Federal Government Land Policy 1850-1900     


Railroad ad encouraging westward migration
Union Pacific Railroad Museum


Type of Legislation
Date
Notes
Railroad land grants
1850-1871
Over 180 million acres are granted to railroads, encouraging construction and development, particularly in western states
Homestead Act
1862
Over 80 million acres go to settlers agreeing to improve 160 acre parcels for at least five years. By 1890, 375,000 farms were claimed. In fact, most of California, Texas, and the Southwest were closed to homesteading and much of the prime land had already been granted to the railroads.
Morrill Land Grant Act
1862
17 million acres of federal land are deeded to the states which are to sell the land and use the proceeds to endow at least one college that would offer courses in agriculture, engineering, and home economics. Over 70 land grant colleges are established, mostly in the middle and far west.
Dawes Act
1887
Some reservation land is granted to individual Indians who renounce tribal loyalty. Remaining reservation lands are sold to white settlers. By 1906, 75 million acres that had once been reservation land had been purchased by whites. Total land held by Indians declined by 50%.
Federal land sales
1850-1900
Direct sales of 100 million acres of the West by the Land Office. Cattle companies needing huge tracts of land and land speculators benefited most directly from these sales.

Result of land policies: more acres are occupied and farmed between 1870 and 1900 than in the previous 250 years of American history. In one night in 1889 in Oklahoma, two million acres of former reservation land was claimed by land-hungry farmers, known as "Boomers."

 *Based on The American Journey: A History of the United States by Goldfield, et al.