Early Oregon Land Law
Bill Long 7/22/06
On July 5, 1843 the Legislative Committee, elected on May 2, returned with its report regarding setting up a Provisional Government in Oregon. While I don't reproduce the text of the entire 1843 Organic Act here, I give the 1843 provisions on land, which are among the most important in the Act. In addition, as the following essays show, I am posting for the first time on the Net the entire revised Organic Act as it was approved in 1845.
I wanted to present the text of the land law not only because it is not otherwise available online but also because the basis for one of the most significant Congressional legal enactments in the 19th century--the 1850 Oregon Donation Claim Act. Here it is:
The 1843 Oregon Land Act--July 5, 1843
Art 1. "Any person now holding, or hereafter wishing to establish a claim to land in this territory, shall designate the extent of his claim by natural boundaries, or by marks at the corners, and on the lines of such claim, and have the extent and boundaries of said claim recorded in the office of the territorial recorder, in a book to be kept by him for that purpose, within twenty days from the time of making said claim--PROVIDED, That those who shall already be in possession of land, shall be allowed one year from the passage of this act to file a description of his claim in the recorder's office."
Art. 2. "All claimants shall, within six months of the time of recording their claims, make permanent improvements upon the same by building or enclosing, and also become an occupant upon said claim within one year from the date of such record."
Art. 3. "No individual shall be allowed to hold a claim of more than one square mile, or 640 acres in a square oblong form, according to the natural situation of the premises; nor shall any individual be allowed to hold more than one claim at the same time. Any person complying with the provisions of these ordinances, shall be entitled to the same recourse against trespass, as in other cases by law provided."
Art. 4. "No person shall be entitled to hold such a claim upon city or town sites, extensive water privileges, or other situations necessary for the transaction of mercantile or manufacturing operations, and to the detriment of the community--PROVIDED, That nothing in these laws shall be so construed as to affect any claim of any mission of a religious character, made previous to this time, of an extent not more than six miles square."
June 25, 1844 Revision
I quote here from Matthew Deady's General Laws of Oregon (1845-1864), p. 64, fn. He writes:
"By an act passed on June 25, 1844, by the legislative committee, further modifications were made, to the effect that a person might hold town lots in addition to a land claim; that permanent improvements must be made within ten months from the time of taking up the claim; and the first settler or his successor to have the prior right; that no person should be entitled to hold land except free males over the age of eighteen, or under that age, if married, who would be entitled to vote if of lawful age, and widows; and that occupants should have the remedy of forcible entry and detainer against intruders."
December 24, 1844 Revision
Again, I quote from Deady, Id.
"The legislative committee, by pact passed December 24, 1844, modified this Land Law, by providing that a claimaint might occupy his land in person or by a tenant. That 600 acres of a land claim might be taken in the prairie, and the remaining 40 in the timber, without such parts being adjoining each other; and that two persons might take and hold 1280 acres jointly; but wihtin the first year of such occupation, improvements were to be made on each half of such joint claim."
Five observations seem relevant from reading these articles.
1. First, is the terminology regarding settlement. We have three things or categories of people that seem important. First are those who already already possess land. Does that mean that they occupy the land? I would think so. They have one year from the date of enactment to file a description of the claim (either with natural boundaries or with marks on the corner) in the registrar's office. Note that the 1845 law will still use this method but will require conformity to the "cardinal points" (i.e., one of the four principal directions on a compass, Sec. 5). Second are those who "hereafter wish" to establish a claim. These folk have 20 days from the date of making a claim to get the description into the recorder. The third category are those who are "now holding...a claim." I suppose these differ from the first category in that they aren't yet "possessing" or occupying the land. These have 20 days from the date of the enactment to submit their description. It doesn't say what is required to establish a claim, since submission of a description isn't required. Perhaps it is just putting one's "marks" or "stuff" on a place, drawing a line, letting people know, etc... Thus, there is a disctinction here between making and recording a claim.
2. Second, is the notion that in order to keep a claim, you must improve it. The law evolved on that one. At first you had to make "permanent improvements" by "building or enclosing" within six months after recording the claim; then you had to become an occupant within a year of the date of recording. This changed in the 1844 laws to 10 months. Does that mean that the one year provision for occupation remained? I would think so. Finally, the December 1844 law pointed out that one might occupy either personally or through a tenant.
3. Third, is the amount or extent of land a person could claim. This act provides, for the first time, a figure of 640 acres in a "square mile" or "square oblong form." Other previous federal land acts had specified a price per acre or a smaller limitation on acreage, but here, as far as I know, the figure of 640 acres appears for the first time in American law. Interesting in the December 1844 act is the ability to double this amount (1280 acres), with a spouse. Also interesting is the ability to "split" a claim, where one might get 600 farm acres and 40 non-contiguous timber acres.
4. Fourth, the language of who may hold land is generic; it doesn't confine it to white males, though the June 25 act talks about widows being able to hold claims. This evolution is interesting, because a similar evolution will be apparant in the amendments to the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850.
5. Fifth, and last, is the clause grandfathering in the land held by the Methodist Church, without of course stating this in so many words. But here, the limitation is six square miles. The Methodist influence would remain strong in Oregon until after the passage of the Territorial Act on August 14, 1848. Indeed, the infamous Sec. 11 of that bill highlighted the tension between the Methodist Mission and the "Father of Oregon," John McLoughlin.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long