More than three fourths of the continental area of the United States has at some time been the property of the Federal government. Ownership was acquired in various ways. The original thirteen states ceded much of their claims to the Federal government. The Louisiana purchase was the most important single acquisition. It was purchased from France in 1803 for $15,000,000. Florida was purchased in 1819 for $5,000,000. The Oregon territory was obtained by treaty in 1846. Mexico ceded a large portion of the Southwest in 1848, while a small addition was made by the Gadsden purchase in 1853. An important purchase outside the continental domain was that of Alaska from Russia in 1867, for $7,500,-000. Other small additions have been made in the form of islands located in various parts of the world.
The government very early took the attitude of disposing of its public lands. About three fourths of the amount of land which has passed from the control of the government has been in some form of a gratuity. A part of this has been given to states for various purposes, some to companies and individuals in order to foster internal improvements, while much has gone to aid the development of educational institutions.
Method of Disposition. - A number of policies have been followed in the disposal of public lands. At first the attempt was made to dispose of large tracts of land for cash payment. The scheme failed because of the lack of available funds for purchasing, and because land had not yet entered into a category to appeal to speculators. The opposite policy of the sale of small tracts on credit was adopted about 1800. Greater success attended this policy, since actual cash was not needed, and because it catered to the speculating class. The net result, however, was somewhat disappointing, since a considerable amount reverted to the government when payments could not be made. About 1820 another method of sale was put into force. Cash had to be paid for lands, but any amount above a moderate minimum which the purchaser desired would be sold. Sales were slow until just preceding the panic of 1837. The deposit of the Federal funds in the state banks, with the subsequent multiplication of bank note currency, gave an abundance of cash, while public 6 lands formed a good speculative investment. This situation existed until Jackson issued his " specie circular," which prohibited the acceptance of bank notes in payment for lands. The panic soon followed, which, of course, stopped all purchases for the time being. Since then an attempt has been made to dispose of lands to actual settlers under different preemption and homestead acts.
The government has usually tried to prevent land grabbing and the accumulation of large tracts of land in the hands of single individuals. This policy has often been frustrated by various frauds and schemes, and by the lax requirements of the government. Numerous cases of fraud have arisen in securing and holding claims. Residents of Eastern states have frequently found themselves owners of tracts of Western lands with which they have had nothing to do except permit some acquaintance to use their names in making the claim. The most serious violation, perhaps, of the principle of breaking the land up into small plots came in the disposal of the large gifts made to the various states for educational purposes, and through the gifts to railroad companies. Some individuals, also, have succeeded in securing tracts which control a much larger area than was intended by the acts of the government. The best examples of this are claims in the West which control the only available water for much larger areas.
Success of Policy. - Congress was severely criticized for some of the purchases of public lands, while some officials looked upon them as possible sources for immense revenues. Jefferson looked upon the Louisiana purchase as a source for the payment of the national debt. The policies used in distributing the lands, however, precluded the materialization of any of these predictions. On the other hand, the returns from sales of lands have lacked more than $125,000,000 of meeting the expenses which the government incurred on their account. These expenses, in part, came from making surveys, extinguishing Indian claims, and maintaining the land offices. An extensive domain still exists, but it is in large part the undesirable land of the country, and will not likely be any source of profit to the government.
If the land policy were judged on the business standard of profit and loss, it would be considered a failure. From the standpoint of expediency, however, in spite of the frauds and evils which arose, the policy has been a wise one. The rapid development of the country was an important result of the rapid disposal of lands. The possibility of getting title to lands caused a flood of Western immigration which would not have arisen had the government attempted to retain title and to lease the land, or to sell at a profitable figure.
The grants of lands to transportation companies greatly stimulated the building of railroads, which did much toward hastening the agricultural and industrial development. The wealth based upon the former public lands has increased many fold since it has been turned over to individuals. The wealth of the citizenship, after all, is the resources of the state, and there is a much larger source upon which the government can draw for support than if it still retained much of the former public lands. It is interesting to speculate whether the government would have been as able to meet such a crisis as the Great War had it followed the policy of retaining its lands as a source of revenue.
Policy of the States. - The policy followed by the various states in disposing of lands which were in their possession has been similar to that of the Federal government. To dispose of them as quickly as possible has seemed to be the general tendency, at least until a few years ago. The number of frauds which arose has led to a somewhat more guarded policy in managing and distributing what remains. This has been most marked with the forest lands of the North, the swamp lands of the South, and the arid and mining lands of the West. Many statutes may be found which deal with the use and disposal of such of these as remain in the hands of the states, but as yet public industry on the land is undertaken to only a limited degree. More is done to govern individual ownership and management.