The Acquisition of Public Land
By Chuck Debevec
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Surveying and Sale of Public Lands
Measurement, pricing, and distribution of public lands had been issues of concern and controversy since the Revolutionary War. This was especially the case with regard to the trans-Appalachian lands, part of which became the Northwest Territory, which included the present state of Wisconsin.
On the one hand were those who advocated selling the land in township units, as had been done in New England. The other side favored letting settlers stake their own claims, as in the southern colonies. The first method benefited land companies and speculators while the second benefited individual settlers.
To address these issues and to avoid the problem of boundary disputes associated with dividing the land by the "metes and bounds" system used previously, congress passed the Land Ordinance of 1785. The ordinance provided for the U.S. Government to survey the western lands into six-mile square township units, each whole township being surveyed into square-mile sections, numbered 1 through 36. Every other township was to be sold as a whole; the remaining townships were to be sold in square mile (640-acre) parcels. The minimum price was set at one dollar per acre.
Although meant as a compromise, the ordinance still favored large investors, for the $640 required to purchase a parcel of land was beyond the means of most prospective settlers. The minimum purchase was reduced to 320 acres by 1800. The Land Act of 1823 (3 Stat. 566), passed on April 24, 1820, further reduced the minimum lot size to 80 acres, set the minimum price at $1.25 an acre, and required payment in cash.
The acquisition of land still remained out of reach for most settlers, hence a popular demand upon the government for free land. This and other economic factors led to the Homestead Act (121 Stat. 392), passed by Congress on May 20, 1862, and signed into law by president Lincoln. The act provided 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 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 and comfort to its enemies, shall, from and after the first January, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, be entitled to enter one quarter section or a less quantity of unappropriated public lands.”
After five years residency and the fulfillment of other requirements which were subsequently added, the claimant could file for a patent at the local land office. The paperwork was then forwarded to the General Land Office in Washington, D.C. and, if approved, the claimant received the land free and clear except for a small registration fee. The time that Union veterans served in the Civil War could be deducted from their residency requirements. Alternatively, a claimant could also gain title for a cash payment of $1.25 per acre after 6 months residency.
The act expired in 1976 in all states except Alaska, which was granted an additional ten years.
Bounty Land Grants
The Continental Congress passed resolutions as early as 1776 granting land to officers and soldiers who had served in the Revolutionary War. The Land Ordinance of 1785 specified the amount of land to be granted to each veteran, ranging from 100 acres to 1100 acres, depending on his rank. Several more wars were fought and in 1855 the Scrip Warrant Act (10 Stat. 701) was passed. It provided that each of the surviving officers and soldiers of specified rank who had served at least fourteen days in any war since 1790 was entitled to receive a warrant from the Department of the Interior for 160 acres of land. Revolutionary war veterans were included, as well as soldiers who were engaged in battle but had served less than fourteen days. Also included were certain non-combatants such as musicians, teamsters, and chaplains. Deserters and the dishonorably discharged were excluded. Veterans who had already been granted a warrant under the Continental Congress for less than 160 acres were entitled to a new warrant for the difference. Widows of veterans were entitled to the veterans' warrants, as were minor children if both parents were deceased.
The warrants were not granted automatically; the claimants had to apply for them. Once granted, the warrant could be used to apply for a land patent. A warrant could be transferred or sold and, in Clark County at least, that is what happened in almost all of the cases. There are only a few instances in which a warrantee opted to receive the patent for his land.
The Land Ordinance of 1785 reserved section 16 of every township for the maintenance of public schools within the township. The Enabling Act of August 6, 1846 (9 Stat. 56) authorized the formation of a Constitution and State government by the people of Wisconsin Territory. Paragraph 1, c. 89 provided “that section numbered 16 in every township of the public lands in said State, and, when such section has been sold or otherwise disposed of, other lands equivalent thereto, and as contiguous as may be, shall be granted to said State for the use of schools.”
