Friday, July 16, 2010

Doing Land Office Business

"The tap-rooms adjoining the polls were all open and doing a land office business" was a comment by the Chicago Tribune in 1875. In 1887 the Louisville Courier-Journal reported, "The doughty burglar has been doing a land office business1 the past few days." We all know that means they were busy, but have you ever stopped to wonder; just what was a “land office?”

The need to provide for the orderly settlement of public land was recognized early in American history. The Congress under the Articles of Confederation enacted the Land Ordinance of 1785. The law provided for the survey of public lands into townships 36 square miles in size. The Ordinance set forth the use of a rectangular survey system, a system for recording land patents2 and related case records essential to the chain of title in the public domain states. The rectangular survey system and the tract book system for permanent title recordation became the standard for the transfer of public lands into private ownership as western migration progressed beyond the original 13 states3.

In 1789 Congress [now established by the Constitution] established the Treasury Department and gave it the responsibility of overseeing the sale of public lands, and on April 25, 1812 the General Land Office was created within the Treasury Department. Headed by a commissioner, the new bureau was responsible for the survey and sale of public lands. Field offices of the General Land Office were established to serve the needs of the local settlers and were closed as patterns of migration and settlement dictated. These field offices were generally called “Land Offices” by settlers who purchased the land under the various U.S. land laws or applied for land under the Homestead Act of 1862.

The General Land Office was transferred to the new Department of the Interior in 1849 and continued to establish “land offices” in the western territories and states.

In 1946 the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was created by the merger of the General Land Office and the Grazing Service. State offices serving one or more adjoining states were established as well as a system of district offices to manage the remaining public lands.

In 1976 the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) defined the Bureau of Land Management's mission as a multiple use land management agency and terminated the disposal of public lands in the lower 48 states under the existing homesteading laws. The law allowed homesteading in Alaska through the end of 1986.

This Bureau of Land Management map depicts the Public Domain Lands surveyed and platted under the auspices of the General Land Office to facilitate the sale of those lands.

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