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- Great Fortunes from Railroads - 2/57 -

From the very beginning of the government, the land laws were arranged to discriminate against the poor settler. Instead of laws providing simple and inexpensive ways for the poor to get land, the laws were distorted into a highly effective mechanism by which companies of capitalists, and individual capitalists, secured vast tracts for trivial sums. These capitalists then either held the land, or forced settlers to pay exorbitant prices for comparatively small plots. No laws were in existence compelling the purchaser to be a _bona fide_ settler. Absentee landlordism was the rule. The capitalist companies were largely composed of Northern, Eastern and Southern traders and bankers. The evidence shows that they employed bribery and corruption on a great scale, either in getting favorable laws passed, or in evading such laws as were on the statute books by means of the systematic purchase of the connivance of Land Office officials.

By act of Congress, passed on April 21, 1792, the Ohio Land Company, for example, received 100,000 acres, and in the same year it bought 892,900 acres for $642,856.66. But this sum was not paid in money. The bankers and traders composing the company had purchased, at a heavy discount, certificates of public debt and army land warrants, and were allowed to tender these as payment. [Footnote: U. S. Senate Executive Documents, Second Session, Nineteenth Congress, Doc. No. 63.] The company then leisurely disposed of its land to settlers at an enormous profit. Nearly all of the land companies had banking adjuncts. The poor settler, in order to settle on land that a short time previously had been national property, was first compelled to pay the land company an extortionate price, and then was forced to borrow the money from the banking adjuncts, and give a heavy mortgage, bearing heavy interest, on the land. [Footnote: U. S. Senate Documents, First Session, Twenty-fourth Congress, 1835-36, Doc. No. 216: 16.] The land companies always took care to select the very best lands. The Government documents of the time are full of remonstrances from legislatures and individuals complaining of these seizures, under form of law, of the most valuable areas. The tracts thus appropriated comprised timber and mineral, as well as agricultural, land.


One of the most scandalous land-company transactions was that involving a group of Southern and Boston capitalists. In January, 1795, the Georgia Legislature, by special act, sold millions of acres in different parts of the State of Georgia to four land companies. The people of the State were convinced that this purchase had been obtained by bribery. It was made an election issue, and a Legislature, comprising almost wholly new members, was elected. In February, 1796, this Legislature passed a rescinding act, declaring the act of the preceding year void, on the ground of its having been obtained by "improper influence." In 1803 the tracts in question were transferred by the Georgia Legislature to the United States Government.

The Georgia Mississippi Land Company was one of the four companies. In the meantime, this company had sold its tract, for ten cents an acre, to the New England Mississippi Land Company. Although committee after committee of Congress reported that the New England Mississippi Land Company had paid little or no actual part of the purchase price, yet that company, headed by some of the foremost Boston capitalists, lobbied in Congress for eleven years for an act giving it a large indemnity. Finally, in 1814, Congress passed an indemnification act, under which the eminent Bostonians, after ten years more lobbying, succeeded in getting an award from the United States Treasury of $1,077,561.73. The total amount appropriated by Congress on the pretense of settling the claims of the various capitalists in the "Yazoo Claims" was $1,500,000. [Footnote: Senate Documents, Eighteenth Congress, Second Session, 1824-25, Vol. ii, Doc. No. 14, and Senate Documents, Twenty-fourth Congress, 1836-37, Vol. ii, No. 212. After the grants were secured, the companies attempted to swindle the State of Georgia by making payments in depreciated currency. Georgia refused to accept it. When the grant was rescinded, both houses of the Georgia Legislature marched in solemn state to the Capitol front and burned the deed.] The ground upon which this appropriation was made by Congress was that the Supreme Court of the United States had decided that, irrespective of the methods used to obtain the grant from the Georgia Legislature, the grant, once made, was in the nature of a contract which could not be revoked or impaired by subsequent legislation. This was the first of a long line of court decisions validating grants and franchises of all kinds secured by bribery and fraud.

It was probably the scandal arising from the bribery of the Georgia Legislature that caused popular ferment, and crystallized a demand for altered laws. In 1796 Congress declared its intention to abandon the prevailing system of selling millions of acres to companies or individuals. The new system, it announced, was to be one adapted to the interests of both capitalist and poor man. Land was thereafter to be sold in small quantities on credit. Could the mechanic or farmer demand a better law? Did it not hold out the opportunity to the poorest to get land for which payment could be gradually made?

