PUBLIC LANDS

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PUBLIC LANDS. The property of the soil of the whole vast region, comprehended within the limits of the U. States, and not owned by the separate states or by private individuals, vests in the government of the U. States. From the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean, and between the northern and southern boundaries of the republic, it is calculated that there is contained a superficies of 1,400,000,000 acres. The political situation of the different parts of this superficies is exceedingly various. Dividing it into four belts or strips, parallel (or nearly so) with a meridian line, the first comprehends the Atlantic states, in most of which, particularly in the Middle and Northern states, the land is almost wholly the property of individuals. Maine there is a considerable portion of land belonging to the states of Massachusetts and Maine, and, in Georgia, large tracts in the occupation of the Cherokee Indians are claimed by the government of that state. The general government possesses no land in any of the Atlantic states, except small portions which have been ceded for forts, dockyards, arsenals, and other like national purposes. The second belt of land westward comprehends the new states and territories of the Union, in all of which, except Kentucky, there are considerable, in most of them large, tracts of public domain ; these states having been formed since the revolution, and their population settled on lands either purchased of the U. States, or still belonging to them. The number of persons of the latter class who thus occupy, without title, lands still belonging to the U. States, is very large, exceeding, in some cases, that of the persons who have acquired titles. They have, however, generally settled themselves with the purpose of eventually purchasing the land. The third belt lies westward of the organized states and territories. It comprehends lands acquired by the Louisiana treaty, and of which the Indian title has been extinguished by treaties with several tribes of Indians. As there is no organized civil government, there is no white population in this region, except hunters and vagrants. On the southern portion of this district, west of the territory of Arkansas and the state of Missouri, the tribes of Indians removed from the Atlantic states, 'nave been, or are proposed to be, established. The fourth belt comprehends all the remaining district to the Pacific ocean. It lies on both sides of the Rocky mountains. The U. States have acquired the title to it by the Louisiana treaty (see Louisiana), by the discovery of the coast, and by interior exploration. The title, however, to that part of this region which is west of the Rocky mountains, is Contested by Great Britain. Great Britain claims, not that the title is in her, but that the region is unappropriated, and open to the first comer. By a convention concluded in 1828, to last twelve years, it was agreed between the (J. States ^and Great Britain, that neither government would take possession of it or occupy it, to the exclusion of the other, during the period of the convention, which either party might renounce, on giving twelve months' notice to the other. A this region, to the mouth of the Columbia river. It is also visited by hunters from the U. States, but in numbers far less than those from the British colonies. The In dian title to this whole fourth belt of land remains unextinguished ; and the soil of that part of it lying east of the Rocky mountains, is supposed, for the most part, to be too sterile to become the residence of civilized man. The title to these lands was the subject of the first great political controversy that divided the opinions of the citizens of the U. States, after the declaration of independence. The ancient charters of several of the states extended from sea to sea, or indefinitely to the west. They consequently crossed each other, and threw the same territory into the limits of different states. This was one source of dissension; and another was, that, as the greatest part of the western region was wholly unsettled, and the war was carried on at the common charge, it was deemed unjust by those states whose western boundary was ascertained, that they should have no interest or share in the vacant lands. The discontent of Maryland on this subject was so great that she refused to come into the confederation, and delayed the ratification of that instrument of government till 1781; and when she finally acceded to it, did so with a reservation of her rights. The serious controversies on this subject were put at rest by several acts of cession, made by the states interested to the U. States. New York set the example, by an act passed on the 1st of March, 1781. Virginia followed, on the 1st of March, 1784, and her cession was deemed of the greatest importance, as her claim extended over a vast region (the territory northwest of the Ohio), and had been strengthened by the military efforts of the colonial government of Virginia to protect the territory against the French in the former wars. Massachusetts ceded her claim on the 19th of April, 1785, and Connecticut hers on the 13th of September, 1786. By these several acts of cession, the