Donation Land Claim Act: 12 Things (2024) You Should Know

The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, also known as the Donation Land Act, was a statute enacted by the United States Congress in late 1850.

This legislation created the state of Oregon and influenced its history.

Here’s what you should know.

1. How was the Donation Land Claim Act passed?

This law was largely passed due to the efforts of Samuel R. Thurston, who was the Oregon territorial delegate to Congress.

The act became law on September 27, 1850.

It granted 320 acres of designated areas free of charge to every unmarried white male citizen eighteen or older and 640 acres to every married couple arriving in the Oregon Territory before December 1, 1850.

For married couples, each husband and wife owned half of the total grant under their own names.

The law was one of the first that allowed married women in the U.S. to hold property under their own name.

A provision in the law granted half the amount of land to those who arrived between 1850 and 1854.

To gain ownership title to it, claimants were required to live on the land and cultivate it for four years.

2. Where can I read the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850?

 You can read the act here.

3. How many land patents were issued under the law?

 Under the Donation Land Claim Act, 7,437 land patents were issued.

4. Were there limitations on the Donation Land Claim Act? If so, what were they?

Yes, there were limitations to this act.

The provisional government formed at Champoeg, a former town in the U.S. state of Oregon, limited the land claims.

They hoped that this would prevent land speculation.

Land speculation is the purchase of an asset with the hope that it will become more valuable in the near future.

The new law voided previous statutes, but essentially continued the same policy.

It was phrased in a way to legitimize existing claims.

One claim that was legitimized by the act included George Abernethy’s.

He had been elected to the governorship in the days of the provisional government.

George Abernethy’s claim became famous for Abernethy Green.

Here, new emigrants camped at the end of the Oregon Trail while seeking a piece of land for themselves.

5. What were the details of the Donation Land Claim Act?

Claims under the Donation Land Claim Act were granted at the federal office in Oregon City.

The Oregon City Land Office granted the most famous patent for the plat for the city of San Francisco.

6. When was the final year of the Donation Land Claim Act?

The year 1855 served as the cut-off date for the Donation Land Claim Act.

After that, land was no longer free, but it was still available.

It sold at $1.25 an acre ($3.09/hectare) with a limit of 320 acres (1.3 km2) in any one claim.

Finally, the law expired on December 1, 1855.

In the following years, the price was raised.

Additionally, the maximum size of claims was progressively lowered.

Seven years later in 1862, Congress passed the first of the Homestead Acts which was largely designed to encourage settlement of the Great Plains states.

This act also applied to Oregon.

7. How was the Oregon territory settled before the Donation Land Claim Act?

From 1810 to the 1830s, only a small number of Euro-Americans resided in Oregon Country, which was jointly held by the U.S. and Great Britain.

This group was mostly fur trappers and missionaries who lived alongside Native tribes.

By the 1840s, the government supported western expansion, and this prompted migration to the Oregon territory.

Before the Donation Land Claim Act, the Distribution-Preemption Act of 1841 awarded land to squatters.

By doing this, the U.S. government hoped to establish a strong claim of settlement in Oregon country.

In 1843, non-Native settlers in the Willamette Valley drafted a constitution and voted to establish a provisional government.

Settlers could now claim up to 640 acres of land at no charge.

They did not sign any treaties with Native tribes regarding this land.

Due to the steady population growth, a boundary treaty was created by the U.S. and Britain in 1846.

The treaty established a border line at the 49th parallel, and it gave the U.S. claim to the territory.

Oregon Territory was officially formed on August 14, 1848.

While some settlers had received land grants, these were nullified because they were granted by the provisional government.

This land issue — legalizing property rights in the territory — was taken on by Samuel Royal Thurston.

Under the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, past claims granted under the provisional government were recognized.

The act also created an Office of Surveyor-General of Public Lands and made land grants to new settlers.

Because the act offered free land in Oregon to qualifying citizens, people flocked to Oregon.

8. How was the land surveyed in Oregon?

The Donation Land Claim Act helped to create the Office of Surveyor-General of Public Lands.

The first Surveyor-General was John B. Preston.

Claims taken after December 1, 1850, were required to be laid out on or parallel to national survey liens.

Those acquired before that date did not.

Many early claims were conspicuously irregular.

It’s likely that early pioneers (who settled before the act was passed) surveyed their own land or hired individuals not fully trained as surveyors. 

Claim surveys became an issue in Oregon.

Section 3 of the Donation Claim Act set a limit of $8/mile for surveyors’ fees.

However, this was often ignored, and only surveyors recognized by the surveyor-general were employed.

Thus, excessive charges were common, and settlers became outraged.

Preston was eventually dismissed.

9. Who was John McLoughlin?

Dr. John McLoughlin was a former Hudson’s Bay agent who sought a land claim in Oregon City.

His claim is well-known due to the denial he received from Thurston.

Thurston claimed that McLoughlin was a British citizen, and therefore, he was ineligible to claim property under the act.

