The single most important impetus for coming to Oregon was the lure of free land. The most important act of new settlers upon arriving in Oregon was to claim a piece of property, and for many years that could only be done in Oregon City.
There had been Americans in Oregon since the early 1810s, when fur trappers first arrived, but there was no real settlement until the 1830s. There simply weren’t enough trappers interested in settling down for them to need an organized system of staking claims. However, with the arrival of missionaries and the first waves of settlers, a need arose for means to secure legal title to their lands.
From 1841 until 1843, Americans in Oregon struggled with the problem of land claims, courts, and organized government. In 1843, by a vote of 52 to 50, the settlers of the Willamette Valley authorized the formation of a provisional government until such time as the authority of the United States was extended to the Oregon Country. They drafted Oregon’s first constitution, called the Organic Act. Section seventeen was the report of the Land Claims committee. It explained the methods of designating, recording, and improving a land claim, but perhaps more importantly, it limited the number and size of claims and excluded any religious missions. The intent was to prevent speculation and foster a community of self-sufficient farmers working their own land. Oregon City was named the capital of Oregon, and land claims were to be filed there with the recorder. Married couples were allowed to claim up to 640 acres at no cost.
When the United States finally did extend its authority and declare the Oregon Country to be a US Territory, Joseph Lane, the Territorial Governor appointed in 1849, was empowered to review all Provisional Government laws and accept or reject them. Only the law on minting gold “Beaver” coins was declared unconstitutional, as the US Constitution restricted the power of coining money to the federal government. The Provisional Government’s land ordinances remained in force until the passage of the Donation Land Act of 1850.
The Donation Land Act called for the orderly and legal ownership of property in Oregon Territory. It voided all laws previously passed making grants of land, but was worded to take into account existing claims in the Oregon Country. It granted every white settler and “American half-breed Indian” above the age of 18 already living in Oregon a free half-section of land if single or a full section (640 acres, the same as allowed under the Organic Act) if married, with half in the wife’s name. Residence and cultivation for four years was required. Settlers arriving after 1850 were granted half a section if married, or one-quarter of a section if single.
The office of Surveyor General for Oregon was created and the first federally-recognized land office was opened in Oregon City. A total of 7437 patents were issued under the 1850 law. Probably the most famous filing was the plat for the city of San Francisco, which had to be sent up the coast by ship to be filed in Oregon City, the closest land office. The plat still proudly belongs to Clackamas County despite periodic efforts on behalf of San Francisco to have it returned.
The Surveyor-General was required to survey the land by the method established by the Land Ordinance of 1785. The Willamette Stone was placed just west of present-day Portland, thus defining the Willamette Meridian, and the first survey of Oregon City was completed by Joseph Hunt in March, 1852.
After 1854, land was no longer free in Oregon. The price was set at $1.25 an acre with a limit of 320 acres in any one claim. As the years passed, the cost per acre rose and the maximum acreage dropped.
In 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act to encourage the settling of the Great Plains. However, the law applied to Oregon, as well. Any head of a family of any age, or a single person over 21 who was or who intended to become a US citizen could claim 160 acres (one-quarter of a section) of public land by paying a $34 fee then residing on and cultivating the property for five years. After five years, they received legal title to their claim. Alternatively, after six months of occupation they could purchase the property for $1.25 an acre.
The Railroad Land Grant Act of 1866 gave successful railroad companies title to every odd-numbered section of land for twenty miles back from each side of their right-of-way. This put vast tracts of land in the hands of the railroad companies, which they were expected to sell off to recoup the expense of building the rail lines. To prevent wild speculation and price inflation, the railroads were restricted to selling their land for not more than $2.50 an acre. However, the railroads were expected to pay property taxes on the land they were granted, and many companies deliberately avoided filing land claims in order to escape paying taxes. In 1916, Congress finally tired of the railroads’ delaying tactics and took away 3 million acres. Most of this land remains publicly owned to the present day and is administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
Of all the Donation Land Claims in Oregon, the best known is probably that of George Abernethy, the first man to be elected to the governorship in the years of the Provisional Government. It was on his claim, in a meadow that became known as Abernethy Green, that the exhausted Oregon Trail emigrants camped long enough to find a promising piece of land that they could claim as their own.