U. States acquired an undisputed title to the territory northwest of the Ohio. Out of this territory have been formed the states of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, the territory of Michigan, and an extensive territory west of it, which it has already been proposed in congress to organize under a separate territorial government. Connecticut, in making her cession, retained a considerable district in Ohio, known by tl e nameof the "Western (or Connecticut) Reserve," which was finally ceded to the U. States in 1800, and by the U. States to Ohio. The foundation of the ample schoolfund of Connecticut was laid in the proceeds of this reserved tract. North Carolina made a cession of the tract of country now forming the state of Tennessee, in 1789. It was subject to a great variety of claims, described in the act of cession. In 1806, congress ceded to Tennessee a considerable part of the public land in that state. The title to the residue is still vested in the U. States, but no landoffice has ever been opened by the general government in this state, nor have the public lands been surveyed and brought into market. It has been represented to congress that all the valuable portions of them have been long settled, and attempts (hitherto unsuccessful) have been made, of late years, to obtain a donation of them, vor a sale of them on very easy terms, to the actual settlers. South Carolina ceded her claims to western lands by an act of her state government of 1787. The cession of Georgia alone was needed for the amicable adjustment of this great controversy. This took place, after a series of highly embarrassing transactions, in 1802, when a compact was entered into between the U. States and Georgia, by which the latter ceded to the U. States all her claim to the lands west of the present western boundary of Georgia, and the U. States contracted to extinguish the Indian title east of that line, as soon as it could be done "peaceably and on reasonable terms." On the tract of land to which Georgia thus ceded her claim, the states of Alabama and Mississippi have been formed. The expenditure directly incident to the acquisition of the public lands may be stated as follows: but it must be recollected that other public objects, of the highest moment, have been affected by those treaties with Indian tribes and foreign powers by which the various cessions of land have been attained. The Indian treaties have been frequently treaties of pacification as well as territorial acquisition ; and the political advantages of the Louisiana and Florida treaties vastly outweigh, in importance, the mere value of the land acquired. Expenses of Indian treaties, from 1776 to 1826,_____$3,868,379 Payment to Georgia, under the compact of 1802, . . . 1,250,000Do. on account of Yazoo Scrip,............4,950,000 Purchase of Louisiana, ..." ^00,000Do. Florida,..... ^000 Expenses of surveying 14C millions of acres,...... J00Do. incidental to the sales ol public lands, up to June 30, 1828,.......... < 35,197$t J67,576 Since the date to which these puta tions are brought, large expendii ave been made, and much larger on< may be expected to be incurred in extinguishing the Indian title to lands in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. The pu lie lands were very early looked to as a source of revenue to the country. s early as 1776, Silas Deaue, then ? >litical and commercial agent of .e U. States in France, communicate^ to congress a plan for the sale and settlement of the territory northwest of tl ; Ohio ;* and, as has been already obse ved, the calculations of the future valuo of this region formed the first great subject of collision between the several sta of the confederacy. It was, however a long time before an effective system was devised, by which the lands could t s thrown open to settlement, or made avt >lable for the purpose of revenue. Bou itylands having been promised, by the continental congress, to the officers and so.Jiers of the continental army, it became necessary to redeem that pledge as early as possible. The controversies between the several states, and between them anc the U. States, retarded, for some time, tie fulfilment of this pledge. On the t ventieth of May, 1785, an ordinance wa passed by the congress of the confeders tion, for ascertaining the mode of dispc sing of lands in the Western Territory ; ind this was the first act of general legisl tion on the subject. This act may be i' und in the new edition of the Land Law., p. 349. Under it, very limited sales wer made, not amounting, in the whole, to m "re than 121,540 acres. In addition to the * sales, there were three considerable sa es " by special contract," as it was callec¦. The first was of " the Triangle," a tract of land on lake Erie. This tract was c< ded to Pennsylvania, September 4,1788. It consisted of 202,187 acres, and $157, 40 accrued from the sale. The next s ie was to the " Ohio Land Company," of a tra^t of land on the Ohio and Musi <*um rivers, originally intended to inclu wo* Diplomatic Correspondence of the ohi tion, vol. i, p. 79 lior e price of these lands was two thir*'¦¦:'o¦'* ^ a dollar an acre, receivable in evidence of *the public debt. The Ohio Compan ^coi^jnenced the settlement of the state of' hi© in 1788. The third of these sales wrr^£lso in Ohio, to John Cleves SymmeV of the tract of land between the Great t Little Miami rivers, eventually reduce J: 2485540 acres. On the tenth of May ;."