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

IX

The Fight for Free Land

THE VAST EXPANSE of our territory and its apparently inexhaustible riches led to a prodigal spirit even in Congress and on the part of officials entrusted to manage the land, as well as in the citizens who desired to possess it.

The first big gift by Congress was to the states when they were admitted to the Union. The Ordinance of 1785 gave ownership of section 16 in each township to the states for the support of public schools (but an attempt at the same time to set aside a like amount of land for the support of religion was narrowly defeated). After August 14, 1848 -- beginning with Oregon's admission -- each state received section 36 as well, which doubled the amount the states received for common schools. Unfortunately, most of the states, instead of keeping this land until it became valuable, frittered it away and their schools received only a very small portion of the benefits intended. When a territory set up housekeeping for itself as a state in the Union, it was customary also for the federal government to grant a dowry in the form of land on which to build a capitol or land that could be sold to help pay for its construction. Often, land also was given for the establishment of a university or for other state institutions.

Counties and cities also came in for their share. In 1806, for example, land was given to Detroit on which to build a jail and a courthouse; Natchez received a town common along the Mississippi River; and New Orleans received land in 1806 and 1812 for a common and a pumping station. Finally, in 1824, a law gave the right of pre-emption of a quarter section to all counties in the public-land states for county seats.1 Many and varied were the requests that came from states or towns for educational institutions. In 1826, Kentucky was given a township (less section 16, which had already been given to the state in which the land lay), for the purpose of founding the "Kentucky asylum for teaching the deaf and

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1
Payson J. Treat, The National Land System 1785-1820, ( New York: E. B. Treat and Co., 1910), pp. 315-317.

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