Great American Documents: The Harrison Land Act of 1800

We are all pretty familiar with the progression of the settlement of the USA from the eastern seaboard colonies to the western frontier.  Populations increased, and moved toward the Appalachian Mountains, then into the Ohio valley, Mississippi River land, and Great Lakes regions.  Before “Go West, young man”, the land had to be secured.   While 18th century maps show the boundaries of eastern states going left into the unknown blank regions, the lands beyond the mountains were not officially part of the United States.  Native American cultures, French, English and Spanish interest claimed various regions.  Two land acquisitions brought much of the middle section of the country into the boundaries of the USA: The Harrison Land Act, May 10, 1800 and the Louisiana Purchase, May 2, 1803.

The Louisiana Purchase is probably familiar with most people: the USA is negotiating with France for the purchase of the port of New Orleans to assure access of products from the Mississippi River region.  Spain has secretly transferred ownership of much of its land in the southern part of the continent to France.  Napoleon is trying to unify Europe by force and needs cash.   We offer $10m for New Orleans.  The French diplomat asks if we would come up with $15m for the rest of that territory.  What a steal!

The Harrison Act is probably less known for how it contributed to the settlement of the Northwest Territory, what we now call the Mid-West.  Even less known might be the precedents set by this legislation regarding encouraging expansion of settlement and the use of credit, and the risk of foreclosure for default on that debt… sound familiar?

First off, who was William Henry Harrison (1773 – 1841)?  He would become, 40 years later the 23rd president, well for at least 30 days, as he died a month after his excessively long inaugeral address from the pneumonia he contracted while talking in the cold for too long.  But, earlier in his career, he was in the military protecting mid-west settlers from Native Americans, or expelling the native groups, depending on your perspective.  As a delegate for the Northwest Territories (aka Ohio to Wisconsin), he wrote the legislation which would authorize annexation of the territory, thereby formally designating this land as part of the USA and no longer homelands for the Native Americans under British territorial rule.  Later, along his political career, he became governor of Indiana, built a large governor’s mansion in the form of plantation, and attempted to make Indiana a slave state.  He was from Virginia, originally, by the way.

Some interesting clauses in the Harrison Act include the reduction of the amount of land granted to a settler (down from 640 to 320 acres), the price of the land ($2 per acre), the terms of payment (6$ plus 1/20th down payment, 25% repayment each year for 4 years), the interest rate (6% per year), and the penalty for defaulting on any payment (foreclosure, and return of the land to the government…to resell).  The legislation established a bureaucratic structure through regional land offices.  The legislation addressed what to do with those who had already moved into these regions, but had no official deed to the land: leave… unless they could prove that they had built a grist-mill or saw-mill on the property, and would sign on the purchase program.

What was the result of the Harrison Land Act?  Native American groups were moved out, and generational resentments begun.  Thousands of settlers left the crowded east coast with ambitions of setting up farms.  The government got into the loan enforcement business, and expelled thousands of those who could not make the repayment of their loans in four years.  And, by the way, they forfeited all payments made prior to their default, thus losing both what equity they had as well as the land.  The USA resold the land several times before these default clauses were rescinded in 1820.  “Go West, young man” takes on a different meaning, when you are getting evicted after going broke.

In our current  election cycle, we are debating government involvement in society and economic development.  We are debating the ideas of free enterprise.  Going from rhetoric to reality is a messy work, with many secondary motivations and unanticipated consequences.  Our history if full of examples of beneficial and costly decisions by our leaders and individuals.  Oh, let’s not forget that the $15m payment for the Louisiana Purchase helped Napoleon devistate Europe…

Prior Post: Great American Documents

The Harrison Land Act, 1800

An ACT to ammend the act, intituled, “An act providing for the sale of the land of the United States, in the territory north-west of the Ohio, and above the mouth of the Kentucky river.”