He also claimed McLoughlin was attempting to stop territory development.

McLoughlin refuted this.

He stated he was Canadian and that he had filed for U.S. citizenship.

Now elderly, he had lived in Oregon for many years.

Although he became a U.S. citizen and died in 1857, his claim was never accepted.

In fact, Section 11 of the Land Claim Act was a vendetta against him.

McLoughlin left behind an estate valued at $142,585 (with $29,414 in debts owed to him that appraisers considered uncollectible).

His real estate holdings were valued at $86,170.

While some of it was legally subject to seizure, the legislature had yet to seize any of his land.

Had all the land been seized, McLoughlin’s estate would still be worth $100,000 in 1857, which would be over $2.7 million today.

In 1862, the legislature passed a bill that enabled McLoughlin’s heirs to gain legal title to the land for a token payment of $1,000 that would be paid into the University Fund.

Instead of paying in dollar bills, which would have reduced their costs, they paid the sum in gold coins to spite the state.

Today, McLoughlin’s claimed property is recognized as a landmark by Oregon City.

10. What was the Distribution-Preemption Act of 1841?

The Donation Land Claim act followed the Distribution-Preemption Act of 1841.

This act allowed squatters who were living on federal government-owned land to purchase up to 160 acres at a very low price.

This price was not less than $1.25 per acre or $3.09 per hectare.

These squatters could do so before the land was offered for sale to the general public.

To qualify under the law, the squatter had to fit these classifications:

bulletA head of household

bulletA single man over 21 or a widow

bulletA citizen of the United States

bulletAn immigrant intending to become naturalized

bulletA resident of the claimed land for a minimum of 14 months

Additionally, the act paid 10 percent of the proceeds from the sale of public land to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Michigan, and any other state admitted to the Union thereafter.

The act permitted individuals to claim federal land as their personal property.

To preserve ownership, the claimant had to accomplish specific things, which would legitimize their claim.

Here are a few examples of those accomplishments.

bulletReside on the land

bulletWork consistently to improve the land for at least five years

It was NOT necessary to have title to the land.

All the individuals had to do was live there and continue to improve the land.

If the land remained idle for six months, then the government could step in and retake the property.

Both Kansas and Nebraska were largely settled by such claims.

This act preceded the Donation Land Claim Act, but it wasn’t repealed by Congress until 1891.

It was ultimately replaced by the Land Revision Act.

11. What is the Land Revision Act?

The Land Revision Act (also known as the General Revision Act or the Forest Reserve Act of 1891) was federal legislation signed into law by President Harrison.

This act reversed previous policy initiatives in which land fraud was readily achievable by wealthy individuals and corporations.

This act is generally credited as a catalyst for a series of federal land reform initiatives that occurred under President Theodore Roosevelt.

The Land Revision Act gives the U.S. president authority to set aside forest reserves from land in the public domain.

President Harrison signed this act into law to protect local watersheds from flooding and erosion as well as to prevent over-exploitation of the country’s timber supply.

Under the act, several presidents established the land as part of forest reserves (later renamed national forests in 1907).

For example, President Harrison established 13 million acres of land as forest reserves.

President Grover Cleveland proclaimed 25 million acres, and President William McKinley made 7 million acres of forest reserves.

12. What are the Homestead Acts? How do they relate to the Donation Land Claim Act?

The Homestead Acts were a series of laws in which an applicant could acquire ownership of government land or the public domain, which was normally called a homestead.

Most homesteads were west of the Mississippi River.

In total, nearly 10 percent of the total area of the U.S. was given away for free to 1.6 million homesteaders.

The Homestead Acts were an expression of the Free-Soil policy that Northerners held.

They believed that individual farmers should own and operate land.

The Homestead Act of 1862 offered the first opportunity for land.

Any adult who had never taken up arms against the federal government could apply.

This included women and immigrants who had applied for citizenship.

Additionally, in the 1866 act, Black Americans were included and encouraged to participate.

However, it should be noted that rampant discrimination, systemic barriers, and bureaucratic inertia slowed Black gains.

Still, while the 1866 law was not as beneficial as it could have been, it was at least in part the reason why SOME Southern black farmers owned their land by 1900.

Here are some of the requirements to be a homesteader:

bulletMust be the head of the household

bulletMust be at least 21 years old

bulletHad to live on the designated land, build a home, make improvements, and farm it for a minimum of five years

bulletPay a filing fee of $18 (or $10 to temporarily hold a claim to the land)

The Homestead Act of 1862 later gave rise to the phenomenon of land rushes like the Oklahoma Land Runs of the 1880s and 1890s.

Homesteading was ended in 1976 by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

By this time, the federal government policy had shifted to retaining control of western public lands.

The only location where homesteading was permitted to continue until 1986 was Alaska.

Final Thoughts

The way land has been handled throughout United States’ history has widely varied.

In some scenarios, it’s been passed out without much regard while in others it’s been intentionally preserved.

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Erika Gokce Capital

Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.


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