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Land claims and homesteads, Part 1


(Boathouse on South Fork)
Settlers in the 1860s through early 1880s often sought frontage right on the river or a stream, both for loading logs onto steamboats or for access to supplies. This photo of a houseboat on one of the lower forks of the Skagit River dates from the late 19th century and is from the collection of Fir Island descendant John G. Kamb Jr.

From The Significance of the Frontier, 1893
      From the conditions of frontier life came intellectual traits of profound importance. The works of travelers along each frontier from colonial days onward describe certain common traits, and these traits have, while softening down, still persisted as survivals in the place of their origin, even when a higher social organization succeeded. The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom-these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier. Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity, and the people of the United States have taken their tone from the incessant expansion which has not only been open but has even been forced upon them. He would be a rash prophet who should assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased. Movement has been its dominant fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise.
      But never again will such gifts of free land offer themselves. For a moment, at the frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant. There is not tabula rasa [Latin for "a need or opportunity to start from the beginning"]. The stubborn American environment is there with its imperious summons to accept its conditions; the inherited ways of doing things are also there; and yet, in spite of environment, and in spite of custom, each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier. What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bond of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities, that, and more, the ever retreating frontier has been to the United States directly, and to the nations of Europe more remotely. And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.
      —By Professor Frederick Jackson Turner


Skagit River land experience

(Chilberg cabin)
This cabin was built by Carl J. Chilberg, patriarch of the Pleasant Ridge family that emigrated from Sweden to Iowa in 1846 and to the Skagit valley in 1871. Farms and structures like these were typical of early settler homes in the homesteading days. The Chilberg cabin was the longest standing of such homes in the valley.

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal ©2004

This is a very complex subject. We have tried in our two parts to cover the laws at least superficially. We welcome any comments and suggestions from readers about how to make the stories better or correct any errors.

      Settlers flocked to the forested areas of Washington state towards the end of the nineteenth century because railroad and shipping companies advertised all over the country and the world about free or cheap land. They also offered that those on the move could achieve their dream: opportunity to move up rapidly with your skill and a house of your own on your own plot of land. Many folks came from areas of Europe or older sections of the US where wealthy families or corporations locked up acreage. Once a settler located land along the Skagit river that had either not been claimed or had been abandoned, there were a variety of ways to claim it. Much of this land was not surveyed until the mid-1880s, so he had to stake a claim and then consult with land attorneys in Seattle or an official land commissioner such as J. Henry Smith, who settled in Woolley in 1890.
      Crude hand-drawn maps of the area demarcated land according to townships and ranges. The Land Ordinance Act of 1785 initiated rectangular surveys starting in Ohio. Western lands [mainly clustered around the Mississippi river] were laid out on paper into townships that were six miles square with 36 sections. Two government agencies became important institutions to the settlers. The roots of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) roots go back to the 1785 act and the Northwest Ordinance Act of 1787. Those laws affected the public lands that the original 13 colonies ceded to the Federal government after the War of Independence and then the lands that were acquired by the United States from Spain, France, and other countries. Congress directed that they be explored, surveyed and made available for settlement. In 1812, Congress established the General Land Office [GLO] in the Department of Treasury to oversee the disposition of those federal lands and the speculators hung around the GLO and courthouses daily. Nearby you were bound to see a shingle hanging over the street from a Victorian house, advertising a hungry attorney who could help you wade through the sometimes-complex laws and paperwork. Or he might just write a letter for you if you were illiterate or help you find an honest banker who would cash a bank note, assay your gold or arrange travel for you to head back home to get your family or arrange for them to join you on the frontier.
      The Land Act of 1796 authorized the sale of single sections — 640 acres, measuring one mile on each side The rugged Cascades land and heavily forested lands made surveys especially difficult here and an East-West base line established. Township lines were set six miles apart on right angles, based on what was called the East-West base line near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers where Lewis and Clark wintered in 1806 Ranges were numbered from the Willamette Meridian (also called the North-South principal meridian). Both of these were already in place for the survey of Oregon Territory. Inaccuracies in the surveying resulted partially from the long-continued practice of employing private individuals for the work, some with little experience and inadequate contracts to do the job.
      John Cornelius Jr. of the Pleasant Ridge-pioneer family conducted the initial surveys in the western section of what became Skagit county. His stepmother Ruthinda originally settled on Whidbey Island in 1852 with her second husband, William Wallace. His father was Ruthinda's second husband, with whom she crossed the prairies in a covered wagon in 1845; they married after her first husband died. John Jr. ran pack trains to the Fraser River gold rush in 1858 along with Mortimer Cook and Henry Roeder. The younger Cornelius was the first to survey the LaConner flats and the Skagit river delta, starting in 1866 and 1867. His son Phil was the manager of the Skagit County Dairymen's Association for many years and helped establish the Darigold brand.


