On September 27, 1850, the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 takes effect. The act creates a powerful incentive for settlement of the Oregon Territory by offering 320 acres at no charge to qualifying adult U.S. citizens (640 acres to married couples) who occupy their claims for four consecutive years. Amendments in 1853 and 1854 continue the program, but cut the size of allowable claims by half.
Settling Oregon Territory
Only a small number of Euro-Americans resided in Oregon country from 1810 through the 1830s, and these were mostly fur trappers and missionaries who lived alongside Native tribes. But by the 1840s, government support of western expansion spurred migration into Oregon territory. To encourage settlement, Congress passed the Distribution-Preemption Act of 1841, which recognized squatters’ rights and allowed settlers to claim 160 acres of land in the new territory. After residing on the property for 14 months, a claimant could purchase the property at $1.25 an acre. The United States government hoped to establish a strong claim of settlement in Oregon country, which at that time was held jointly by the United States and Great Britain.
In 1843 non-Native settlers in the Willamette Valley drafted a constitution and, by a vote of 52 to 50, established a provisional government. Settlers could now claim up to 640 acres of land at no charge, although no treaties had been signed with Native tribes.
Population growth was steady and helped bring about a boundary treaty between the U.S. and Britain in 1846 that established a border-line at the 49th parallel and gave the United States claim to the territory. Oregon Territory was officially formed on August 14, 1848. But in the territorial creation, land grants recognized under the provisional government were nullified, based on the fact that the provisional governing board had been partially composed of British subjects. Clearly, settlers needed title to the chunks of land they had traveled so many difficult miles to obtain.
The Donation Land Claim Act
Oregon Territory’s first Congressional representative, Samuel Royal Thurston (1816-1851), took on the land issue as his first legislative effort, convincing legislators of the growth potential of the Pacific Northwest and the need to legalize property rights in the Territory. Thurston authored the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which recognized past claims granted under the provisional government, created the Office of Surveyor-General of Public Lands, and made land grants to new settlers. The Donation Land Claim Act spurred a huge migration into Oregon Territory by offering qualifying citizens free land.
The act took effect on September 27, 1850, granting 320 acres of federal land to white male citizens 18 years of age or older who resided on property on or before December 1, 1850. If married before December 1, 1851, a couple received an additional 320 acres in the wife’s name. (A large number of marriages reportedly took place during this one year.) Recipients agreed to live on and cultivate the allotment for four consecutive years, which could be counted retroactively. A certificate was issued to the claimant, granting immediate ownership once the land was occupied. Claimants who located on property between December 1, 1850, and December 1, 1853, (later extended to 1855) could obtain 160 acres of land (320 acres to married couples). Under an extension of the act in 1854, land could be purchased for $1.25 an acre. This policy held until Congress authorized the Homestead Act in 1862.
Surveying the Land
John B. Preston was chosen as the territory’s first Surveyor-General. On June 7, 1851, he drove a “starting stake” for the base surveys at what is known as the Willamette Stone, an east-west Willamette Base Line and north-south Willamette Meridian which still define present land descriptions in Oregon and Washington states. Government requirements mandated rectangular surveys, but honored previous squatters’ claims up to the maximum acreage. Claims taken after December 1, 1850, were to be laid out on or parallel to national survey lines, but those acquired before that date did not. (Many early claims were conspicuously irregular.) But even new claims often had odd shapes determined by transportation lines and future townsites. Each grid or section measured one mile in length on each side and included 640 acres. New claims were numbered sequentially in each township. Property settled before December 1, 1850, occasionally ended up in several townships.
Early pioneers who settled before the act was passed more than likely surveyed their own land or hired others not fully trained as surveyors. Although the difference in determining true- and magnetic-north descriptions was clearly understood by surveyors, it was often misunderstood by the pioneers, and in 1855 the difference between the two exceeded 19 degrees. Section 3 of the Donation Claim Act set a clear limit of $8 a mile for surveyors’ fees, but this often was ignored. Since claims needed to conform to government standards (and only surveyors recognized by the surveyor-general were those employed by him), claims surveying became something of a racket, and excessive charges were common. Settlers became outraged at this practice, which eventually led to dismissal of the first surveyor-general.
Most of the claims under the Donation Land Claim Act were located in the Willamette, Umpqua, and Rogue river valleys. By 1856 more than 7,000 settlers had acquired more than 2.5 million acres of property.
Shaping Oregon’s Character
A white racial profile soon emerged for recognized settlement in Oregon Territory. Members of Native tribes were not U.S. citizens and therefore could not own land under the law, although Section 4 of the Donation Claims Act allowed “American half-breed Indians” of legal age who were citizens of the United States (or declared to be) to take Donation claims. And although slavery was prohibited by law in Oregon Territory, some new settlers brought slaves with them, as well as anti-black attitudes. The national debate on slavery was an important issue in early Oregon politics. Congressman Thurston expressed in an 1850 address to Congress that although settlers in Oregon Territory predominantly opposed slavery, they also feared the arrival of blacks who might marry Natives and thus pose a threat to what was still a small white population.
