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And in the latest “it never fails” category…

It never fails.

Inevitably, The Legal Genealogist will finish a post referencing in passing a resource that wasn’t exactly central to that particular post, and somebody will pop up within minutes to ask about that particular resource.

Yesterday’s blog post focused on the legal records underlying the 1889 Oklahoma land rush in which roughly two million acres of so-called “unassigned lands” were opened to settlement by those who were not Native American. In a discussion of a U.S. Supreme Court case arising from one particular claim staked in that land rush, I referred to a decision of the Secretary of the Interior that preceded the filing of the court case.1

And reader Brian immediately emailed: “Decisions of the Secretary of the Interior?” he asked. “What are those and where can I find them?”


I knew better. I really did know better. I thought about chasing down a few references to those decisions before I finalized the post. But time got away from me and I didn’t do it then so…

Here you go, Brian.

When the United States government was first organized under the Constitution in 1789, some consideration was given to creating a department for domestic affairs. It didn’t go anywhere. It wasn’t until 1849, after the annexation of Texas in 1845 and the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican war in February 1848, that the need for a department to focus on such matters as the public lands was considered critical.2

In 1848, Secretary of the Treasury Robert Walker urged the creation of a new Department of the Interior to combine the functions of the General Land Office, the Patent Office, the Indian Affairs Office, and the Pension Office under one roof. A bill to put that proposal into effect passed the Congress in early 1849.3

One of the principal roles of the General Land Office was to administer the federal laws on the public lands. This meant in part to decide claims that ended up being disputed in some way — all kinds of land claims including initial claims and even competing claims to specific tracts of land for homesteads, or military bounty land, or even for mining and timber rights. And in any case where claims are decided, it’s important that the decisions be uniform and consistent — which means having ready reference sources to be sure everyone’s on the same page.

Interior decisions

So, in June, 1883, the General Land Office — now part of the Department of the Interior — began publication of a series of volumes setting out the decisions of the Interior Secretary and General Land Office relating to the public lands of the United States. In the preface to the first volume, the General Land Office stated:

It is desirable and important that the decisions of the Land Department illustrating the administration of the land laws of the United States should be published in an authentic manner, and in permanent form convenient for reference. … It is intended to continue the publication hereafter at stated periods.4

Since 1883, there have been dozens of volumes of these decisions published. The vast majority are available in digital form on one or more of the digitized book services — Google Books, HathiTrust Digital Library and/or Internet Archive.

But one feature at HathiTrust makes it the easiest place to access these decisions — the collections feature. At HathiTrust, “Collections are a way to group items for public or private use. The full-text of items within a collection can be searched independently of the full library.”5 You can either use a pre-existing collection or make one of your own and save it for your use.

And every volume of the Interior Department land decisions from the first revised volume to volume 101, published in 1994, has been included in one of four collections that already exist at HathiTrust:

Volumes 1 (1881-83) through 37 (1908-09);

Volumes 38 (1909-10) through 52 (1927-29);

Volumes 53 (1930-32) through 67 (1960); and

Volumes 68 (1961) through 101 (1994).

There’s no every-name index to these many volumes of decisions. That’s not a problem because these volumes have been digitized, and word search capabilities are built in to all the digital book services. The advantage to having multiple volumes included in a single collection at HathiTrust is being able to do a full-text search across the entire collection. That means not having to open volume after volume to search within it for a particular name.

So what will you find if you look in these decisions? Looking just at that first revised volume, it begins with a discussion of an application by Andrew Anderson to have a patent issued to him for 80 acres in Iowa based on a military bounty land warrant. The conclusion: “the papers upon which warrant was issued, and the assignment of the warrants, were false and fraudulent.”6 and it ends with a claim by Joseph Stewart against the heirs of Henry Jacobs for abandonment of an entry onto land in Kansas. Because “Jacobson died June 25, 1874, not having entered upon or cultivated the land, and … neither his heirs nor administrators have since resided upon or cultivated it,” the entry was canceled.7

In between those pages are literally dozens of decisions on homesteads, mining claims, timber claims, and military bounty land — all claims impacting individuals who may very well turn out to be our family members.

The decisions of the Department of the Interior on public land claims are well worth a careful look. And the collections at HathiTrust make it easy to land those decisions on your reference shelf.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Landing those decisions,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 23 Apr 2019).


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Documenting the land rush,” The Legal Genealogist, posted date ( : accessed 23 Apr 2019).
  2. Origins,” in Robert M. Utley and Barry Mackintosh, The Department of Everything Else: Highlights of Interior History (Washington DC: National Park Service, 1989), ebook ( : accessed 23 Apr 2019).
  3. Ibid. See also §1, “An Act to establish the Home Department…,” 9 Stat. 395 (3 March 1849) (“there shall be created a new executive department of the government of the United States, to be called the Department of the Interior”).
  4. Preface, S.V. Proudfit, editor, Decisions of the Department of the Interior and the General Land Office in Cases Relating to the Public Lands, Volume I revised ed. (Washington, DC : Government Printing Office, 1887), v; digital images, HathiTrust Digital Library ( : accessed 23 Apr 2019).
  5. Collections,” HathiTrust Digital Library ( : accessed 23 Apr 2019).
  6. Proudfit, ed., Decisions of the Department of the Interior and the General Land Office in Cases Relating to the Public Lands, I: 1.
  7. Ibid., at 656-657.
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