As a federally regulated practice, the sale of public land in the early 1800s was deeply permeated with issues of class, politics, and sectionalism. Mississippi politicians emerged as leading voices on congressional public land policy. The Harrison Land Act of 1800 created the framework for US public land policy for twenty years. Under the act, half sections of 320 acres were to be sold at two dollars per acre, and purchases were allowed on credit. In 1803 Congress passed the Mississippi land bill, which established two land offices in the Mississippi Territory, with one responsible for lands west of the Pearl River and the other administering land sales to the east. Under the bill, the president appointed a registrar and receiver for each office to conduct the land transactions. The act also authorized the appointment of a government surveyor for the Mississippi Territory and the establishment of a commission to mediate land disputes. Land sales would take place for three weeks at the offices, after which time registrars and receivers could arrange and approve private sales for any unsold lands. Although the Mississippi land act set the price at two dollars per acre, the local auction and bidding process meant that quality public lands commonly sold at higher prices.
In 1804 Congress reformed public land sales by reducing the minimum purchase size to 160 acres. Faced with a disadvantageous federal land policy and economic hardships, squatters inundated the Mississippi Territory along with other western states and territories. Squatters were typically poor settlers who developed and improved land they did not own. In 1807 Congress passed the Intrusion Act, which made illegal settlement punishable by jail time and authorized the president to use “military force” against squatters. New England congressmen criticized the bill as tyranny and bayonet justice that denied constitutional and equal rights to squatters simply because of their class.
In Mississippi, however, the hard-line approach seemed to work. By the start of the War of 1812 approximately five hundred thousand acres of public land had been sold in the Mississippi Territory, mainly to planters and speculators. The freedoms epitomized by squatters and open cattle ranges slowly vanished behind the property boundaries and consequent changes brought by public land sales.
In the wake of the war, demand for cotton increased. In response to this boom, small farmers, planters, and speculators aggressively used both cash and credit to purchase quality Mississippi farmland, and the area’s population nearly doubled from 1810 to 1820. The Panic of 1819 brought the cotton boom to a halt, and land prices dropped as well. The subsequent financial crisis produced a political backlash against the credit system, and Congress moved to reform land policy yet again. At the center of this effort, Mississippi senator Thomas Hill Williams shepherded passage of the Land Act of 1820, which banned the use of credit in the purchase of public land, reduced the minimum size of land purchase to eighty acres, and cut the price to $1.25 per acre. The ban on credit further impeded poor whites’ access to the public land market.
Perhaps the most decisive moments in Mississippi public land sales occurred during the 1830s, when the US government adopted the policy of Indian Removal. The Choctaw Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek (1830) and the Chickasaw Treaty of Pontotoc (1832) removed those tribes from Mississippi and opened new swaths of lands for public sale. The federal government sold 236,894 acres of Mississippi public land in 1832. Land sales climbed to 1,126,232 acres in 1833, after preliminary Indian removal, and peaked at 3,267,299 acres in 1836. Congress responded to the boom in 1833 by creating new land offices in the Choctaw Purchase and Chickasaw cession.
Speculation reached a fever pitch in the 1830s. Individual speculators purchased anywhere from 320 to 75,000 acres of land, while joint-stock companies backed by eastern capital purchased land in 100,000-acre increments. This practice not only devoured the best lands but also substantially increased prices, preventing poorer settlers from entering into the market. Companies active in Mississippi included the American Land Company, Boston and Mississippi Cotton Land Company, and New York and Mississippi Land Company, which purchased 35 percent of the Chickasaw allotments. With help from land agents, the companies resold lands to wealthy planters, turning profits as high as 200 percent.
Two political issues dominated 1830s discourse on public land policy: preemption rights and distribution. Preemption allowed squatters first purchase rights for land they settled and improved prior to any public land sale, while distribution involved the question of what to do with the surplus proceeds of the land sales. Democrats used their support for preemption to appeal to the “common man” of the frontier. Congress approved limited preemption laws from 1830 to 1840 that applied to settlers who were already squatting on land, but westerners wanted those rights extended universally and permanently into the future. At the same time, National Republicans and later the Whigs fought hard for a distribution bill that would allocate the surplus proceeds from public land sales to the states for internal improvements and education.
In 1833 Kentucky senator Henry Clay introduced a distribution bill to which his ally, Mississippi senator George Poindexter, offered an amendment granting Mississippi, Louisiana, and Missouri five hundred thousand acres each for internal improvements. Poindexter’s lengthy speeches in favor of distribution envisioned a cultural and economic renaissance for Mississippi that would feature the building of seminaries, colleges, common schools, and internal improvements, including good roads that would connect planters with market towns. However, Mississippi’s other senator, John Black, maintained that distribution represented corruption by empowering the federal government at the expense of the state and that it would raise prices on inferior lands. Black also argued that poor whites needed to settle those inferior public lands to prevent Mississippi from developing a “dense colored population” of slaves. From this perspective, public land sales were intertwined with Mississippi’s efforts to regulate class, race, and slavery. In spite of Black’s efforts, the Senate narrowly passed Clay’s bill.
The Whig Party swept to power in 1841, taking control of Congress and the White House. To win support for the party’s distribution policy, the Whigs proposed a land bill that coupled distribution with liberal preemption rights. Democrats fumed that that distribution component of the bill translated into higher tariffs. Pres. John Tyler signed the bill after it passed both the House and the Senate by narrow margins. Mississippi’s senators exemplified the partisan split, with Whig John Henderson voting in favor and Democrat Robert Walker voting against. This landmark law finally secured sweeping rights for poor whites against speculators and planters, but they had long since gobbled up Mississippi’s best public lands, forcing many poor whites to travel farther west.
- Charles C. Bolton, Poor Whites of the Antebellum South: Tenants and Laborers in Central North Carolina and Northeast Mississippi (1996)
- Bradley Bond, Political Culture in the Nineteenth-Century South: Mississippi, 1830–1900 (1995)
- Thomas D. Clark and John D. W. Guice, Frontiers in Conflict: The Old Southwest, 1795–1830 (1989)
- R. S. Cotterill, Mississippi Valley Historical Review (March 1930)
- Benjamin H. Hibbard, A History of the Public Land Policies (1924)
- Edwin Arthur Miles, Jacksonian Democracy in Mississippi (1960)
- Roy M. Robbins, Mississippi Valley Historical Review (December 1931)
- Elizabeth Young, Redskins, Ruffleshirts, and Rednecks: Indian Allotments in Alabama and Mississippi, 1830–1860 (1961)