History of homestead acts
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      The first Congressional law establishing homesteads was the Distribution-Preemption Act of 1841, which established the policy that up to 160 acres could be purchased at $1.25 per acre without having to pay for the land in advance and legalized settlement by squatting before purchase. Jim Oberly of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire notes at this website: "The preemptor had up to fifteen months to pay, and he or she had to show a "proof statement" that some of the land had been cleared and that a suitable dwelling had been erected, usually a rude cabin or shanty. About three percent of the applicants were widows. Most structures measured 15-by-15 feet, and the federal General Land Office required that they all had one window, a general requirement that would be repeated in subsequent acts.
      From 1830 onward, groups called for free distribution of government lands in the new territory. This became a demand of the Free-Soil party, which saw such distribution as a means of stopping the spread of slavery into the territories, and it was subsequently adopted by the Republican party in its 1860 platform. Early settlers were attracted to the Northwest, even with the hardships presented by crossing the plains by covered wagon, because they were granted free land under the Donation Land Law, which was enacted by Congress on Sept. 27, 1850. A single man could claim up to a half section, or 320 acres, and a married couple could claim a full section. The National Park Service website about Whidbey Island explains why the 1850 act was so important to Northwest settlement:

      But a greater inducement to Northwestern settlement came with the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, a forerunner of the Homestead Act, since it required no purchase. The Act granted large parcels of land; every unmarried white male citizen eighteen or older could claim a half section, 320 acres, if he arrived in the territory before December 1, 1850. If he married before December 1, 1851 his wife could claim another 320 acres in her own name, an unusual recognition of women's contributions to new settlements. Arrivals after the 1850 deadline could still acquire 160 acres until 1854, and they needed only to live on the land and cultivate it for four years to own it outright. The law also legalized the claims of people already residing in Oregon country when it became a territory, a reward for those who had helped establish American claims to the land. The Donation Land Claim Act expired on December 1, 1855, bunt the Preemption Act remained in effect. The Donation Land Claim Act tacitly acknowledged the irregular features of the northwestern coastline. It did not universally require that claim boundaries conform to survey lines. Thus the checkerboard survey pattern, so typical in the West, never emerged on Whidbey Island. Settlers on the island sometimes carved out contorted parcels in order to capture the best acreage available.
      The Oregon Provisional Government Land Act of 1844 imposed the now-familiar pattern of township and range on the Northwest, although the claims established later on Whidbey Island tended to follow unique shapes. Because many people assumed that Britain would retain her claim to land north of the Columbia River once the boundary dispute was resolved, Americans first settled in the Willamette Valley. By 1845 the best lands there were claimed, and settlers began turning north. A great incentive for migration to the Pacific Northwest arose when America finally acquired Oregon Territory outright. That acquisition spelled the end of the dominance of the Hudson's Bay Company in the region.

