Primary Laws that Distributed the U.S. Public Lands
There are many others, but the following Acts of Congress gave rise to the vast majority of public land grants that managed transfers of lands from the U.S. to its private citizens.
- Cash Entry Act - April 24, 1820 (Sixteenth Congress. Sess. I. Ch. 51 1820)
- Homestead Entry Act, May 20, 1862 (Thirty-Seventh Congress. Sess. II. Ch. 75. 1862)
- Various Bound-Land Warrants/Grants for Military Service (a National Archives Publication) (ScripWarrant Acts)
1. Cash Entry Act - April 24, 1820
Chap. LI - An Act making further provision for the sale of the public lands.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That from and after the first day of July next, all the public lands of the United States, the sale of which is, or may be authorized by law, shall, when offered at public sale, to the highest bidder, be offered in half quarter sections; and when offered at private sale, may be purchased, at the option of the purchaser, either in entire sections, half sections, quarter sections, or half quarter sections; and in every case of the division of a quarter section, the line for the division thereof shall run north and south, and the corners and contents of half quarter sections which may thereafter be sold, shall be ascertained in the manner, and on the principles directed and prescribed by the second section of an act entitled, "An act concerning the mode of surveying the public lands of the United States," passed on the eleventh day of February, eighteen hundred and five; and fractional sections, containing one hundred and sixty acres, or upwards, shall, in like manner, as nearly as practicable, be sub-divided into half quarter sections, under such rules and regulations as may be prescribed by the Secretary of the Treasury; but fractional sections, containing less than one hundred and sixty acres, shall not be divided, but shall be sold entire: Provided, That this section shall not be construed to alter any special provision made by law for the sale of land in town lots.
Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That credit shall not be allowed for the purchase money on the sale of any of the public lands which shall be sold after the first day of July next, but every purchaser of land sold at public sale thereafter, shall, on the day of purchase, make complete payment therefor; and the purchaser at private sale shall produce, to the register of the land office, a receipt from the treasurer of the United States, or from the receiver of public moneys of the district, for the amount of the purchase money on any tract, before he shall enter the same at the land office; and if any person, being the highest bidder, at public sale, for a tract of land, shall fail to make payment therefor, on the day on which the same was purchased, the tract shall be again offered at public sale, on the next day of sale, and such person shall not be capable of becoming the purchaser of that or any other tract offered at such public sales.
Sec. 3. And be it further enacted, That from and after the first day of July next, the price at which the public lands shall be offered for sale, shall be one dollar and twenty-five cents an acre; and at every public sale, the highest bidder, who shall make payment as aforesaid, shall be the purchaser; but no land shall be sold, either at public or private sale, for a less price than one dollar and twenty-five cents an acre; all the public lands which shall have been offered at public sale before the first day of July next, and which shall then remain unsold, as well as the lands that shall thereafter be offered at public sale, according to law, and remain unsold at the close of such public sales, shall be subject to be sold at private sale, by entry at the land office, at one dollar and twenty-five cents an acre, to be paid at the time of making such entry as aforesaid; with the exception, however, of the lands which may have reverted to the United States, for failure in payment, and of the heretofore reserved sections for the future disposal of Congress, in the states of Ohio and Indiana, which shall be offered at public sale, as hereinafter directed.
Sec. 4. And be it further enacted, That no lands which have reverted, or which shall hereafter revert, and become forfeited to the United States for failure in any manner to make payment, shall, after the first day of July next, be subject to entry at private sale, nor until the same shall have been first offered to the highest bidder at public sale; and all such lands which shall have reverted before the said first day of July next, and which shall then belong to the United States, together with the sections, and parts of sections, heretofore reserved for the future disposal of Congress, which shall, at the time aforesaid, remain unsold, shall be offered at public sale to the highest bidder, who shall make payment therefor, in half quarter sections, at the land office for the respective districts, on such day or days as shall, by proclamation of the President of the United States, be designated for that purpose; and all lands which shall revert and become forfeited for failure of payment after the said first day of July next, shall be offered in like manner at public sale, at such time, or times, as the President shall by his proclamation designate for the purpose: Provided, that no such lands shall be sold at any public sales hereby authorized, for a less price than one dollar and twenty-five cents an acre, nor on any other terms than that of cash payment; and all the lands offered at such public sales, and which shall remain unsold at the close thereof, shall be subject to entry at private sale, in the same manner, and at the same price with the other lands sold at private sale, at the respective land offices.
Sec. 5. And be it further enacted, That the several public sales authorized by this act, shall, respectively, be kept open for two weeks, and no longer; and the registers of the land office and the receivers of public money shall, each, respectively, be entitled to five dollars for each day's attendance thereon.
Sec. 6. And be it further enacted, That, in every case hereafter, where two or more persons shall apply for the purchase, at private sale, of the same tract, at the same time, the register shall determine the preference, by forthwith offering the tract to the highest bidder.
