The Public Lands of America

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XII (7) start of chapter

To one who hears so much as I have heard of the less than 21,000,000 acres of Ireland, and the 77,000,000 of the whole of the United Kingdom—including England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and every island adjoining or belonging thereto—the idea of the acreage of the United States is simply bewildering. One would require a gigantic mind to grasp or comprehend a thing in itself so gigantic. Practically speaking, the public lands, or those which have not passed into individual ownership, are illimitable. Millions and millions of square miles, hundreds of millions of acres, never yet surveyed—millions and millions of square miles, and hundreds of millions of acres surveyed, but not occupied, and capable of absorbing, for centuries, the surplus population of Europe. Almost any one of the new Territories—which will be the States of to-morrow—would swallow, at a bite, as a child would a cherry, all the agricultural population of Ireland, with its proprietors, resident and absentee, included. One thing, however, is indisputable—that the Irish who have emigrated, or who may emigrate to America, ought to find no difficulty in suiting themselves; also, that there are as good chances to-day for the bold and adventurous as there were ten, or twenty, or fifty years back.

Though it is difficult to afford a sober idea of what is of itself well nigh incomprehensible from its very vastness, I must endeavour to represent, and that as briefly as possible, the extent of the Public Lands of the United States.

The total extent of the Public Lands of the United States is 1,468,000,000 acres; of which 474,160,000 acres had been explored and surveyed up to the close of 1866. The surveyed land is generally well suited for agriculture, and in the most favourably circumstanced localities, on the banks of streams, and in the neighbourhood of trunk roads. There remain unsurveyed, and open to any settler under the Pre-emption Laws, 991,308,249 acres. In Colorado, a rich mineral and agricultural State, only 1,500,000 acres are surveyed, and 65,000,000, or nearly the extent of the entire of the United Kingdom, unsurveyed. In Washington Territory 3,500,000 are surveyed, 41,000,000 unsurveyed. In Oregon, a State into which immigrants pour at the rate of 20,000 a year, only 5,000,000 acres are surveyed, while 55,000,000 are unsurveyed. In Kansas, a partially settled State, the surveys extend over 16,000,000 acres, leaving 35,000,000 unsurveyed. Nebraska, 13,000,000 out of 48,000,000. California, with 27,000,000 acres surveyed, has 93,000,000 unsurveyed! This one State, to which the Irish have added so large a portion of its population, is six times larger than Ireland, or has six times more than the number of acres respecting which it appears—at least, up to the time these words are written—to be so impossible to deal with or legislate for according to the dictates of man's wisdom and the principles of God's justice. In Arizona, Dacota, New Mexico, Utah, Montana, Idaho, there are enormous tracts, to be counted by hundreds of millions of acres, of every variety of soil, and richly endowed with minerals, open to the emigrant.

In Minnesota, into which immigration has been strongly flowing for years, there are 31,000,000 of unsurveyed land. In the older of the still modern States there are vast tracts of land open to the purchaser, and all surveyed. Thus, in Wisconsin there are 33,000,000 acres; in Iowa, 35,000,000; Missouri, 41,000,000; Alabama, 32,000,000; Ohio, 25,000,000; Florida, 26,000,000; Arkansas, 33,000,000; Mississippi, 30,000,000; Louisiana, 23,000,000; Indiana, 21,000,000; Michigan, 36,000,000; and Illinois, 35,000,000 acres. In the new mineral States, such as Colorado and Nevada, the mining population afford a ready market for all surplus agricultural produce. A couple of years since there were prices for agricultural produce in Colorado which would remind one of the state of things in California during the first rush to the gold mines; but cultivation has now so much increased that the prices, though most remunerative, have been considerably reduced. In the course of time mining enterprise will extend more to Arizona, Montana, Idaho, &c., all the new Territories and States being rich in minerals; and as mining operations advance in any locality, the agricultural population will be correspondingly benefited. In fact, with mining enterprise, all kinds of manufacturing industries gradually spring up; and those who are thus engaged form the readiest and best customers to the farmer, who finds with them a profitable market for his surplus produce of every kind.

The Government surveys not only follow the course of immigration, but meet its requirements. But there is always a large quantity of surveyed land in each of the new States, as indeed in the others, available for immediate settlement. Much of it is prairie, which does not present the difficulties of timber land in cultivation. The total thus available—offered or unoffered—in 1866, was sufficient to make 831,250 farms of 160 acres each.

Under the Homestead Law (15) a farm may be had at an almost nominal price—little more than the cost of its survey. Upon the unsurveyed lands any person may enter, and proceed to appropriate and cultivate a tract; and when the survey reaches and includes his land, he will have the right of pre-emption—purchasing its fee simple—at a small price, which may be somewhat enhanced by a neighbouring improvement, such as a railroad passing within a certain distance. The settler may have occupied his farm for years, it may be two or it may be ten, before the survey comes up to him, and he can therefore well afford to pay the very moderate price which the Government charges for what is then carefully and accurately defined, and for which his title is made good against the world. Under the Homestead Law the limit of the farms which each individual can obtain is 160 acres; but under the Pre-emption Law it appears the settler may purchase any quantity in proportion to the number of acres cleared at the time of the survey.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America