When the colonists set up housekeeping for themselves, the new nation found that a mere change of government did not alter the habits of its people. Congress in 1785 felt compelled to issue a proclamation forbidding unlawful settlement and authorized the Secretary of War to remove those who had settled on the public domain in violation of law. Colonel Harmar, in carrying out these orders, sent Ensign John Armstrong and a party of soldiers down the Ohio River, destroying houses, tearing down fences, and dispossessing settlers. Armstrong reported that every bottom between Wheeling and the Scioto River had at least one family and that there were at least three hundred families at the falls of the Hockhocking. In spite of the demolitions, no sooner were the troops out of sight than the settlers were back on the land again. In the Southwest, a similar situation existed. In 1791 a congressman stated that 300,000 families (highly exaggerated) had settled south of the French Broad and Big Pigeon rivers in present eastern Tennessee. 1

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1
Amelia C. Ford, Colonial Precedents of our National Land System, Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin, History Series, II, No. 2 ( Madison, Wis., 1909- 1910), 117-118.

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