america's land problem -- 7/25/14

Today's selection -- from David Crockett in Congress by James R. Boylston and Allen J. Weiner. The single overriding problem for the United States in the first few decades of its existence was managing and settling the deluge of competing claims for its new lands. First, there were the very large landholders such as William Penn, the Dutch patrons of New York, and large but comparatively smaller parcels claimed by latecomers such as George Washington. Next were the squatters -- pioneers who went West and settled land with little awareness of who the ultimate owner might be, but the grit to clear and work the land and hope that they would be given legal title if they persevered. And then there were the thousands of Revolutionary War soldiers who were paid in the form of "warrants" for land. Complicating this further was the practice of claiming and selling federal and state land to fund public schools. The result of all these factors was decades of disputes and near chaos.

"Throughout his political career, one major issue preoccupied [US Congressman David Crockett]: the disposition of public lands in his West Tennessee district. There, many poor, small farmers had scratched out a living and built homes on land to which they either had no formal title or which they had obtained with land warrants that were later challenged, sometimes through corrupt practices. Most paid for that land on credit and often found it difficult to make timely payments or to pay property taxes. At times they were the victims of tight money policies, particularly during the Panic of 1819, and at others of fraudulent warrants.

David Crockett

"Squatters were settlers who occupied and built improvements on land to which they held no legal title. The practice was illegal, since squatters were trespassers on federal land, but had been tolerated for years due to the government's inability to stop the wave of settlers who migrated westward to seize new lands. Western states supported the practice, while others urged speedy sale of land to force squatters to either buy or leave. Squatters, or 'actual occupants,' and many westerners, including Crockett, claimed that they had taken risks by moving to the frontier to populate the land, fight Indians and the British, and cultivate and improve the land, and were entitled to keep it, either for free or at a minimal price. The dispute was partly an extension of the broader fight over the disposal of federal land, which pitted different sections of the country against one another. Westerners favored cheap land and encouraged migration from the East, while other regions resisted that approach for various reasons.

"Tennessee's land headache began with the very creation of the state, which had been carved out of territory ceded to the federal government by North Carolina in 1789. The deal required the new state to satisfy countless North Carolina land warrants that had been issued to its Revolutionary War veterans for their wartime service, and warrants the state had issued to redeem specie certificates, which the state had issued to help defray the costs of the war. Holders of those warrants would claim much of Tennessee's land.

"In 1806 the United States, North Carolina, and Tennessee concluded a compact that permitted Tennessee to locate and grant the warrants for the state of North Carolina. To sweeten the pill, the agreement stipulated that out of every six square miles set off for that purpose, 640 acres should be set aside by the state to sell to raise funds for common schools, which was standard government practice regarding public lands. However, the 1806 compact stipulated that the school lands be set aside 'where existing claims will allow the same.' Thus, although Tennessee might have obtained an estimated 444,444 acres to fund common schools, the actual amount of school lands depended on how much remained after the warrants were satisfied. ...

"Tennessee also claimed that satisfying the North Carolina warrants reduced the land actually available for schools to less than 23,000 acres. ...

"Multiplying Tennessee's burden was the degree of fraud connected with these warrants. Many of the Revolutionary War veterans, for whom the warrants were intended, were dead and their warrants had passed to their heirs. Other warrants were simply issued in the name of those who had already died. Many were sold to land speculators, who stood to profit from their resale; some were simply forgeries. Making matters worse was a nefarious practice of 'removing entries,' which permitted multiple uses of the same warrant. Under this arrangement a person who had obtained poor-quality land, or land that he no longer wanted, in East Tennessee with a warrant, could buy his warrant back from the state for a mere 12 1/2 cents per acre and use it again to obtain better land in the Western District. While the state was no doubt happy to enjoy these revenues, this practice went beyond the intent of the warrants, and it would wreak havoc on the poor farmers in the West. In many cases the warrants were used to bump squatters from land that they had improved, but to which they held no legal title, on the gamble that they would be able to eventually make it pay, but many never earned enough to buy the land. ...

"[To buy land] most had to borrow, which is why Crockett worked to establish more banks and easier credit in his district and to abolish penalties for delinquent property taxpayers. It is also why these farmers were hit so hard by restricted credit and hard-money policies."


James R. Boylston and Allen J. Wiener


David Crockett in Congress: The Rise and Fall of the Poor Man's Friend


Bright Sky Press


Copyright 2009 by James R. Boylston and Allen J. Wiener


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