Concise Dictionary of American History
edited by Wayne Andrews

Compact orderly settlement in groups or colonies and a continuous source of income for the Federal Treasury were the principal motives for the land policies adopted in the early years of our national history. To this end settlement was restricted to surveyed areas and the surveys were not made far in advance of demand. Inevitably, however, the lack of restraint and social control on the frontier broke down these policies. Settlers pushed farther into the unsurveyed territory, even into the Indian country, and, if forcibly removed, would promptly return and reconstruct their homes when the troops had withdrawn. As all their lands when first brought on the market were put up at auction and sold to the highest bidder, the threat of the forthcoming government sale hung over the squatters like the sword of Damocles. Their improvements might give value to their land but they did not provide the necessary cash, always scarce on the frontier, to buy the land at the auction sale and there was always the danger that speculators might purchase their claims. Furthermore, in the absence of land laws, squatters had difficulty in protecting their improvements against claim jumpers before the day of sale arrived.

The squatters early besought Congress to grant them the right of pre-empting their claims in advance of the land sale so they would not be obliged to bid for them against speculators. Congress, increasingly responsive to demands of the West, granted pre-emption rights to sixteen special groups before 1830, and between 1830 and 1840 gave pre-emption rights on five occasions to all squatters then residing upon the surveyed lands. In 1841 the general pre-emption law was passed which gave the pre-emption right to all squatters then located or who in the future should take up locations upon the surveyed public lands. This act, although a victory for the West, by no means satisfied the settlers on the frontier. It neither applied to Indian reservations nor to unsurveyed lands; it did not provide for free grants to actual settlers, and it retained the minimum price of $1.25 per acre.

Squatters on surveyed lands before and on unsurveyed lands after 1841 were not sure of obtaining pre-emption rights. To provide mutual protection in the absence of such rights they organized claim associations. But such associations were powerless to aid, nor did the pre-emption law protect the penniless settler who was threatened with the loss of his claim if he could not raise the $200 necessary to buy it before the government auction.

The pre-emption law remained in effect until 1891, but in the later years it was subject to serious abuses. In areas where only limited entries of public lands could be made, predatory interests found it possible to acquire large tracts by employing "floaters" to pre-empt land for them. False swearing, bribery of the land officers, laxity of supervision and general Western approval of such practices made evasion of the law easy. Finally, in 1891, when sentiment against the monopolization of the public lands by corrupt groups had become sufficiently aroused, the land system was given a thorough overhauling and the pre-emption law was repealed. For thirty years it had outlived its usefulness.


Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1962