*?, £ur act of congress was passed, laying tl/ foundation of the land system, as it now^xists. It has received several modifications at subsequent periods, two of which1 are of great importance, and will presently be stated. Under this law, the subf^ atial features of the land system of tliP^l l. States, are the following: All the; >nds, before they are offered for sale, are surveyed on a rigidly accurate plan, at the effiense of the government. The surveys ^ff the public lands of the U. States ar'i founded upon a series of true meridians3. The first principal meridian is in 01#o, the second in Indiana, the third irf;sillinois, &c, each forming the bffse ofr>7series of surveys, of which the lines are made to correspond, so that the whole 'country is at last divided into squares dP one mile each, and townships of ,"ix m^ies each; and these subdivisions are distributed with mathematical accuracy into* parallel ranges. The greatest division of land marked out by the survey is called a township, and contains 23,040 acresj b<>ing six English or American mile& sqjare. The township is subdivided \frjffo thirtysix equal portions or sq^iare^n^tes, by lines crossing each other at i'igliid^Tgles. These portions are called seasons. :*<50ie section contains 640 acres, arjctis s^fiSfiVided into four parts, called quartertctiohs, each of which, of course, eontains^'dne hundred and sixty acres. *!F]&e qucTter>sections are finally divided into two^parts, called half quartersections, of eight** acres each, and this is the smallest regular subdivision known to the system. *ffhe sectional and quartersectional division*? are designated by appropriate marks ib the field, which are of a character^' be easily distinguished from each other/ ,;The half quartersections are not marked in the field, but are designated on the plcy¦j,of the survey, by the surveyorgeneral iri $'king the distance on one of the ascerta! aed lines, in order to get the quantity ^Huch half quartersections as exhiff'1 av),by his plot of survey. The fractioo^fooijons which contain less than one hv I and sixty acres are not subdi wards, are subdivided in such manner as to preserve the most compact and convenient forms. A series of contiguous townships, laid off from north to south, is called a range. The ranges are numbered north and south from the base or standard line, running due east and west. They are counted from the standard meridian east and west. The superintendence of the surveys is committed to five surveyorsgeneral. One thirtysixth part of all the lands surveyed, being section number sixteen in each township, is reserved from sale, for the support of schools in the township, and other reservations have been made for colleges and universities. AH salt springs and lead mines are also reserved, and are subject to be leased under the direction of the president of the U. States. The government has generally found it expedient to authorize the surveying of forty townships of land annually, in each land district, so as to admit of two sales by public auction annually, of twenty townships each. The general land office at Washington is under the superintendence of an officer, called "commissioner of the general land office." It is subordinate to the treasury department. The public lands are laid off into districts, in each of which there is a land office, under the superintendence of two officers, appointed by the president and senate, called the "register of the land office, and the receiver of public moneys." There are at present fortytwo land offices. The register and the receiver each receive a salary of five hundred dollars per annum, and a commission of one per cent, on the moneys paid into their office. Till 1820, a credit was allowed on all purchases of public lands. In consequence of this system, large quantities of land had been purchased on speculation ; and also, in the ordinary course of purchases, a vast amount of landdebt to the government had been contracted. To relieve the embarrassed condition of these debtors, an act was passed, authorizing the relinquishment of lands purchased, and substituting cash payments for the credit system. The most beneficial effects have resulted from this change, apart from the relief of those wdio were indebted to the government. At the same time the minimum price of the land was reduced from two dollars to one dollar and twentyfive cents an acre. In the first instance, the public lands are offered for sale, undei proclamations of the president, by public auction, with the limitation of the minimum rate. Lands not thus sold are afterwards subject to entry, at private sale, and at the minimum price. A very large amount of public land is in the occupation of persons who have settled upon it without title. This is frequently done in consequence of unavoidable delays in bringing the land into market, and not from any intention, on the part of the settler, to delay payment. Laws have been passed, granting to settlers of this description a preemptive right in the acquisition of a title, that is, the preference over all other persons in entering