A Timeline of US Public Land Acts

Sales, Military Bounty, Preemptions, Donations and the Homestead Act

Land legislation and US public land acts played an important role in the settlement of the American West.
Getty / Danita Delimont

Beginning with the Congressional Act of 16 September 1776 and the Land Ordinance of 1785, a wide variety of Congressional acts governed the distribution of federal land in the thirty public land states. Various acts opened up new territories, established the practice of offering land as compensation for military service, and extended preemption rights to squatters. These acts each resulted in the first transfer of land from the federal government to individuals.

This list is not exhaustive, and does not include acts that temporarily extended the provisions of earlier acts, or private acts that were passed for the benefit of individuals.

Timeline of U.S. Public Land Acts

16 September 1776: This Congressional Act established guidelines for granting lands of 100 to 500 acres, termed "bounty land," for those who enlisted in the Continental Army to fight in the American Revolution.

That Congress make provision for granting lands, in the following proportions: to the officers and soldiers who shall so engage in the service, and continue therein to the close of the war, or until discharged by Congress, and to the representatives of such officers and soldiers as shall be slain by the enemy:
To a colonel, 500 acres; to a lieutenant colonel, 450; to a major, 400; to a captain, 300; to a lieutenant, 200; to an ensign, 150; each non-commissioned officer and soldier, 100...

20 May 1785: Congress enacted the first law to manage the Public Lands that resulted from the thirteen newly independent states agreeing to relinquish their western land claims and allow the land to become the joint property of all citizens of the new nation. The 1785 Ordinance for the public lands northwest of the Ohio provided for their survey and sale in tracts of no less than 640 acres. This began the cash-entry system for federal lands.

Be it ordained by the United States in Congress assembled, that the territory ceded by individual States to the United States, which has been purchased of the Indian inhabitants, shall be disposed of in the following manner...

10 May 1800: The Land Act of 1800, also known as the Harrison Land Act for its author William Henry Harrison, reduced the minimum purchasable unit of land to 320 acres, and also introduced the option of credit sales to encourage land sales. Land purchased under the Harrison Land Act of 1800 could be paid for in four designated payments over a period of four years. The government ultimately ended up expelling thousands of individuals who could not make the repayment of their loans within the set time, and some of this land ended up being resold by the federal government several times before defaults were rescinded by the Land Act of 1820.

An act providing for the sale of the land of the United States, in the territory north-west of the Ohio, and above the mouth of the Kentucky river.

3 March 1801: Passage of the 1801 Act was the first of many laws passed by Congress giving preemption or preference rights to settlers in the Northwest Territory who had purchased lands from John Cleves Symmes, a judge of the Territory whose own claims to the lands had been nullified.

An Act giving a right of pre-emption to certain persons to certain persons who have contracted with John Cleves Symmes, or his associates, for lands lying between the Miami rivers, in the territory of the United States northwest of the Ohio.

3 March 1807: Congress passed a law granting preemption rights to certain settlers in Michigan Territory, where a number of grants had been made under both prior French and British rule.

...to every person or persons in actual possession, occupancy, and improvement, of any tract or parcel of land in his, her, or their own right, at the time of the passing of this act, within that part of the Territory of Michigan, to which the Indian title has been extinguished, and which said tract or parcel of land was settled, occupied, and improved, by him, her, or them, prior to and on the first day of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety six...the said tract or parcel of land thus possessed, occupied, and improved, shall be granted, and such occupant or occupants shall be confirmed in the title to the same, as an estate of inheritance, in fee simple...

3 March 1807: The Intrusion Act of 1807 attempted to discourage squatters, or "settlements being made on lands ceded to the United States, until authorized by law." The act also authorized the government to forcibly remove squatters from privately-owned land if the owners petitioned the government. Existing squatters on unoccupied land were allowed to claim as "tenants of will" up to 320 acres if they registered with the local land office by the end of 1807. They also agreed to give "quiet possession" or abandon the land when the government disposed of it to others.

That any person or persons who, before the passing of this act, had taken possession of, occupied, or made a settlement on any lands ceded or secured to the United States...and who at the time of passing this act does or do actually inhabit and reside on such lands, may, at any time prior to the first day of January next, apply to the proper register or recorder...such applicant or applicants to remin on such tract or tracts of land, not exceeding three hundred and twenty acres for each applicant, as tenants at will, on such terms and conditions as shall prevent any waste or damages on such lands...

5 February 1813: The Illinois Preemption Act of 5 February 1813 granted preemption rights to all actual settlers in Illinois. This was the first law enacted by Congress which conveyed blanket preemption rights to all squatters in a specified region and not simply to certain categories of claimants, taking the unusual step of going against the recommendation of the House Committee on Public Lands, which strongly opposed granting blanket preemption rights on the grounds that doing so would encourage future squatting.1

That every person, or legal representative of every person, who has actually inhabited and cultivated a tract of land lying in either of the districts established for the sale of public lands, in the Illinois territory, which tract is not rightfully claimed by any other person and who shall not have removed from said territory; every such person and his legal representatives shall be entitled to a preference in becoming the purchaser from the United States of such tract of land at private sale...

