Public Land Corners

History of the "Donation Land Act of 1850"

Signed September 27, 1850

The Oregon Territory was jointly occupied by the United States and Great Britain from 1818 to 1846. Citizens of both countries settled in the area, without any title to their claims from either country. In 1843 the citizens in the Willamette Valley area met at Champoeg (and Oregon City) and formed a Provisional Government, formulated laws, and provided for land claims of up to 600 acres. Although the Provisional Government functioned without authority of Congress, the settlers had at least some "staked" claim rights to the land, if Congress chose to recognize those claims at a later date. Private land claims had been, and were being recognized and provided for by law in many other areas, so the presumption that Congress would do the same again was based on a solid foundation politically. Claims of up to 640 acres were later provided for, in square or oblong form.

In 1846, the "Oregon Compromise" with Great Britain fixed the boundaries of the Oregon Territory along the 49th parallel, except for Vancouver Island and some small islands adjacent to it. Even after the Compromise, Congress failed to act on the Oregon question for two more years, during which time the Provisional Government was the only visible authority.  

The Oregon Territorial Organic Act, signed by President James Polk on August 14, 1848 created "The Territory of Oregon". The boundaries were described: 

"that part of the Territory of the United States which lies West of the summit of the Rocky Mountains, North of the forty second degree of North latitude, known as the Territory of Oregon". 

Every white male inhabitant (except active military personnel) who was 21 years of age or over, and a resident of Oregon in 1848 who was a citizen of the US or had declared, on oath, his intention to become one, and had taken on oath to support the Constitution of the US and the Organic Act, was qualified to vote in the first election. Thereafter, the territorial legislature was empowered to define qualifications of voters and elected officers. 

A couple of important special features of the Oregon Organic Act were that slavery was prohibited and that Public Schools were especially supported by reserving Section 16 and 36 in each township for the maintenance of schools. However, Congress recognized Native American rights to the land, and until these rights were extinguished, could make no regulation regarding the lands disposal. Hence the provisional land laws, established in 1785, were declared null and void — with one exception: title to 640 acres occupied as missionary stations among the Indians were confirmed to the societies in which the stations belonged. 

Congress assumed the surrender of Indian title to their lands, and on September 27, 1850 passed the "Donation Land Act of 1850", what is now commonly known as the Donation Land Law.

"An act to create the office of Surveyor General of the public land in Oregon, and to provide for the survey, and to make donations to the settlers of said public lands." 

Under this law 320 acres was granted to every male settler over the age of 18 who was a citizen or declared his intention to become one before December 1, 1851, and who had occupied and cultivated his land for four consecutive years before December 1, 1850. If he married by December 1, 1851, his wife was granted a like amount of land to hold in her own right.

The Surveyor General was to designate the halves. This provision took care of the claims of settlers in Oregon before December of 1850. For those settling between December 1, 1850 and December 1, 1853, who were white male citizens 21 years of age or over, 160 acres were granted. If married, their wives were entitled to a like amount. No person could get more than one DLC and mineral lands were excluded. An amendment of February 1855 extended the act to immigrants arriving as late as December 1, 1855. After 2 years occupancy and payment of $1.25 per acre they could patent the claim.  

The Donation Land Claim Act recognized women’s part in pioneering by allowing wives the uncommon privilege of holding real property in their own names. A minor consequence of the double allotment of land for married couples was an increased number of marriages. Single adult women were as scarce in Oregon as in other frontier societies. Very young girls suddenly became marriageable and soon were wives. Almost half of the people claiming land were married in Oregon. 

The Donation Land Claim stipulated that where the land was deemed "unfit for cultivation" only township lines were to be surveyed; otherwise only such lines were to be surveyed as were "necessary". For a settler to get title or patent to his individual claim it had to be surveyed, so the settler’s request for surveys constituted the definition of "necessary". The initial survey (1851) set up the Willamette Meridian and base lines, and plotted townships and ranges for the most heavily populated areas. Field surveys of sections within townships were proposed for 1852 and 1853. 

The land offices received entries from 3,134 persons qualified to receive sections (or half-sections) by virtue of residence in Oregon before December 1, 1850. A pretty low number out of the 8000 or more adults in the Territory by this date. About 25,000 to 30,000 persons entered the Oregon Territory before the Donation Land Act expired in 1855. However, only 7,437 claims within Oregon’s boundary were eventually patented, most of them west of the Cascades. With 5,289 in Oregon City alone. Since it has been assumed that the purpose of immigration to Oregon was to acquire free land, we would expect a larger number of entries.

Not all that entered claims patent them, and some patentees were not the original occupants. If a qualified person wanted to claim lands already occupied, he could pay the occupant for his "prior rights" and then file as the original claimant. Qualified immigrants who wanted more desirable claims, rather then take an unclaimed area, could buy their way in. In one particular case $5,000 was paid for a 640-acre claim’s "prior rights". The price suggests speculation and the availability of capital for investment — in other words the first boom in Oregon real estate. 

The Donation Land Law created the office of Surveyor General for Oregon, who established the first land office at Oregon City. His survey was based on the method established by the Land Ordinance of 1787, that was to lay off townships and sections by the compass rather that by reference to natural boundaries of any kind. 

The Solar Compass, developed by William Austin Burt, is a classic surveying instrument and is uniquely American. It was the workhorse for the original land surveys in the United States from 1845 to 1915. Since the Solar Compass operated independently of the magnetic needle, the effects of magnetic attraction of local mineral deposits, diurnal variation, and magnetic storms were not a factor in the accuracy of the surveys performed with this instrument. 

The 1851 Manual of Instructions to the Surveyor General of Oregon say that measurements were to be taken with a "two pole chain" (1 pole or rod equals 16.5 feet). In 1620, Edmund Gunter, an English astronomer, developed what became the most widely used chain. Despite its clumsiness, the Gunter’s chain remained the surveyor’s standard measuring device for nearly 280 years. A two-pole chain (33’ long) was made up of 50 links of 7.92 inches each. Each heavy wire link was connected to the others by two rings that were generally oval, sawed, and well closed. The ends of the wire forming the hook were filed and bent close to the link to prevent kinking. Brass tally markers of various designs identified every tenth link. The accuracy of the chain was enhanced by the length adjustment at the handles, which compensated for the lengthening of the chain through use. 


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