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Legislation often changed rules for land sales

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 08:17 AM

This is the fourth of a seven-part feature on how to use land records in genealogical research. If you missed previous weeks' columns, you can find them at www2.tbo.com/list/life-genealogy. At the site, click on the blue subheadings for the 12/16/12, 12/23/12 and 12/30/12 columns.

Thirty of our states are called federal or public domain states, meaning that the states themselves were never involved in the sale or distribution of lands within their boundaries.

After the Revolutionary War, the new country had no money, but it was rich in land. The government distributed this land to individuals to reward soldiers for their service, to raise money for the new government and to encourage westward migration.

The land was sold or distributed through several methods directed by acts of Congress.

In May 1785, Congress passed its first land legislation, known as the Land Ordinance Act, in which it authorized the Treasury Department to sell public domain acreage to raise money for the new country.

This legislation also directed that the land should be surveyed into rectangular divisions before it was offered for sale. This survey system was featured in last week's column.

Under the first land ordinance, the government required that land — which was sold in sections of 640 acres — be sold at public auction for cash, no less than $1 per acre.

That changed in 1800, when Congress approved credit sales of public land. It also allowed sections to be divided so that smaller lots of 320 acres could be sold at $2 per acre.

Under credit terms, a settler paid one-twelfth of the price at the time of the sale with one-fourth (including the one-twelfth) due in 40 days. Another one-fourth was due in two years, another one-fourth in three years, and a final one-fourth in four years. If the citizen didn't fully pay for the land by five years, he forfeited the land and the government offered it for sale again.

The next major legislation came in 1820, when Congress authorized land cash sales at $1.25 per acre with the sale of tracts as small as 80 acres. Purchasers could no longer buy on credit.

In 1862 Congress passed the most famous piece of its land legislation, the Homestead Act. This new law allowed any person who was a citizen or person intending to become a citizen, 21 years of age or older and the head of a household, to make application. The settler had to live on the land for five years and make improvements, such as building a home and planting crops. For a $15 fee, he could get 160 acres of land. This law remained in force until 1976.

In 1866, the Mining Act allowed prospectors to file a claim on a mineral vein for $5 per acre.

In 1873, Congress passed the Timber Culture Act, which allowed settlers to get 160 acres of land if they would plant 40 acres in trees. A year later the government amended the law to require settlers to meet the same age and citizenship requirements as the Homestead Act, but it did not require residence on the land. The cultivation acreage later was reduced to 10 acres.

In 1877, Congress passed the Desert Land Act, permitting sale of 640-acre tracts of arid public lands at $1.25 per acre to homesteaders if they proved reclamation of the land by irrigation.

An upcoming column will show researchers how to determine under which act an ancestor got land.


Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Baylife, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa, FL 33606 or stmoody0720@mac.com. She regrets that she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching specific individuals.
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