But this law worked even better to the advantage of the capitalist class than the old. By bribing the land officials the capitalists were able to cause the choicest lands to be fraudulently withheld, and entered by dummies. In this way, vast tracts were acquired. Apparently the land entries were made by a large number of intending settlers, but these were merely the intermediaries by which capitalists secured great tracts in the form of many small allotments. Having obtained the best lands, the capitalists then often held them until they were in demand, and forced actual settlers to pay heavily for them. During all of this time the capitalists themselves held the land "on credit." Some of them eventually paid for the lands out of the profits made from the settlers, but a great number of the purchasers cheated the Government almost entirely out of what they owed. [Footnote: On Sept. 30, 1822, "credit purchasers" owed the Government: In Ohio, $1,260,870.87; in Indiana, $1,212,815.28; in Illinois, $841,302.80; in Missouri, $734,108.87; in Alabama, $5,760,728.01; in Mississippi, $684,093.50; and in Michigan, $50,584.82--a total of nearly $10,550,000. (Executive Reports, First Session, Eighteenth Congress, 1824, Report No. 61.) Most of these creditors were capitalist land speculators.]

The capitalists of the period contrived to use the land laws wholly to their own advantage and profit. In 1824, the Illinois Legislature memorialized Congress to change the existing laws. Under them, it recited, the best selections of land had been made by non-resident speculators, and it called upon Congress to pass a law providing for selling the remaining lands at fifty cents an acre. [Footnote: U. S. Senate Documents, Second Session, Eighteenth Congress, 1824-25, Vol. ii, Doc. No. 25.] Other legislatures petitioned similarly. Yet, notwithstanding the fact that United States officials and committees of Congress were continually unearthing great frauds, no real change for the benefit of the poor settler was made.


The land frauds were great and incessant. In a long report, the United States Senate Committee on Public Lands, reporting on June 20, 1834, declared that the evidence it had taken established the fact that in Ohio and elsewhere, combinations of capitalist speculators, at the public sales of lands, had united for the purpose of driving other purchasers out of the market and in deterring poor men from bidding. The committee detailed how these companies and individuals had fraudulently bought large tracts of land at $1.25 an acre, and sold the land later at exorbitant prices. It showed how, in order to accomplish these frauds, they had bought up United States Land Office Registers and Receivers. [Footnote 8: U. S. Senate Documents, First Session, Twenty-third Congress, 1833-34, Vol. vi, Doc. No. 461:1-91.]

Another exhaustive report was handed in by the United States Senate Committee on Lands, on March 3, 1835. Many of the speculators, it said, filled high offices in States where public lands bought by them were located; others were people of "wealth and intelligence." All of them "naturally united to render this investigation odious among the people." The committee told how an attempt had been made to assassinate one of its members. "The first step," it set forth, "necessary to the success of every scheme of speculation in the public lands, is to corrupt the land officers, by a secret understanding between the parties that they are to receive a certain portion of the profits." [Footnote: U. S. Senate Documents, Second Session, Twenty-third Congress, Vol. iv, Doc. No. 151: 2.] The committee continued:

The States of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana have been the principal theatre of speculations and frauds in buying up the public lands, and dividing the most enormous profits between the members of the different companies and speculators. The committee refers to the depositions of numerous respectable witnesses to attest the various ramifications of these speculations and frauds, and the means by which they have been carried into effect.... [Footnote: Ibid., 3]

Describing the great frauds in Louisiana, Benjamin F. Linton, U. S. District Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, wrote, on August 25, 1835, to President Jackson: "Governments, like corporations, are considered without souls, and according to the code of some people's morality, should be swindled and cheated on every occasion." Linton gave this picture of "a notorious speculator who has an immense extent of claims":

He could be seen followed to and from the land office by crowds of free negroes, Indians and Spaniards, and the very lowest dregs of society, in the counties of Opelousas and Rapides, with their affidavits already prepared by himself, and sworn to before some justice of the peace in some remote county. These claims, to an immense extent, are presented and allowed. And upon what evidence? Simply upon the evidence of the parties themselves who desire to make the entry! [Footnote: U. S. Senate Documents, Second Session, Twenty- fourth Congress, 1836-37, Vol. ii, Doc. No. 168: 5.]

The "credit" system was gradually abandoned by the Government, but the auction system was retained for decades. In 1847, the Government was still selling large tracts at $1.25 an acre, nominally to settlers, actually to capitalist speculators or investors. More than two million acres had been sold every year for a long period. The House Committee on Public Lands, reporting in 1847, disclosed how most of the lands were bought up by capitalists. It cited the case of the Milwaukee district where, although 6,441 land entries had been made, there were only forty actual settlers up to 1847. "This clearly shows," the committee stated, "that those who claimed the land as settlers, are either the tools of speculators, to sequester the best lands for them... or the claim is made on speculation to sell out." [Footnote: Reports of Committees, First Session, Thirtieth Congress, 1847-48, Vol. iii, Report No. 732:6.]

The policy of granting enormous tracts of land to corporations was revived for the benefit of canal and railroad companies. The first railroad company to get a land grant from Congress was the Illinois

Great Fortunes from Railroads - 2/57

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