      The 1862 Homestead Act took effect on Jan. 1, 1863, and became the preferred method for obtaining land in many cases. Without getting into the complexity of this and other land laws, this act enabled the settler to acquire land after preempting it or "squatting" on unsold government land to prove residence until it was surveyed. Settlers had to "improve" the land and construct buildings on it, and they then received the land free after a five-year residency. This was a Union law passed after most of the Confederate states seceded. Richard Pence, in his online book, The Homestead Act of 1862, explains:
      The act, which became law on Jan. 1, 1863, allowed anyone to file for a quarter-section of free land (160 acres). The land was yours at the end of five years if you had built a house on it, dug a well, broken (plowed) 10 acres, fenced a specified amount, and actually lived there. Additionally, one could claim a quarter section of land by 'timber culture' (commonly called a 'tree claim'). This required that you plant and successfully cultivate 10 acres of timber."
      Pence also notes that some settlers appear to have "fudged" on the five-year requirement. For two of his ancestors, the time from the filing of the initial pre-emption to the date of the final certificate was less than five years, more like four. He continues:
It is interesting to me that the General Land Office let its local land office personnel decide how to design the proof statement form. Some offices required a lot of information (to the benefit of us today) and others required a bare minimum. . . . You are correct in noting that the basic law did not stipulate the exact dimensions of the house, nor the number of acres that had to be cleared.
      The Timber Culture Act of 1873 arose from congressional concern with the Great Plains and absence of trees. The act provided for 160 additional acres if a settler would plant 40 acres in trees, a requirement that was later reduced to five acres. Although it was enacted for a noble purpose, the act ultimately failed because of massive fraud. Later, congress passed an act on June 8, 1878, "An Act for the sale of Timber lands in the States of California, Oregon, Nevada and Washington territory." That act was extended to all the public land states on August 4, 1892. You will often see this act referenced when we log old newspapers.
      When a settler located the land he wanted to claim, he then "preempted" his parcel, usually in 40, 80 or 160-acre blocks. The latter block was called a "quarter section." A section is a mile square and there are 36 of them in each 6-mile-square township, which is designated by a township and range number. For instance, Sedro was located in Township 35 North, Range 5 East. In each township, two sections (usually numbers 16 and 36) were designated as school lands, and the timber and other resources were administered by the county or state government or sometimes sold to build or maintain schools.
      Under the Homestead Act, up to 160 acres, or 65 hectare, of unoccupied public land could be acquired after at least six months residence for $1.25 per acre, by a single man, or 320 acres for a married couple. This law climaxed a struggle since the 1780s by the forces of liberalism to force a reluctant federal government to sell public lands in smaller lots and at lower prices and to recognize the claims of preemption. Note that Republicans passed the act during Civil War time and that those who served in the Confederate Army were initially excluded. In order to qualify, the settler had only to build a shelter on the land within the first six months, make improvements while residing on it for 5 years, and then "prove up" to gain full title. Early settlers became adept at building their shelters, which had to be at least 12 feet square and include a door and window. Wily early developers even bent the law, learning from land grabbers back in Oklahoma, by putting such a structure on wheels or rollers and moving it from claim to claim after they passed inspection. Others, such as Winfield Scott Jameson, backed "scrip" homesteaders, men who logged for them in different camps along the Skagit, filed for homesteads and then sold the land when they moved on to other areas. By the time that Norman R. Kelley was ready to plat the town of Sedro, Jameson had chained together the homesteads of William Kelly and others so that he owned more than half of the land in the town.
      Actually, only about ten percent of the public land after 1850 went to homesteaders. Most was not given away, but rather sold or held off the market by speculators or by the government itself, and the railroad companies made a killing. By 1900, 80 million acres went to homesteaders, 180 million to the railroads and their developers, 140 million to states, and 200 million acres — much of it Indian lands — were put up for sale to the highest bidders. Several early settlers on the Skagit river wrote that the best land along the water was spoken for by the early 1890s, 1884 in the case of the Sedro bachelors.
      That scarcity of homestead land fits in with the Frontier Thesis propounded by Frederick Jackson Turner of Wisconsin. Our quote above is from the introduction to his July 12, 1893, speech to the American Historical Association, which was meeting in Chicago during the World's Colombian Exposition. Turner's paper contrasted the American move west to the European frontier and he declared that the frontier was already closed. Turner's theory has been hotly debated in the century since then and has been largely discredited. The paper received very little notice initially and his parents did not even attend his appearance. In the book, The Frontier in American Culture, Richard White and Patricia Nelson Limerick contrast Turner's influence on thinking about the frontier with William F "Buffalo Bill" Cody. In 1883, Cody launched his "Buffalo Bill Wild West Show," that went on to feature frontier characters such as Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull both appeared in the show. Cody set up an exhibition for his show near the Exposition, which introduced his attraction to a worldwide audience much as his show for the Queen of England had done six years before. White shows how the two storytellers, Turner and Cody, told overlapping and sometimes alternative narratives of the American frontier. Both men popularized the closing frontier and both concentrated on the white male experience. As we are now discovering from a series of books over the past two decades, the hardship and experiences of women on the frontier and on their way to it are just as fascinating as those of the men. Turner did not acknowledge women at all in a meaningful way and Cody saw Indians as obstacles to conquering the frontier.


