The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789-1837
Malcolm J. Rohrbough, 1990

This was a mostly administrative history of western expansion, that offered some interesting hints at culture, mostly unintentionally and between the lines. “The distribution of the public domain had a profound effect on the economic life of the nation,” Rohrbough said. Not only in the “great agricultural empire” of the early twentieth century, but because “In the first fifty years of the Republic’s history, citizens spent much time devising ways to get something for nothing from the public domain” (of course, this may not have been the Indians’ perspective). As time passed, “The politicians who increasingly administered the public domain did not do so out of a feeling of service but to make a profit.” This was an odd statement, but Rohrbough showed that appointees as early as Albert Gallatin were heavy speculators. “Land speculation,” he said, “was part of the American scene from the first settlements;” and so, it seems, was the tendency to mix the public and private domains.

A recurring issue in distributing public lands were “pioneer families [who] defied the Indians [and] challenged the authority of entrepreneurs,” speculators, and bureaucrats. Pre-emption deals had to be made throughout the period of western expansion, to accommodate those who had squatted on frontier lands.  But the land and money expended on this seems like a drop in the bucket, compared with the fortunes and political power that accrued to the well-connected. “Congress...sold one million acres to the Ohio Company of Associates in the same week that it passed the Northwest Ordinance”, Rohrbough said. And “John Cleves Symmes (a territorial judge and William Henry Harrison’s father-in-law) concluded an arrangement with the Treasury Board for one million acres.” 

Public officials dominated Rohrbough’s story.  “As a Congressman, Gallatin ... constantly supported the sale of small tracts to individual settlers.” Perhaps, given the immense size of the western “wilderness”, this did not seem at odds with his speculations, in Gallatin’s mind. “William Henry Harrison, Governor of the Indiana Territory, made a series of extensive purchases from the Indians” in the first decade of the 1800s. The terms of these purchases were not elucidated, but it’s not surprising that the Indians next appeared as “two thousand
infuriated Hell Hounds”  (quoting a settler). Chances are, both Rohrbough and the settlers knew what had infuriated the Indians, but chose not to think about it.

The War of 1812 “had broken the grip of the Indian on the western lands,” Rohrbough said. And “Altho you say the Ohio feever is abated in Vermont--the Missouri & Illinois Feever Rages greatly in Ohio, Kentucky, & Tennessee and carried off thousands”  (quoting a letter from a son to his father back east). Indeed, “Old America seems to be breaking up, and moving westward,” wrote a contemporary traveler. “We are seldom out of sight, as we travel on this grand track, towards the Ohio, of family groups, behind and before us, some with a view to a particular spot; close to a brother perhaps, or a friend who has gone before and reported well of the country.” In 1819, the eastern half of Michigan was contained in a Land District whose office was at Detroit. By 1834, a new District had been formed for the western half, centered on Bronson (Kalamazoo), established in 1831. The towns of White Pigeon and Bronson were “strategically placed on the Chicago Road.” June 1835 land sales in Bronson totaled $138,000; in October, White Pigeon’s sales exceeded $194,500. Much of this purchasing was speculative and based on shaky credit, as shown by the experience of Allegan, “One of the paper cities that vanished beneath the waves of the Panic of 1837.”

Around 1816, Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford complained that many  “Banks have been incorporated, not because there was capital seeking investment; not because the places where they were established had commerce and manufactures...but because men without active capital wanted the means of obtaining loans, which their standing in the community would not command from banks or individuals having real capital and established credit.” This is an interesting chicken-egg statement. To some extent, it could be seen as a desire to limit economic access to the “haves.” But it also seems reasonable that when “bank capital increased from $65,000,000 to more than $125,000,000” between 1813 and 1819, some bad credit decisions had probably been made. The Second Bank of the United States’ “loss of regulatory power...following Jackson’s veto of the bill for recharter and the removal of deposits led to the rise of innumerable state banks which expanded loans at a dizzy rate.” As a result, “In the thirty months from the fall of 1834 to the spring of 1837, the American people generated the largest land office business in the history of the Republic. From the timberlands of Maine to the Cotton Kingdom of Mississippi, in city lots of Chicago, and in the wilderness of central Michigan, the dimensions of the land boom touched people of all stations and locations.”

“The desire for lands,” Rohrbough said, “was not dampened by Andrew Jackson’s declaration that after September 1 only specie would be received in payment for public lands. The Bank of Michigan in Detroit quickly ordered specie from the East, acquired $500,000 in hard money from New York in October alone, and supplied land office money to continue the Michigan boom.” Perhaps the Panic of 1837 and the subsequent ongoing scarcity of cash in places like upstate New York can be attributed in part to the fact that hard money continued to be found on the frontier. Rohrbough mentioned James Fenimore Cooper’s satirical
Home as Found -- this is probably worth a look. In spite of the continued Michigan boom, Rohrbough concluded that “The specie circular...and the panic of 1837 marked the decline of the land office business as a dominant force in American life...The depression marked the passing of a period in which the land business dominated the thoughts and dreams of the nation. A new world was emerging. It was a world in which people would be drawn to cities rather than the land, in which the rise of the factory system would sharply distinguish a laboring class, in which great industrial complexes would attract the investment capital of the nation.”

This conclusion seems to raise more questions than it answers. These were the central issues, but why did they happen? Did changes in access to land, or the administration of the land office, dampen the speculators’ enthusiasm? Why did people flock to cities? Was there a difference between the German immigrants of the later 1830s and people who had preceded them? Did a reduced interest in the west by speculators diminish the flow of real settlers?  Were there no longer “fabled tracts of rich land, fertile beyond all imagination,” just over the next hill? And what about the railroads? More needs to be said about this change. Rohrbough made a good start -- social and cultural histories of the people who came west and the communities they formed, are needed to take the next step.