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U.S. General Land Office - RG 952 | Illinois State Archives

Name: U.S. General Land Office - RG 952

Historical Note:

The first land offices concerned with land now within the State of Illinois were created at Kaskaskia and Vincennes (Indiana) by an act of Congress of March 26, 1804. The two districts were formed from land that had been ceded to the United States by various Indian treaties including, for Kaskaskia, a substantial part of the southern and western portions of the current State of Illinois and, for Vincennes, a relatively small area just inside the current eastern boundary of Illinois in addition to a large area now within Indiana.

Before land sales could begin at either office prior claims to land within the districts had to be settled. The Receivers and Registers at the two new offices were designated as Boards of Commissioners to aid in reviewing and determining the validity of such claims. Claims arose both from grants made by the French and British governments when in control of the areas (ancient grants) and from subsequent grants allowed by Congress. These later grants consisted of donations made to heads of families residing in the area in 1783, tracts allotted to men enrolled in the militia on August 1, 1790, and preemption rights extended to those who had settled and made improvements on tracts.

One year before the Board at Kaskaskia submitted its final report an act of Congress of April 25, 1812 created the General Land Office within the Treasury Department. Instead of reporting directly to the Secretary of the U.S. Treasury the district offices then came under the control of the Commissioner of the General Land Office. Land district offices eventually were established at Kaskaskia, Shawneetown, Edwardsville, Vandalia, Palestine, Springfield, Quincy, Danville, Chicago, and Dixon.

From the beginning the sale of public land had been conducted under a credit system which allowed the purchase of tracts through a series of installment payments. Three offices in Illinois operated under this system, those at Kaskaskia, Shawneetown, and Edwardsville. Under an act of Congress of March 26, 1804 tracts could be sold at no less than two dollars per acre in minimum lots of 160 acres. All tracts initially were offered at a public auction and, if left unsold after a specified period, then were subject to private entry.

A successful bidder at a public auction went first to the Receiver, paid an initial deposit of one-twentieth of the total purchase price, and received duplicate Receiver's receipts. He then presented one of the receipts to the Register as proof of payment and obtained a first certificate of purchase. The first installment of one-quarter of the purchase price generally would fall due within forty to ninety days and the total purchase price normally would be paid by the end of four years. However, a number of extensions of credit were granted by various acts of Congress for 1812-1820 for the relief of purchasers unable to meet the installment deadlines.

After the final installment was paid, along with any accrued interest, the final certificate was issued by the Register. A notice of its issuance would be forwarded to the General Land Office in Washington where a patent eventually would be prepared, assuming the purchaser's accounts were found to be correct. The Register at the appropriate land office would be sent all patents issued to purchasers in his district and then was responsible for their delivery.

The credit system proved to be unmanageable. Many purchasers extended themselves beyond their ability to pay and the land offices had difficulty in making collections. By an act of Congress of April 24, 1820 the credit system was abolished and a new cash system established. After July 1, 1820 purchasers were required to pay the full price for their land at the time of sale. The same legislation also reduced the minimum purchase to eighty acres and the minimum price per acre to $1.25.

Although the new cash system eliminated many problems for new purchases, there still remained an enormous outstanding debt from unpaid installments for purchases made under the old credit system. The relief act passed by Congress and approved on March 2, 1821 made a major stride toward clearing these accounts. A purchaser could relinquish a tract that only partially had been paid for and apply those partial payments toward the outstanding balance on a non-relinquished tract. Further credit on unpaid balances also could be granted, allowing purchasers up to eight years to pay the remaining sum. In addition a discount of 37 1/2 percent was allowed if the total balance was paid before September 30, 1821. The original act provided that application for relief in any of these forms had to be submitted by September 30, 1821. Subsequent acts approved April 20, 1822 and March 3, 1823 extended this deadline by two years.

An act of Congress of May 23, 1828 allowed Registers to issue certificates for forfeited land payments, called forfeited land stock, which could be applied toward any future land purchases. Several other acts passed over 1824-1832 further assisted purchasers in meeting debts contracted under the credit system.

The standard accounting method prescribed by the General Land Office and used in all district offices from the beginning was the double-entry journal and ledger system. The Receiver and Register each kept a set of journals and ledgers as a check on one another's accuracy. Thus these records of the Receivers and Registers essentially are identical. After the institution of the cash system the Receivers and Registers at the three Illinois offices which had sold land before July 1, 1820 (i.e., Kaskaskia, Shawneetown, and Edwardsville) were required to keep two sets of journals and ledgers, one set for the accounts opened under the credit system and another set for the new cash accounts. The Receivers and Registers also began issuing a new series of receipts and certificates under the cash system. Consequently various other registers and abstracts had to be kept in two sets to accommodate both systems.

The credit system accounts were closed in the Kaskaskia, Shawneetown, and Edwardsville Land Offices by the end of 1831. The use of journals and ledgers for cash accounts continued, however, until 1834. They were replaced on September 1, 1834 by the quarterly account system which was instituted by order of the Commissioner of the General Land Office. The quarterly accounts were prepared by the Receiver and forwarded to Washington. This reporting system stands as the primary record of each land office's transactions after 1834.

