Friday, October 8, 2010

Sixty Million Acres!

Thanks to the helpful folks on the Transitional Genealogists list, I have now purchased and read James W. Oberly's detailed study, Sixty Million Acres: American Veterans and the Public Lands before the Civil War (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1990). It's definitely worth your time if you deal regularly with bounty-land recipients under the four different Congressional acts passed in 1847, 1850, 1852, and 1855, which together involved most veterans of most wars from the War of 1812 through the Mexican War. It's also good microscopic historical background, connecting these laws with the changing politics of that era, and also reviewing and modifying past interpretations by earlier generations of historians.

Oberly starts with the politics: how Congress decided how to distribute the public land (it all started with the need to boost recruitment pronto during the Mexican War), how the administrative offices implemented distribution, and how the recipients (veterans and widows) used their warrants.

At the time, there was much concern about speculators monopolizing land or bilking veterans. Oberly finds little evidence that they did, but they did make some windfall profits.

The expectation that these warrants would spark additional settlement by the veterans themselves was also not fulfilled. (A very rough comparison: if the government offered Alaskan bush land to Vietnam-era veterans now, how many would choose to go?) In Oberly's random sample of warrants, fewer than 5 percent of the recipients used them to "locate" land for themselves. {92} Most warrants were sold, often through middlemen, and there were intertwined national and local markets for them. The market seems to have been competitive, and somewhat volatile. In general Oberly thinks the sellers did OK. (Genealogical lesson #1: if you find such a warrant in use, the odds are very good that the person who took up the land was not the original recipient and quite possibly not a veteran of any of those wars.)

The line of settlement pretty much determined where the warrants ended up being located: Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin together make up roughly half the acreage, with Missouri and Minnesota close behind. {85} Southern states were underrepresented in part because the big boom state in those years was Texas, which had its own public-lands system inherited from its brief independence.


Patti Hobbs said...

Thanks, Harold. Somehow I missed that recommendation on the list.

N. LaRue said...

Wow, this does sounds like a wonderful resource! Thanks for the recommendation and run-down.

Tex said...

I'm off to order this book to see if it will shed some light on why my 56 year old 4th great grandfather enlisted in the Mexican War.