Laws — Acts of Congress
that Transformed the American West
The United States Congress enacted a series of laws that totally transformed the American West.
Sale-Cash Entry Act of 1820
— Title Transfer Authority Code: 272002, April 24, 1820, 3 Stat. 566
Congress enacted the Sale-Cash Entry Act so individuals could purchase land for cash directly from the General Land Office.
Pre-emption Act of 1841
The Pre-emption Act of 1841 legalized settlers who had established themselves illegally on land ahead of government surveyors. Eventually, the federal government surveyed the surrounding land, which then became available for public sale. Illegal settlers, “squatters”, then had the right to appear at the local land office so they could legalize their land.
Because of the Pre-emption Act, squatters could purchase up to 160 acres of their illegal land for $1.25 per acre. Upon showing proof of building a house and making improvements to the land, squatters could claim ownership of the land. The Pre-emption Act gave illegal settlers the right to pre-empt, or prevent, any other claims to their land.
The Pre-emption Act, repealed in 1891, legalized early pioneer settlement on unsurveyed lands. “Squatting” became a legitimate means of establishing a homestead, because of the Pre-emption Act.
As a result, many homestead files contain documents of proof related to the Pre-emption Act of 1841.
Acts of Congress played a key role
in opening up the American West
Beginning in 1862, the United States Congress enacted a series of laws that totally transformed the American West.
The four transcontinental railroads received huge grants of land. Rail transportation extended across the entire continent of North America from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.
The removal of Native American peoples from open land to reservations, consequently opened up the west to white settlement.
Thirteen new territories, including the Dakota Territory, joined the union, because of new laws enacted by Congress.
Each state and territory received land grants to establish new agricultural colleges to encourage productive farming.
Homestead Act of 1862
— Title Transfer Authority Code: 251101, May 20, 1862, 12 Stat. 392
The Homestead Act offered 160 acres (80 acres within the railroad grant areas) of free land. The person had to be a citizen of the United States over 21 years of age. A foreign-born person filing a declaration of intent to become a citizen of the United States was also eligible. The homesteader simply had to reside on the land for five years and improve it. The United States distributed free quarter sections of land (160 acres) to homesteaders who improved it for five years. There was also an option to purchase the land after six months of residency for $1.25 per acre.
The Homestead Act applies to surveyed land, and in 1880 it extended to include unsurveyed land. Railroads spearheaded the onslaught of land seekers, because they trainloads of homesteaders into the heart of the western frontier. Every homestead file contains documents of proof related to the Homestead Act of 1862.
Timber Culture Act of 1873
— Title Transfer Authority Code: 251105, March 3, 1873, 17 Stat. 605
The Timber Culture Act was another law that encouraged the planting of trees, and homesteading in the west. A settler planted 40 acres of timber (reduced to 10 acres in 1878) and fostered their growth for 10 years. Upon compliance with the law, the individual acquired title to that quarter section of land.
Homesteaders could also occupy their land for three years. One acre of trees would be under cultivation for two of those three years. Homesteaders could then receive a patent (first title deed) to the land. Congress repealed the law in 1882. Many homestead files in South Dakota contain documents of proof related to the Timber Culture Act of 1873.
Desert Land Act of 1877
— Title Transfer Authority Code: 252000, March 3, 1877, 19 Stat. 377
The Desert Land Act encouraged settlement of the arid and semi-arid regions of the west. Specifically, the act applied to California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah. Also included were North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.
The Desert Land Act allowed anyone to purchase 640 acres of land for 25 cents per acre. The purchaser needed to irrigate the land within three years of filing. A rancher could receive title to the land any time within the three years. Upon proof of compliance with the law, settlers paid one additional dollar per acre for the land. The homestead files of many cattle ranchers west of the Missouri River contain documents related to the Desert Land Act.
North Dakota and South Dakota
County and Township Historical Atlases
Land Ownership Maps
If your ancestors owned a farm in North Dakota or South Dakota, here’s a suggestion. Research the county and township historical atlas where your ancestors lived. This is the type of land ownership map that shows your ancestors’ farm property in the county where they resided. You may very well find your ancestors’ land, and the land of nearby family members and neighbors.
Historic Map Works, LLC, based in Portland, Maine, is an Internet company. This company has assembled a very useful database of historic digital maps of North America and the world. Family history researchers can view this collection of American property atlases. We think this may be one of the best online map and atlas destinations for family history researchers.
In case you’re wondering, Time Passages has no relationship with Historic Map Works, LLC.
Try these links. You may find a North Dakota or South Dakota County and Township Historical Atlas related to your ancestors.
The Land Ownership Maps you find here may provide you with new information about your ancestors’ land.
• ND County and Township Historical Atlases / Land Ownership Maps
North Dakota. » Click Here «
• SD County and Township Historical Atlases / Land Ownership Maps
South Dakota. » Click Here «