Congress enacted a substantial amount of public land legislation that affected the operations of the ten district offices in Illinois. Some acts, such as those granting preemption rights and military bounty land, extended advantages to certain types or classes of individuals in obtaining land. Other acts benefited the State of Illinois in various ways, as in aiding the establishment of education systems and in financing various public works. A complete study of all such legislation is not possible here, but an overview is necessary to place the records generated by and for the district land offices in context.

While some preemption rights earlier had been extended exclusively to settlers in Illinois, the first general preemption legislation was approved by Congress on May 29, 1830. Under its terms settlers on public land who had cultivated the land in 1829 could purchase up to 160 acres at the minimum price of $1.25 per acre. If two or more settlers claimed a single quarter section, each would be allowed half of the claimed quarter and an additional half-quarter, called a "float" elsewhere in the district. Congress allowed General Land Office officials to determine the basis upon which proof of settlement or improvement would be made and accepted. Affidavits were required from all claimants stating their evidence in support of their claims. It then was essentially left to the Registers and Receivers in the individual land offices to pass judgment on the merits of each claim.

Under an act of Congress of April 5, 1832 the minimum number of acres a purchaser could buy was reduced to forty. To prevent speculation it was specified that the purchaser had to intend to use the land for cultivation and affidavits swearing to this intent were required. With the minimum purchase reduced to forty acres very practical problems arose for officials in the district land offices because their tract books were set up to handle half-quarter sections. The new availability of quarter-quarter sections meant that two tracts had be entered on a single line. A General Land Office circular dated May 8, 1832 stated that when such interlining was impossible entries for quarter-quarter sections could be made in a separate volume.

The 1832 act also allowed for further preemption privileges, both on half-quarter and quarter-quarter sections, provided the entry was made within six months of the passage of the legislation. The act did not, however, specify on which date the settlers had to have occupied the land in order to qualify. Another general preemption act was approved on June 19, 1834 for settlers occupying and cultivating tracts in 1833. The policy of allowing "floats" was revived from the 1830 act and again affidavits and depositions were required from the claimants. Settlers were allowed two years to file their claims.

An act of Congress of September 4, 1841 had far-reaching effects both for preemption claimants and for the State of Illinois. Settlers were allowed preemption rights on up to 160 acres provided they had filed statements with the appropriate land office within three months of their settlements. The same act provided for the granting of 500,000 acres of land to each of several states, including Illinois, to be used to finance internal improvements. State agents were appointed in Illinois to select tracts and to report the selections to the appropriate land offices so that they could be removed from sale.

By an Act of Congress approved July 4, 1836 the General Land Office was reorganized and placed directly under the control of the President. At the same time the Office also assumed jurisdiction over the U.S. Surveyor General. Another reorganization occurred thirteen years later under an act approved March 3, 1849 which created the Department of the Interior and placed the General Land Office under it.

The first of a series of acts stimulated by the war with Mexico and granting land as bounty for military service was approved February 11, 1847. This first act granted military bounty land warrants for 160 acres and was restricted to noncommissioned officers and privates who had served at least one year in the Mexican War. Later acts of Congress, approved September 28, 1850, March 22, 1852, and March 3, 1855, extended their provisions to allow grants to any veteran or his heirs who had served a minimum of fourteen days in any war since 1790. The warrants were made assignable as well.

The federal Graduation Act, approved August 3, 1854 reduced the price on land which had been available for sale for ten years or more. The set prices were based on how many years the tract had remained unsold, ranging from one dollar per acre for ten years to twelve and one-half cents per acre for those tracts unsold after thirty years. The act did not apply to railroad or other internal improvement grants nor to mineral lands; and preemption was extended to all graduated tracts.

In addition to the act of 1841 granting land for internal improvements, the federal government made several other grants of land to the State of Illinois for various uses. The 1804 act which had created the land offices at Kaskaskia and Vincennes also allowed for a grant to the residents of the Kaskaskia district of thirty-six sections which would be used to finance a seminary of higher learning. It also provided that section sixteen in each township would be reserved for the support of common schools. The State of Illinois inherited the rights to these grants when it was admitted to the Union in 1818; but the sale of seminary and school lands was not authorized until 1829.

In 1850 the federal government also donated swamp and overflowed lands in Illinois to the state for the purpose of drainage and reclamation. The determination of which lands fell under the provisions of the act was complicated and the land district officers served as mediators in disputed claims.

Under an act of Congress approved June 12, 1840 land offices could be discontinued when less than 100,000 acres remained unsold in their districts. Based on reports submitted by the Receivers and Registers the General Land Office closed nine of the offices in Illinois during 1855 and 1856, transferring the responsibility for the remaining public land in each to the Springfield Land District Office.

The Springfield Office continued selling land until it was abolished by an act of Congress of July 31, 1876. The Secretary of the Interior was authorized to negotiate with state authorities for receipt of land office records no longer needed by the federal government. In 1879 the General Assembly approved acceptance of the records and designated the Auditor of Public Accounts as their custodian (L. 1879, p. 238).

The Illinois State Archives has captured original land sales from the public domain in an automated database. More than 550,000 such sales of the 54,740 square miles of public lands in Illinois have been encoded. Access can be made by a variety of means with the most common one being the name of the purchaser.

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