The issue was put to public vote. Oregon voters upheld the anti-slavery law and, at the same time, excluded African Americans — as well as Hawaiians — from Oregon when it became a state. Hawaiians had made up a large portion of the territory’s work force and most soon returned to the islands.
Local Native tribes struggled. The Clatsop and Nehalem (Tillamook) met on August 5th and 6th, 1851, at Tansey Point at the mouth of the Columbia River and signed a treaty with the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Anson Dart (1797-1879). Although the Tansey Point Treaties were sent to Washington D.C. for ratification, the process was blocked by Oregon Territory Representative Joseph Lane (1801-1881). (Thurston had died a few months earlier.) The treaty was never ratified, creating a legal tangle for the Tillamooks that left them out of later treaties.
The act did allow Indian missions already established in 1850 to claim 640 acres.
Denying John McLoughlin
Section 11 of the Land Claim Act was a vendetta against former Hudson’s Bay agent Dr. John McLoughlin (1784-1857) and sought to deny him a land claim in Oregon City. Thurston argued that McLoughlin was disqualified to claim property under the act because he was a British citizen. He also accused McLoughlin of attempting to stop territorial development.
McLoughlin refuted these claims, stating that he was Canadian, not British, and that he had filed for U.S. citizenship. He was now an old man, and Oregon had been his home for many years. McLoughlin’s claim was denied; he became a U.S. citizen and died in 1857, leaving an estate valued at $142,585, not counting $29,414 in debts owed him that the appraisers considered uncollectible. His real estate holdings were valued at $86,170. The appraisers noted that the legislature had yet to seize any of McLoughlin’s land, but that approximately half of it was legally subject to seizure. Assuming that all the disputed land was seized, and that none of the debts could be collected, McLoughlin’s estate still amounted to more than $100,000 in 1857 dollars — more than $2.7 million today. In 1862 the legislature passed a bill enabling McLoughlin’s heirs to gain legal title to the land for a token payment of $1,000 to be paid into the University Fund. According to a later account, they “could have reduced their cost by paying in greenbacks, which were discounted, but they scorned to do so, and handed over the full sum in coins of gold” (Morrison, 476). McLoughlin’s claimed property is today recognized as a landmark by Oregon City.
Claims Taken in Washington Territory
Washington Territory was formed in 1853, from roughly the northern half of Oregon Territory. Under the 1854 extension of the act, land was no longer free but could be purchased for $1.25 an acre. This held until Congress authorized the Homestead Act in 1862.
The first land patents were granted in Washington Territory in Thurston and Clarke (later Clark) counties in 1857. The following list shows the number of claims taken in Washington counties under the Donation Land Claim Act:
Adams 0, Asotin 0, Benton 0, Chelan 0, Clallam 16, Clark 161, Columbia 1, Cowlitz 107, Douglas 0, Ferry 0, Franklin 0, Garfield 0, Grant 0, Grays Harbor 16, Island 55, Jefferson 17, King 58, Kitsap 4, Kittitas 0, Klickitat 1, Lewis 96, Lincoln 0, Mason 19, Okanogan 0, Pacific 61, Pend Oreille 0, Pierce 108, San Juan 1, Skagit 0, Snohomish 0, Spokane 1, Stevens 3, Thurston 234, Wahkiakum 13, Whatcom 19, Whitman 0, Yakima 0.
Willamette Stone Heritage Site
Today the Willamette Stone State Heritage Site — an Oregon state park located four miles west of downtown Portland — tells the story of surveying Oregon Territory. A marker identifies the spot where Oregon’s first Surveyor-General, John B. Preston, drove a stake on June 4, 1851, establishing the starting point for all land surveys in Oregon and Washington. Known as the “initial point,” or origin of the Willamette Meridian, it is the point from which all lands in the public domain in the two states were divided into townships and ranges. Transfers of land from the federal government to private land ownership were based on the federally sponsored surveys originating from this initial point. A 500-foot trail leads from the parking area to the marker. An obelisk marks the site with a plaque that reads:
“Beginning here, the Willamette Meridian was established, running north to Puget Sound and south to the California border, and the baseline was established running east to the Idaho border and west to the Pacific Ocean. From these surveyed lines, the lands of the Northwest were divided into townships six miles square beginning at the Willamette Base Line numbering north or south and given a range beginning at The Willamette Meridian numbering east and west. Each full township is divided into 36 sections of land 1 mile square which are numbered starting at the northeast corner of each.”