Sec.1 Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United Sates of America, in Congress assembled, That for the disposal of the lands of the United States, directed to be sold by the act, intituled, “An act providing for the sale of the lands of the United States, in the territory north-west of the Ohio, and above the mouth of the Kentucky river,” there shall be four land-offices established in the  said territory: One at Cincinnati, for lands… (lots of details about boundaries)  Each of the said offices shall be under the direction of an officer, to be called. “The Register of the Land-Office,” who shall be appointed by the President of the United States, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, and shall give bond to the United States, with approved security, in the sum of ten thousand dollars, for the full faithful discharge of the duties of his office; and shall reside at the place where the land-office is directed to be kept…

Sec. 3. And be it further enacted, That the Survey-General shall cause the townships west of Muskingum, which by the above-mentioned act are directed to be sold in quarter townships, to be subdivided into half sections of three hundred and twenty acres each, as nearly as may be, by running parallel lines through the same from east to west, and from south to north, at the distance of one mile from each other,  marking corners, at the distance of each half mile on the lines running from east to west…

Sec 5. And be it further enacted, That no land shall be sold by virtue of this act, at either public or private sale, for less than two dollars per acre, and payment may be made for the same by all purchasers, either in specie, or in evidence of the public debt of the United States, at the rate prescribed by the act, intituled, “an act to authorize the receipt of evidences of the public debt in payment for the lands of the United States;” and shall be made in the following manner, and under the following conditions, to wit:

1. At the time of purchase, every purchaser shall, exclusive of fees hereinafter-mentions, pay six dollars for every section, and three dollars for every half section, he may have purchased, for surveying expenses, and deposit one-twentieth part of the amount of the purchase money, to be forfieted, if within forty days one fourth part of the purchase money, including the said twentieth part, if not paid.

2. One-fourth part of the purchase money shall be within forty days after the day of sale as aforesaid and other fourth part shall be paid within two years, another fourth part within three years; and another fourth part with four years of the day of sale.

3. Interest, at the rate of six per cent, a year, from the day of sale, shall be charged upon each of the three last payments, payable as they respectively become due…

6. If any tract shall not be completely paid for within one year after the date of the last payment, the tract shall be advertised for sale by the Register of the land-office within whose district it may lie…; but if the sum due, with interest, by not bidden and paid, then the land shall revert to the United States.  All monies paid therefore shall be forfeited, and the Register of the land-office may proceed to dispose of the same to any purchaser, as in the caseof other lands at private sale…

Sec. 16.  And be it further enacted, That each person who before the passing of this act shall have erected, or begun to erect, a grist-mill or saw-mill upon any of the lands herein directed to be sold, shall be entitled to pre-emption of the section including such mill, at the rate of two dollars per acre: Provided, The person or his heirs, claiming such right of pre-emption, shall produce to the Register of the land-office satisfactory evidence that he or they are entitled thereto, and shall be subjected to and comply with the regulations and provisions by this act prescribed for other purchasers.

Sec. 17. And be it further enacted, Tat so much of the “act providing for the sale of the land of the United States in the territory north-west of the Ohio, and above the mouth of the Kentucky river,” as come within the purview of this act, be and the same is hereby repealed.

Theodore Sedgwick,
Speaker of the House of Representatives

Th: Jefferson,
Vice-President of the United States, and President of the Senate

John Adams,
President of the United States.

If you that this was dull (notice that the transcript omits whole sections), imagine reading hundreds of pages of legislation today!

About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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2 Responses to Great American Documents: The Harrison Land Act of 1800

  1. The Vicar says:

    Considering the average farm laborer in 1800 made $6 to $10.00 per month, and the wages for a factory worker were between $.25 and $.30 per day, $640 over 4 years + interest is a steep mountain to climb with little room for error. One flood, long winter, or dry summer, and everything that has been put into making a better life disappears. For those who succeed, the rewards are great. The European concept of land ownership must have put the Native American’s at a distinct disadvantage.

    Perhaps this is where the phrase “it takes money to make money” came from……

    So which is a closer modern day equivalent of buying Louisiana from Napoleon?
    a. The United State buying oil from middle east countries.
    b. Middle east countries buying arms and IT services from the United States.

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