The Act of June 21, 1934 (48 Stat. 1185; 43 U.S.C. sec. 871a), entitled “An act authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to issue patents to the numbered school sections in place, granted to the States by the Act approved February 22, 1889, by the Act approved January 25, 1927 (44 Stat. 1026), and by any other Act of Congress,” authorized issuance of patents to the numbered school sections granted for support of common schools. In Clark County, these patents were issued on June 10, 1940 (1108458); August 16, 1941 (1111873); September 20, 1941 (1112025); and September 25, 1941 (1112078).
The act was repealed effective October 21, 1976.
Recreational Land Purchases
The Recreation Act of 1926, 44 Stat. 741 as amended by the Recreation and Public Purposes Act of 1954, (68 Statute 173; 43 United States Code 869 et. seq.,) provides that the Secretary of the Interior may “dispose of any public lands to a State, Territory, county, municipality, or other State, Territorial, or Federal instrumentality or political subdivision for any public purposes, or to a nonprofit corporation or nonprofit association for any recreational or any public purpose consistent with its articles of incorporation or other creating authority.”
Patent Plat Map Atlas
The maps were compiled from data collected from the General Land Office (GLO) records database, as published on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) website:
The website lists patentees, land descriptions, transaction type, authority, and other information, as well as images of the land patent documents. Land patent records issued between 1820 and 1908, and some later ones, are currently included.
The maps are similar in appearance to ownership plat maps as published in plat books. The main difference is that the patent maps do not represent a "snapshot in time," but rather show the first owners, or patentees, of each parcel, regardless of when they were acquired. Additionally, cities and villages are not shown, since they were not yet in existence when some of the land was acquired. Natural features are likewise not shown, except when they were used as a land boundary, as in the case of the numbered lots along the Black River.
Pattern fills are used to distinguish between the various authorities by which a parcel of land was acquired. The exception is that there is no distinction between cash sales and recreational land purchases; the latter is indicated by a footnote following the map. A key to the patterns accompanies each map.
Accompanying each map is a list which shows all of the patentees for that township as listed in the GLO records database. Information in the list includes transaction type, accession/SN, parcel location, transaction date, and land office location. The patentee names are arranged according to parcel location. There is also a master list with names of the patentees for the entire county arranged in alphabetical order.
Some of the names on the patentee lists do not appear on the maps for various reasons. Explanations for them are found in the footnotes following each map. In the case of multiple owners of small parcels, only the first owner listed is shown on the map; the others are listed in a footnote. All of those associated with land grants—widows, minor children, attorneys, administrators, and assignees—are listed as patentees. The soldier who received the land grant was not considered a patentee and is thus not included in the patentee list unless he opted to exercise his warrant and accept the property. The instances where this occurred are noted in the footnotes. In most cases, he sold or otherwise assigned his warrant to another party who either exercised it or subsequently sold or transferred it to someone else. Only the final patentee—who took possession of the land—is shown on the map.
Land Grant Warrantees
There is a separate listing of soldiers who applied for and received warrants. Information in the listing includes rank, the war served in, and the amount of acres granted.
There are two types of parcels described in the patentee lists. The first is rectangular and is described by its location within the section. For example, NESW is an abbreviation for the northeast quarter of the southwest quarter, a 40-acre parcel; S½SE for the south half of the southeast quarter, an 80-acre parcel; and NW for the northwest quarter, a 160-acre parcel. The second type of parcel is a numbered lot, used for odd-shaped parcels along the Black River, and for parcels located in fractional sections along the western edge of some townships. For the purpose of compiling the patent maps, the locations of these numbered parcels were determined by reference to older plat maps. The numbers are not shown on the patent plat maps, due to space limitations. The system by which they were numbered is not consistent among all of the townships.
Revision dates are shown on the First Land Owners pages.
As careful as we may be in compiling, checking, and rechecking these maps, some errors are bound to escape our notice. Some are traceable to the GLO records database; others are the fault of the cartographer. In any case, we are grateful to those users who call them to our attention so that they may be rectified. In addition, we will do our best to address any other issues or questions submitted to us by the users.
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