How the settler staked his claim and obtained his land
      The settler who moved West was usually gold-poor and was immediately challenged by these factors: move himself and his family across the country to the West; build a house and barn; buy farm equipment and cattle; and keep going for at least a year until his crops came in. Most had to work at whatever common laboring job was available where they staked their claim. In the Skagit valley that usually meant logging. The smallest unit the settler was allowed to buy was 40 acres, at a cost of $50 plus a $10 filing fee, which was prohibitive to most pioneers. [Ed note: about $1,000 in 2004 dollars.] Sometimes a weeping pioneer wife had to sell her silk dress or her favorite furniture or family heirlooms to buy a door or window. A fellow who calls himself Rob the Chief at this website tells us how the settler actually established ownership for his land. His White Pigeon website is named for a small village located in southern St. Joseph County Michigan, near the Michigan/Indiana border the junctions of highways US 12 and 131.
      The procedure for purchasing land was as follows: The purchaser fills out an application. The register certifies that the land is vacant and available for purchase. The applicant takes the certified application to the receiver, who receives payment at $1.25 per acre and issues a receipt, which the purchaser surrenders sometime later when he receives a land patent (deed) from the General Land Office in Washington. The register notes in the tract book that the land has been sold. In addition, township plats are updated daily. Funds received are deposited by the receiver in the Bank of the United States at Buffalo, N.Y.
      Regardless of the immense challenges, settlers flocked to the Skagit Valley, especially after they saw the yields of oats and alfafa and timothy grown in the silty bottomland in the 1870s. Even Baron von Munchhausen would have been embarrassed to claim bounty like that. An article in the Seattle weekly Post-Intelligencer on Jan. 1, 1890, noted that an average $150 spent by each settler per quarter section. Eastern investors who drooled over both the crop yields and the rarity of a bad year in this area backed the settlers with capital. The Post-Intelligencer also noted that $4 million was sent from the east in 1889 to invest in lands held by the government and the Northern Pacific railroad in Washington.
      The settlers' original proving-up was followed by years of hard labor, sacrifice, resourcefulness, courage, vision, determination and a high degree of pluck and perseverance in the face of reverses and failure. On top of that, consider the very early pioneers who had to build their communities from scratch. There were no roads, no bridges, no wells, no markets, no merchants, no stores, no schools, no churches, no hospitals, no post office, no community consciousness and no local government.
      A special benefit for Skagit-area settlers came in a later law concerning timber claims. Under the Timber Claim Act, instituted in Washington and other western states in 1878, settlers were allowed up another quarter section in exchange for planting ten acres in timber-producing trees. They could then buy the claimed land for $2.50 per acre, or $400 for a quarter section. That windfall encouraged settlers to take up claims in especially rough terrain, clear land and make a home where only portions of their original claim were suitable for cultivation. Another law that was very important to the Northwest settler was the General Mining Law of 1872, which President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law in the middle period of the gold rush era of 1849-1900. The act governed mining of hard rock minerals such as gold, silver, platinum and copper on federal lands. It was instituted to promote settlement of the mountainous areas of the West and is the only one of these laws that is still currently in effect, and some say, abused. At the time, the mining industry was largely made up of independent prospectors and small companies of men with picks, pans-and-shovels who were grubstaked by capitalists or merchants of the area. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, established to manage the public range lands marks the end of the homesteading era.


Continue to Part two with more homesteading documents and laws.

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Story posted on March 1, 2001, last updated Aug. 13, 2006, moved to this domain April 18, 2011
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This article originally appeared in Issue 2 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine



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