the land at private sale. These laws afford the actual settler no protection against those who might choose to overbid him at the public sales; but it is believed that in most cases, by mutual agreement among purchasers, the actual settler is enabled to obtain his land, even at public sale, at the minimum price. It is stated, however, that great injury is done to the settlers, by combinations of land speculators, who infest the public sales, purchasing the lands at the minimum price, and compelling bona fide settlers to take them at an enhanced valuation. Should the settler refuse such an agreement, the speculators enter into competition with him at the sale. On the whole it would appear, that, on an average, the government obtains but the minimum price for its lands, although the quantity actually sold and occupied, being the choice of the whole quantity brought into market, is of course worth much more. Five per cent, on all the sales of public lands within the states severally, is reserved ; threefifths of which are to be expended by congress, in making roads leading to the states ; and twofifths to be expended by the states in the encouragement of learning. The first part of this reservation has been expended on the Cumberland road ; and the treasury of the U. States is greatly in advance to that fund, on account of this public work. It appears that, up to the present time, about 150 millions of acres of the public lands have been surveyed. Of these, thirty millions have not been proclaimed for sale ; twenty millions have been sold, and as much more granted by congress for education, internal improvement, and other purposes. There are, then, 110 millions of acres surveyed, but not sold; eighty millions of which are m the market, ready for entry at the minimum price, and thirty millions subject to be proclaimed for sale whenever there is a demand.In a former article (Agrarian ' Laws,q. v.) we gave some account of the Roman agrarian laws, the name of which has long been familiar to every reader, although their real character has, until the investigations of Mr. Niebuhr, whose death every scholar deeply deplores, been much misunderstood. We there observed also, that the republic of the U. States, like that of Rome, had been much occupied in legislating on the subject of its public lands; and that, as laws had been made in some of the states of the Union, bearing a considerable resemblance to the agrarian laws of Rome, we should make some further remarks upon the subject in the present article. The nature of this work, as we then observed, forbids the full developement of a subject which partakes so much of a legal investigation as this does ; but we think some illustrations derived from our laws, and the peculiar circumstances of our new country, will not be unacceptable. The laws and practice of the state of Massachusetts will afford sufficient materials for our purpose. This state has always owned a large body of public lands, situate in that part of its original territory which now constitutes a separate state, called the state of Maine. These lands, both from the necessities of the state government and the usual operations of capitalists, became an object of speculation. They were accordingly sold by the state, from time to time, in large tracts, to capitalists and speculators, who, in general, resided in Massachusetts Proper (as it was called before the separation of Maine), at a great distance from the lands thus purchased by them. Their lands, being thus entirely out of their view and control, were of course continually intruded upon, and possession taken, here and there, of parcels of them by emigrants from the more populous towns, who put them under cultivation, and erected houses and other buildings upon them for the common purposes of agriculture. These unauthorized settlers have been familiarly called by the cant term squatters, a name naturally derived from the act of settling upon lands in the manner practised by them. By the lapse of time the mere possession of these settlers, without any legal title to the land, ripened into what they considered to be a right, although the proprietors of the soil were, in general, wholly ignorant of such occupation of their property. At length, after a long series of years, it became impossible to dispossess them, however wrongful their possession, in its origin, may have been. It is true that the proprietors might, and pants; but still the officers of justice could not execute the sentence of the law and dislodge them from their possession. Instances not unfrequently occurred, where the officers of justice and the proprietors themselves, or their agents, were shot at, or suffered other acts of violence from the occupants. In this critical exigency, which threatened so much mischief to the public as well as individuals, and which was perhaps exaggerated by those men who wished to avail themselves of the occasion to obtain popularity for political purposes, it was thought necessary by the legislature of Massachusetts (in the year 1808) to pass a law, which was in effect, to a certain extent, similar to the Roman agrarian laws, by depriving the real proprietor of a portion of his rights and transferring them to the wrongful possessor of the lands sold by the