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A double-edged sword

It is one of the most remarkable pieces of legislation of its time.

With the official title of “An Act to create the Office of Surveyor-General of the Public Lands in Oregon, and to provide for the Survey, and to make Donations to Settlers of the said Public Lands,”1 it’s more commonly known simply as the Donation Lands Act.

And it changed the face of what became Oregon forever.

Yeah, you’re right: The Legal Genealogist heads west at the end of the week, and so will be looking at laws and resources in Oregon (April 22: Bend Genealogical Society), Washington (April 28-29: Tacoma-Pierce Genealogical Society) and California (May 6: Root Cellar Sacramento Genealogical Society).

And there isn’t much that shaped the Pacific Northwest more than the Donation Lands Act.

A federal law, it became law on 27 September 1850, and it caused a major land rush — and validated an earlier one.

The provisional government of Oregon — “a popularly elected settler government created in the Oregon Country … from May 2, 1843 until March 3, 1849 … with laws ‘until such time as the United States of America extend their jurisdiction over us’”2 — had granted settlers homesteads of 640 acres. So one of the first things the act did was validate those settlements.3

A single man, under the provisional land grants, could get one half section, 320 acres. But here’s the amazing part — the part that really made this one of the most remarkable pieces of legislation of its time.

It provided that any man who was married or married by 1 December 1851, was entitled to “the quantity of one section, or six hundred and forty acres, one half to himself and the other half to his wife, to be held by her in her own right.”4

Read that again: “the other half to his wife, to be held by her in her own right.”

This, at a time when, in most of the country, married women still had very little right to own and control property.

The same provision appeared in the section for those settling in the territory by 1 December 1853:

one quarter section,or one hundred and sixty acres of land, if a single man; or if married, or if he shall become married within one year from the time of arriving in said Territory, or within one year after becoming twenty-one years of age as aforesaid, then the quantity of one half section, or three hundred and twenty acres, one half to the husband and the other half to the wife in her own right…5

There were exclusions, of course, and that’s the double-edged part of this land sword: for those who’d already settled, Native Americans were excluded, although those with one white parent (“American half-breed Indians” in the language of the law) could still benefit; African Americans and Asians were completely excluded; and those who weren’t citizens were excluded, although the heirs of a man who’d filed a declaration of intent to become a citizen could go ahead and prove up the claim.6

And for newcomers, the statute was limited to “white male citizens of the United States, or persons who shall have made a declaration of intention to become such, above the age of twenty-one years.”7

Some of the areas open for settlement under the law had been effectively depopulated of their Native populations by disease. The Willamette Valley in particular had been hit by malaria. Not so the Rogue Valley, and the Native Americans resisted the incursion of the settlers: “The consequence was something akin to a race war in 1852 and 1853, with white volunteer forces ruthlessly driving Indians from their traditional hunting and gathering grounds. Regular U.S. Army troops eventually removed most of the surviving bands to the newly established coastal reservation.”8

As explained by the Oregon State Archives website, the documents you should find for a successful Donation Land Act claim include

• Notification of settlement, which describes the land either by legal description (township, range, section and fraction of section) or by natural features (metes and bounds), sometimes accompanied by a plat.
• Affidavit of settlement, which includes date and place of birth and, if applicable, of marriage as well as proofs of cultivation.
• Oath that the land had been used for cultivation only.
• Proof of citizenship for naturalized persons.
• Donation certificate, which shows name of entryman, place of residence, description of land, date of patent and volume and page number of the recorded patent in the National Archives.9

Best of all, there’s an index to all 7,373 indexed claims online at the website of the Genealogical Forum of Oregon.

Benefits to women… detriments to Native populations. A double-edged sword for sure. And one that, for genealogists, leaves a treasure trove of documents.


SOURCES

  1. “An Act to create the Office of Surveyor-General of the Public Lands in Oregon, and to provide for the Survey, and to make Donations to Settlers of the said Public Lands,” 9 Stat. 496 (27 Sep 1850).
  2. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Provisional Government of Oregon,” rev. 14 Nov 2016.
  3. §4, “An Act to create the Office of Surveyor-General of the Public Lands in Oregon, and to provide for the Survey, and to make Donations to Settlers of the said Public Lands,” 9 Stat. 497.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., §5, 9 Stat. 498.
  6. Ibid., §4, 9 Stat. 497.
  7. Ibid., §5, 9 Stat. 498.
  8. William G. Robbins, “Oregon Donation Land Act,” The Oregon Encyclopedia (https://oregonencyclopedia.org/ : accessed 16 Apr 2017).
  9. Land Records – Federal Government: Donation Land Claims (DLC),” Oregon State Archives, Oregon Secretary of State (http://sos.oregon.gov/archives/ : accessed 16 Apr 2017).
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