24 April 1820: The Land Act of 1820, also referred to as the 1820 Sale Act, reduced the price of federal land (at the time this applied to land in the Northwest Territory and Missouri Territory) to $1.25 acre, with a minimum purchase of 80 acres and a down payment of only $100. Further, the act gave squatters the right to preempt these conditions and purchase the land even more cheaply if they had made improvements to the land such as the building of homes, fences, or mills. This act eliminated the practice of credit sales, or the purchase of public land in the United States on credit.

That from and after the first day of July next [1820] , all the public lands of the United States, the sale of which is, or may be authorized by law, shall when offered at public sale, to the highest bidder, be offered in half quarter sections [80 acres] ; and when offered at private sale, may be purchased, at the option of the purchaser, either in entire sections [640 acres] , half sections [320 acres] , quarter sections [160 acres] , or half quarter sections [80 acres] ...

4 September 1841: Following several early preemption acts, a permanent preemption law went into effect with the passage of the Preemption Act of 1841. This legislation (see Sections 9–10) permitted an individual to settle and cultivate up to 160 acres of land and to then purchase that land within a specified time after either survey or settlement at $1.25 per acre. This preemption act was repealed in 1891.

And be it further enacted, That from and after the passage of this act, every person being the head of a family, or widow, or single man, over the age of twenty-one years, and being a citizen of the United States, or having filed his declaration of intention to become a citizen as required by the naturalization laws, who since the first day of June A.D. eighteen hundred and forty, has made or shall hereafter make a settlement in person on the public lands...is hereby, authorized to enter with the register of the land office for the district in which such land may lie, by legal subdivisions, any number of acres not exceeding one hundred and sixty, or a quarter section of land, to include the residence of such claimant, upon paying to the United States the minimum price of such land...

27 September 1850: The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, also called the Donation Land Act, provided free land to all white or mixed-blood Indigenous settlers who arrived in Oregon Territory (the present-day states of Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and part of Wyoming) before December 1, 1855, based on four years of residence and cultivation of the land. The law, which granted 320 acres to unmarried male citizens eighteen or older, and 640 acres to married couples, split equally between them, was one of the first that allowed married women in the United States to hold land under their own name.

That there shall be, and hereby is, granted to every white settler or occupant of the public lands, American half-breed Indians included, above the age of eighteen years, being a citizen of the United States....the quantity of one half section, or three hundred and twenty acres of land, if a single man, and if a married man, or if he shall become married within one year from the first day of December, eighteen hundred and fifty, the quantity of one section, or six hundred and forty acres, one half to himself and the other half to his wife, to be held by her in her own right...

3 March 1855: – The Bounty Land Act of 1855 entitled U.S. military veterans or their survivors to receive a warrant or certificate which could then be redeemed in person at any federal land office for 160 acres of federally owned land. This act extended the benefits. The warrant could also be sold or transferred to another individual who could then obtain the land under the same conditions. This act extended the conditions of several smaller bounty land acts passed between 1847 and 1854 to cover more soldiers and sailors, and provide additional acreage.

That each of the surviving commissioned and non-commissioned officers, musicians, and privates, whether of regulars, volunteers, rangers, or militia, who were regularly mustered into the service of the United States, and every officer, commissioned and non-commissioned seaman, ordinary seaman, flotilla-man, marine, clerk, and landsman in the navy, in any of the wars in which this country has been engaged since seventeen hundred and ninety, and each of the survivors of the militia, or volunteers, or State troops of any State or Territory, called into military service, and regularly mustered therein, and whose services have been paid by the United States, shall be entitled to receive a certificate or warrant from the Department of the Interior for one hundred and sixty acres of land...

20 May 1862: Probably the best recognized of all land acts in the United States, the Homestead Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on 20 May 1862. Taking effect on 1 January 1863, the Homestead Act made it possible for any adult male U.S. citizen, or intended citizen, who had never taken up arms against the United States, to gain title to 160 acres of undeveloped land by living on it five years and paying eighteen dollars in fees. Female heads of household were also eligible. African-Americans later become eligible when the 14th Amendment granted them citizenship in 1868. Specific requirements for ownership included building a home, making improvements, and farming the land before they could own it outright. Alternatively, the homesteader could purchase the land for $1.25 per acre after having lived on the land for at least six months. Several previous homestead acts introduced in 1852, 1853, and 1860, failed to be passed into law.

That any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such, as required by the naturalization laws of the United States, and who has never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid or comfort to its enemies, shall, from and after the first January, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, be entitled to enter one quarter section [160 acres] or a less quantity of unappropriated public lands...
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Powell, Kimberly. "A Timeline of US Public Land Acts." ThoughtCo, Oct. 2, 2020, thoughtco.com/timeline-of-us-public-land-acts-1422108. Powell, Kimberly. (2020, October 2). A Timeline of US Public Land Acts. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/timeline-of-us-public-land-acts-1422108 Powell, Kimberly. "A Timeline of US Public Land Acts." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/timeline-of-us-public-land-acts-1422108 (accessed March 29, 2023).