The research into land acquisition is for an upcoming book.
The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850:
America’s early wealth derived from land, huge amounts of it. The land was, of course, usurped from indigenous peoples who, according to the accepted dogma of the day, could not possibly utilize all the lands they claimed. This attitude was made more palatable because of the decimation of the indigenous population by diseases they had no acquired immunity to, genocide, and serial relocation to remove them from contact with the ever-increasing influx of immigrants who had little hope of owning their own land in the countries from which they came.
Most citizens living in the Northern states believed the future of America depended upon individual farmers who owned and operated their own farms. Southerners, in general, especially the owners of slaves, wanted to be able to purchase large tracts of land and use slave labor. The concept of the “yeoman farmer” derived from Jeffersonian concepts, powerful influences in American politics in the 1840’s and 1850’s. These ideas gave rise to the Free-Soil Party from 1848-1852 and to the “New” Republican party after 1854. Southern Democrats fought against, and managed to prevent the passage, of proposed homestead bills. Their fear was that free land would attract both European immigrants and poor Southern whites to the west. The balance of power would then shift and force the end of slavery.
The availability of huge tracts of apparently empty land provided the government with the ability to populate those lands, collect taxes, and grow the economy. People in financial trouble, or just looking to improve their lifestyle could obtain free, or at minimal cost, large portions of land from which, if they were willing to struggle and work hard, they could support a family and gain the numerous benefits of being property owners.
The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 enabled settlers to claim lands (320 or 640 acres) in the Oregon Territory consisting of the current states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and parts of Wyoming. During that time period one man, with the help of his family, could realistically plow and put into crop production between 40 and 80 acres. The Oregon Territory land was granted free of charge from 1850-1854 after which it could be purchased from the government for $1.25 per acre until the law expired in 1855.
The Donation Land Claim Act was proceeded by the Pre-emption Act of 1846:
This law was designed to “…appropriate the proceeds of sales of public lands… and to grant “pre-emptive rights” to squatters already occupying federal lands. The law was most used by early settlers in the Kansas and Nebraska territories. The law provided that squatters who were actually living on or had made improvements to lands owned by the federal government could purchase up to 160 acres for no less than $1.25 per acre, at a public auction. If a particular tract of land was not claimed it was auctioned to the highest bidder. The squatter had to be the head of a household, a citizen of the U.S. or an immigrant intending to become naturalized, and a resident on the claimed land for a minimum of 14 months. As usual enterprising people devised a multitude of strategies to circumvent the restrictions, not excepting perjury, to obtain land or otherwise game the system for speculation.
The Pre-emption Act also provided that Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Michigan, or any state admitted to the Union after the Act became law, to be paid 10% of the proceeds from the sale of these public lands. To preserve ownership of the claimed land, and gain title to it, the claimant had to live on it, or consistently work to improve it, for a minimum of 5 years. If the land remained idle for six months the government could reclaim it. This was rare. The Act helped establish the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.