public. To make the subject intelligible to persons who are not conversant with our laws, it should be observed, that under our former laws and usages, a title to land by mere occupancy, could not be acquired by a possession short of sixty years. But by the law of 1808, this term was shortened to forty years. So far, therefore, as it affected those persons who had previously purchased, either of the state or of others holding under the state, its operation was manifestly unjust. It compelled the proprietors to relinquish at once their claim to all that portion of their lands which they had been dispossessed of for more than forty years, and which they had purchased at the full value, under the faith of the ancient law of sixty years'possession. This essential change in the legal rights' of the proprietors, in violation of what they deemed to be the fair intent and meaning of tiieir contralts, caused muchexcitementand dissatisfaction among them. In a very general view, it may be said that there was evidently a hardship on both sides it was not equitable on the one hand, that the proprietor should be deprived of his land, nor on the other, that an innocent occupant, who had been suffered to remain in possession for thirty or forty years, undisturbed by the proprietor, should be suddenly expelled and stripped of the fruits of the labor of a whole life. By way of alleviating the difficulties of the case, it was provided in the same law (1808), agreeably to a well known principle of the Roman code, that when the proprietor should institute a process to recover his land, the occupanthe had made upon the land thus occupied by him, and which were called in the Roman law, meliorationes, or melioramenta, and, by analogy, in the popular language of New England, betterments.* Our law" however, did not, like the Roman, make any distinction between the occupant who did, and him who did not, know that the land was the private property of an individual. Notwithstanding the supposed injustice of the law, it has remained in operation, with some amendments, to the present day ; and the lapse of time is daily rendering it less and less unequal and injurious in its effects. In practice, its operation was the more unequal as respected the proprietor of the land, from another circumstance; for he, being usually a nonresident or stranger, and the occupant being an inhabitant of the same territory from which the jury was taken, who were to try the question of right between the parties, the proprietor was in the more danger of suffering injustice from the prejudice or hostility of the jury. But here again the lawr interposed a useful check, which was, that no person who was interested in a similar question, should be a member of the jury. It is unnecessary to go further into the details of this law. In its origin and principle it was an agrarian law, though in a more mitigated form than those which caused such violent commotions in ancient Rome. A little reflection will enable us to reconcile some differences in respect to the Roman laws, about which there has been some confusion, even since Mr. Niebuhr gave his new views of them. Some readers have inferred from his language, perhaps in itself too unqualified, that the agrarian laws of Rome only affected the public lands, and that there was no violation of private rightsan opinion quite inconsistent with the strong remark of Cicero {Be Qffic. ii, 21), quoted in the article Agrarian Laws. From a consideration of our own laws respecting public lands, we can easily see how the private rights of purchasers under the government and their subpui chasers, might be invaded by mere occu pants, who should settle without permission upon the lands of those purchasers; and after such wrongful possession had continued for a number of years, it would* This term was introduced because the word improvement, which might have been taken to convey the idea of melioramenta, was already familiarly used in New England in the sense of occupation. become a popular measure with the leaders of parties in Rome, to pass agrarian laws, in order to take away these occupied lands from the rich legal proprietors, and confirm them to those, who, like our squatters, had no other claim to them than mere possession. Accordingly we are told by writers on this subject, that the leading provisions in the agrarian laws were those which affected the right of possession, and which were, in principle, like our laws on that subject. From the unequal distribution of property between the nobles and plebeians of Rome, the contest would be proportionably more violent than in a state of society like ours. The lands naturally fell into the hands of the moneyed men, and they were almost literally the patricians alone. We have here attempted to illustrate our views of this subject by an example from only one of our states; but similar laws have been made in other states of the Union. The public lands belonging to the general government of the U. States, and not under the control of any individual state, being situate at a great distance from the main body of our population, have not yet, we believe, been subject to the same embarrassments from conflicting rights, as those which lie within the jurisdiction of the particular states of the Union.