Approved, April 24, 1820
2. Homestead Entry Act, May 20, 1862
Thirty-Seventh Congress. Sess. II. Ch. 75. 1862
May 20, 1862 Chap. LXXV. - An Act to secure Homesteads to actual Settlers on the Public Domain.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such, as required by the naturalization laws of the United States, and who has never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies, shall, from and after the first of January, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, be entitled to enter one quarter section or a less quantity of unappropriated public lands, upon which said person may have filed a preemption claim, or which may, at the time the application is made, be subject to preemption at one dollar and twenty-five cents, or less, per acre; or eighty acres or less of such unappropriated lands, at two dollars and fifty cents per acre, to be located in a body, in conformity to the legal subdivisions of the public lands, and after the same shall have been surveyed: Provided, That any person owning and residing on land may, under the provisions of this act, enter other land lying contiguous to his or her said land, which shall not, with the land so already owned and occupied, exceed in the aggregate, one hundred and sixty acres.
Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That the person applying for the benefit of this act shall, upon application to the register of the land office in which he or she is about to make such entry, make affidavit before the said register or receiver that he or she is the head of a family, or is twenty-one years or more of age, or shall have performed service in the army or navy of the United States, and that he has never borne arms against the Government of the United States or given aid and comfort to its enemies, and that such application is made for his or her exclusive use and benefit, and that said entry is made for the purpose of actual settlement and cultivation, and not either directly or indirectly for the use or benefit of any other person or persons whomsoever; and upon filing the said affidavit with the register or receiver, and on payment of ten dollars, he or she shall thereupon be permitted to enter the quantity of land specified: Provided, however, That no certificate shall be given or patent issued therefor until the expiration of five years from the date of such entry; and if, at the expiration of such time, or at any time within two years thereafter, the person making such entry; or, if he be dead, his widow; or in case of her death, his heirs or devisee; or in the case of a widow making such entry, her heirs or devisee, in the case of her death; shall prove by two credible witnesses that he, she, or they have resided upon or cultivated the same for the term of five years immediately succeeding the time of filing the affidavit aforesaid, and shall make affidavit that no part of said land has been alienated, and he has borne true allegiance to the Government of the United States; then, in such case, he, she, or they, if at that time a citizen of the United States, shall be entitled to a patent, as in other cases provided for by law: And, provided, further, That in case of the death of both father and mother, leaving an infant child, or children, under twenty-one years of age, the right and fee shall enure to the benefit of said infant child or children; and the executor, administrator, or guardian may, at any time within two years after the death of the surviving parent, and in accordance with the laws of the State in which such children for the time being have their domicil, sell said land for the benefit of said infants, but for no other purpose; and the purchaser shall acquire the absolute title by the purchase, and be entitled to a patent from the United States, on payment of the office fees and sum of money herein specified.
Sec. 3. And be it further enacted, That the register of the land office shall note all such applications on the tract books and plats of his office, and keep a register of all such entries, and make return thereof to the General Land Office, together with the proof upon which they have been founded.
Sec. 4. And be it further enacted, That no lands acquired under the provisions of this act shall in any event become liable to the satisfaction of any debt or debts contracted prior to the issuing of the patent therefor.
Sec. 5. And be it further enacted, That if, at any time after the filing of the affidavit, as required in the second section of this act, and before the expiration of the five years aforesaid, it shall be proven, after due notice to the settler, to the satisfaction of the register of the land office, that the person having filed such affidavit shall have actually changed his or her residence, or abandoned the said land for more than six months at any time, then and in that event the land so entered shall revert to the government.
Sec. 6. And be it further enacted, That no individual shall be permitted to acquire title to more than one quarter section under the provisions of this act; and that the Commissioner of the General Land Office is hereby required to prepare and issue such rules and regulations, consistent with this act, as shall be necessary and proper to carry its provisions into effect; and that the registers and receivers of the several land offices shall be entitled to receive the same compensation for any lands entered under the provisions of this act that they are now entitled to receive when the same quantity of land is entered with money, one half to be paid by the person making the application at the time of so doing, and the other half on the issue of the certificate by the person to whom it may be issued; but this shall not be construed to enlarge the maximum of compensation now prescribed by law for any register or receiver: Provided, That nothing contained in this act shall be so construed as to impair or interfere in any manner whatever with existing preemption rights: And provided, further, That all persons who may have filed their applications for a preemption right prior to the passage of this act, shall be entitled to all privileges of this act: Provided, further, That no person who has served or may hereafter serve, for period of not less than fourteen days in the army or navy of the United States, either regular or volunteer, under the laws thereof, during the existence of an actual war, domestic or foreign, shall be deprived of the benefits of this act of account of not having attained the age of twenty-one years.
Sec. 7. And be it further enacted, That the fifth section of the act entitled "An act in addition to an act more effectually to provide for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States, and for other purposes," approved the third of March, in the year eighteen hundred and fifty-seven, shall extend to all oaths, affirmations, and affidavits, required or authorized by this act.
Sec. 8. And be it further enacted, That nothing in this act shall be so construed as to prevent any person who has availed him or herself of the benefits of the first section of this act, from paying the minimum price, or the price to which the same may have graduated, for the quantity of land so entered at any time before the expiration of the five years, and obtaining a patent therefor from the government, as in other cases provided by law, on making proof of settlement and cultivation as provided by existing laws granting preemption rights.
Approved, May 20, 1862.
This act was amended many times over the years. It was repealed on October 21, 1976, except that the effective date for public lands in Alaska was extended ten years (October 21, 1986).