Word With a Past: Doing A Land Office Business

In 1785, the newly created United States, burdened by debts incurred in its war for independence, passed a Land Ordinance Act authorizing the Treasury Department to sell land in the public domain as a source of revenue.*

Acting on the principle of “survey before settlement”, tracts of land were surveyed into townships and plat parcels, then sold at auction to the highest bidder, or at least the minimum price set by Congress. Eager settlers poured across the Allegheny Mountains into first the Ohio lands and later the Indiana and Illinois territories. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 brought new opportunities for settlement in the “empty” territory west of the Mississippi.** Between 1800 and 1812, Congress created 19 land districts in the frontier territories and the Treasury Department sold more than 4 million acres of public land. In 1812, Congress created the General Land Office to manage the quickly growing sale of public lands.

Settlers were so eager to file land claims that district land offices were busy places. By 1832, so many claims for land had been filed that there was a backlog of some 10,500 land “patents” waiting for an official signature to make them final.*** “Land-office business” became a metaphor for a brisk business of any kind. It still is–even when the real estate market takes a turn for the worse and a two bedroom coop just won’t sell.

*If you’ve been hanging around History in the Margins for a while, this may sound familiar. America’s first interstate, the National Highway, was funded in large part by selling off bits of what became Ohio.
**Which were of course, not actually empty.
***At first all land patents were signed by the president of the United States. On March 2, 1833, Congress passed a law allowing a GLO clerk to sign on the president’s behalf.

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