Donation Land Law, also known as the Oregon Land Law

  • By Junius Rochester
  • Posted 11/27/1998
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 400
The Donation Land Law of 1850, commonly called the Oregon Land Law, permitted settlers on unsurveyed lands to select claims without regard to legal subdivisions. Each settler could have 320 acres of land, and married couples could claim 640 acres (one square mile), with the proviso that settlers "shall have resided upon and cultivated the same for four consecutive years" before earning final title. First instituted in Oregon's Willamette Valley, then in California, the act eventually extended to Washington. Its provisions encouraged settlement and the development of Western lands.

A Gift of Land

Before President Millard Fillmore (1800-1874) signed the Donation Land Act on September 27, 1850, westering settlers made the long journey to Oregon (and later to California) in the expectation that the act would become law. The law stated that every Oregon-bound citizen above the age of 21 years may select a half section (320 acres) of land, then live upon and cultivate it for a period of four successive years. If the settler had a wife, she could claim an additional 320 acres. Upon proof that the settler met those conditions, he could receive a patent (ownership certificate) for his land "as the free gift of a generous nation."

America's Child Brides

An abuse of the Donation Land Law was demonstrated by the occasional "child marriage." Before 1852, there was a paucity of women in Oregon which led to arranged marriages between adult males and girls as young as 10 years old. The young "bride" would often remain with her parents for a few years, allowing her "husband" to claim and work a full section of land. Parents gave consent for those unions, which required no marriage license.

Indians and Europeans

Another complication to obtaining clear patent to land was extinguishing Indian titles. Chief Justice John Marshall (1755-1835) had recognized such titles as a right of occupancy only. Many Indians did not object to receiving payment for land that they used, or did not use, but frequently such payments were not forthcoming. Hard feelings sometimes developed between Indians and non-Indians over these payments and the consequent freeing of land titles.

Settlers taking advantage of the Donation Land Law had to meet the law's conditions within three years from the date of the act, that is, before December 1, 1853. However, on February 14, 1853, the act was extended for two years. At the same time, the amount of land a settler might take was reduced to one-half of the original offer.

Despite attractive aspects of the act, e.g. "free" land, continuous residence on a property, with no opportunity to earn a supplementary income, could be a hardship. By the mid-1850s, land offices at Vancouver and Olympia were no longer thronged with customers. For example, in 1851, only 58 entries were made in Washington; 117 were made the following year.

Many King County settlers met the conditions of the act, realizing claims at Alki Point, Seattle, and the Duwamish Valley. Young John C. Holgate (1830-1865), perhaps Elliott Bay's first Caucasian American visitor, had an Indian party paddle him around the bay and up the Duwamish River in search of a good claim (he ended up on Seattle's Beacon Hill). He was followed by L. M. Collins (1813-1860), Henry Van Asselt, Jacob and Samuel Maple, and the Denny party.

Denny Insists They Earned the Land

Because land claims could occur on unsurveyed lands, the claims were laid out and surveyed by the homesteaders, often in crazy-quilt patterns or at odd angles to neighbors. For example, the claims of Doc Maynard (1808-1873) and Arthur Denny (1822-1899) were patched together and at first they overlapped. Arthur Denny later defended the Donation Claim Law by noting: "The object of all who came to Oregon Territory in early times was to avail themselves of a donation claim, and my opinion today is that every man and woman fully earned and merited all they got."


Sources: Clinton A. Snowden, History of Washington (New York: The Century History Company Publishers, 1909). Also see: Clarence B. Bagley, History of King County, Washington (Chicago-Seattle: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1929); Nard Jones, Seattle (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972).

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