Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants


Exceptions in the General Land Office: Mining and Federal Land Policy in the Early American Republic


History Department


College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Date Range



Arts and Humanities


Please note that this conference called for a panel proposal rather than an individual abstract. I served as the organizer for this panel and wrote the panel abstract below. My individual scholarship and the work I personally will be presenting is represented by the second to last paragraph. Policy History 2014 Proposal: Federal Land Policy in the Early American Republic By the mid-nineteenth century, the U.S. federal government had effectively become the worlds largest realtor. At first glance, the process of acquiring, surveying, and subdividing vast stretches of North American land before turning it over to settlers and speculators for a modest sum appears remarkably simple, a comparatively minor step in the process of subduing a continent. In reality, however, that process was complicated by ethnic divisions within early American society, issues arising from competing Native American sovereignty, and glaring exceptions to the acquire/divide/sell system. This panel therefore intends to complicate the story of federal land policy in the early republic. From 1775 to 1782, Revolutionary War propaganda connected landownership by whites to American-ness. New land policies disrupted interethnic communities in backcountry Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Illinois. The prospect of land sales for participation in the Revolution, and the implication that Indian land occupation had prevented the distribution of land promised soldiers during the Seven Years War, contributed to a culture promoting Indian removal. Moreover, the Continental Army created laws that deconstructed interethnic communities, granted land exclusively to whites, and enforced social codes that redefined interethnic relationships. Our first paper argues that American superiority, white entitlements, justified events including the murder of 100 Indians at Gnadenhutten Village. When two U.S. soldiers were killed in the woods outside Fort Armstrong (on Rock Island, Illinois) in April 1820, military and civil officials agreed that the two offending Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) men should be executed. While the military commander advised summary execution, civil government officials instead determined that U.S. claims to authority would be better served by the just vengeance and retribution of the U.S. criminal law. Our second paper explores this incident as a window into the contingencies of U.S. federal policy after the War of 1812, as civil officials used military-backed diplomacy to assert U.S. sovereignty over the peoples of the Upper Mississippi Valley and their lands. Between 1807 and 1847, mineral bearing lands in Missouri, in the Upper Mississippi Valley, and along the southern shore of Lake Superior were reserved from sale and subject to administration by the nations executive branch. By decree of the federal government, miners in these regions were lessees, not landowners. Public mineral lands thus represented a significant and notable exception in the business of the General Land Office. Over the first half of the nineteenth century, this system was adapted and improved from Washington while local residents demanded release of the reserves. Our final paper explores the resulting tensions between federal ambition, small government, and national expansion. William H. Bergmann, author of The American National State and the Early West (Cambridge, 2012), will conclude the panel by offering commentary. This panel promises to complicate the story of federal land policy by highlighting the difficulties and inconsistences of the federal government in the early West.

Conference Name

Conference on Policy History

Conference Location

Columbus, OH

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