Department of the Interior

A Mere Aggregation of Bureaus

When the Department of the Interior was created on March 3, 1849, it quickly became the “kitchen sink” of the American bureaucracy. Under its banner were the General Land Office, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Patent Office, and the Pension Office. For the most part, the new department was the creation of former Mississippi senator Robert J. Walker and was introduced with few changes by Ohio congressman Samuel F. Vinton, then head of the House Ways and Means Committee. Walker, at the time of the proposed department, was the secretary of the Treasury under James K. Polk and was formerly head of the Senate Committee on Public Lands.

The combination of the former senator from Mississippi and Jackson supporter and the Whig congressman from Ohio demonstrated the non-partisan nature of the department’s creation. There was little debate in the lower house of Congress but some rather testy debate in the Senate, where the bill was championed by Daniel Webster and Jefferson Davis and opposed by John C. Calhoun and James M. Mason of Virginia. The bill passed the Senate on the final day of the session. Its original title was “An Act to Establish the Home Department,” which was almost ignored after the title of the Interior Department became the common name. It was asked to organize and administer some often-unrelated bureaus and commissions, a difficult job at best.

At the crux of Walker’s original proposals were the vast legal aspects of his position as secretary of the Treasury. He noted that in his capacity as secretary of the Treasury, his was the office to which all appeals from the General Land Office came. In his report of 1848, Walker noted: “I have pronounced judgment in upwards of five thousand cases, involving land titles, since the tenth of March, 1845. These are generally judicial questions … requiring often great labor and research, and having no necessary connexion with the duties of the Treasury Department.”

Although the original intent of the creation of the GLO was to assist the government in selling lands and supporting the treasury, the passage of the Great Preemption Act of 1841, the Armed Occupation Act for Florida, and various donation acts and military bounty laws made the raising of funds quite secondary to the actual settlement of the frontier. Added to the secretary’s legitimate concerns were:

  • the recent acquisitions from the Mexican War,
  • the removal of the Indians from east of the Mississippi River and
  • the rapid migration of the American population west of the Mississippi and prior to the proper surveying of the land.

You can easily see why Walker pushed for the creation of a new department of government.

The Second Seminole War, the Mexican War, the Black Hawk War, and the tremendous acquisitions of territory meant that there would also be a vast increase in pensions, bounty warrants, and Indian treaties and movements, and an increased need for staffing Indian agencies, surveyors general’s offices, etc. These added duties would soon overwhelm the secretary of the Treasury and other agencies not directly under him that handle all of the increased demands for government intervention and funding. The Interior Department was an answer to the needs, albeit imperfect.

Somewhat ironically, the bill creating the new department went before retiring president James K. Polk, who was in the very last hours of his administration. He could not have read it very carefully, but he did have faith in Walker so he signed the bill. Polk would later write that: “Had I been a member of Congress I would have voted against it.”

As it was, his successor Zachary Taylor had the privilege of appointing the first secretary of the Interior, Thomas Ewing, of Ohio. Ewing’s initial staff consisted of nine members personally responsible to the secretary and 78 persons within the GLO who superintended the public lands, private land grants, and general surveys. This was the largest section under the new secretary of the Interior.

Almost immediately the new secretary had problems when he went in the face of political pressure and reversed an earlier Walker decision on the Des Moines River Improvement Land Grant, limiting this grant to forks of the Raccoon River instead of the state boundary. His decision was reversed when the attorney general ruled that the original grant went to the Iowa state line, giving the company an additional 271,000+ acres of land.

In 1856, another secretary of the Interior, Robert McClelland, reverted back to Ewing’s decision. Not until 1871, when Congress enacted a bill to grant the lands north of the Raccoon River forks to Iowa, was this dispute resolved. With such potential conflicts lying in the future, little wonder Polk would have voted against it if he had been in Congress in 1849.

The year 1850 brought even more potential and actual conflicts with the passage of acts, the most notable of which was the Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act of September 28, 1850. This act was not only one of the poorest administered acts in U.S. land history but also the one with the greatest potential for abuse. Although not directly intended to aid internal improvements, it became the vehicle for some of the greatest land give-aways in American history.

Most of the abuse came from the aid given to railroads and canals via this act by actions of the federal and state governments. The direct involvement of the secretary of the Interior in these abuses came from the power to set land districts and change them as the secretary felt needed, setting the time of public land sales and, most importantly, approving the extent of indemnity lands available to the railroads.

This latter power meant that the secretary could approve the GLO’s set-asides up to 15 or 20 miles from the main line of the approved railroad. Frequently, this meant that whole blocks of land to those depths along the route were set aside for the railroads, to the detriment of homesteaders, squatters, potential cash purchasers, and others, even though most of the grants to railroads gave only the alternate sections along the route. Technically the lands reserved for the railroads were along the surveyed route and granted after a defined number of miles were constructed; however, this is not what happened, and the railroads took full advantage of the laxity of enforcement. Sometimes the land would be held off the market for up to 10 or more years, tax free, setting up the perfect opportunity for speculation along the route.

The classic case of this problem was that of the Northern Pacific Railroad vs. Guilford Miller, wherein the reform commissioner of the GLO, William A. J. Sparks, attempted to change the usual practice. Secretary of the Interior Lucius Q.C. Lamar, who often supported his reforming commissioner, in this case referred it to the attorney general, Augustus Garland, who noted that the secretary could allow such a practice if he felt it in the interest of the public. Sparks was not happy with this decision and soon left government service, and the cautious Lamar maintained the old practice. His successor, William F. Vilas felt 
that he was restrained from removing Miller’s (or any other set-tler’s) lands from the indemnity reservation by the Northern Pacific Subsidy Act and that once the map of the route had been filed he had no power to change the route or the indemnity that went with it.

Because the secretary of the Interior had so many such cases each year, a special board of Adjudication was set up in the department to help the secretary wade through the legal morass put forth by unspecific congressional acts. During the 19th century the department came under increasing scrutiny and criticism relative to the power of the railroads, especially in a series of articles by George W. Julian, former surveyor general of New Mexico.

The problems of land fraud had always circled around the GLO and its officers. Much of this was because of the pay system installed by Congress that allowed registers and receivers and surveyors to charge for their services prior to performance. When Robert McClelland ascended to the office of secretary he almost immediately advised Congress to change the system and pass a law preventing federal surveyors and land agents from purchasing tracts in the districts where they worked. This system had led to many purchases by surveyors general, deputy surveyors, registers and receivers, and even draughtsmen who had access to the surveys as they were turned in by the deputies.

Most Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee surveyors know of the purchases by general John Coffee, Andrew Jackson, and their political allies. Some in Florida are aware of the numerous purchases by surveyor general Robert Butler, deputies Romeo Lewis, David Thomas, and a host of others in the early years of the land office there. It was a problem endemic to the system when McClelland took the reigns.

The discovery of gold in California led to the question of the disposal of mineral lands together with the “segregations surveys” required in the later Swamp Lands Act relative to California. The year 1850 not only saw the passage of the Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act but also saw Congress give out the first of the many acts to aid railroad construction with the grant to the Illinois Central. Four years later the Congress passed the Graduation Act that lowered the price of public lands by half if they had not been sold at public auction or by cash purchase over a defined period of time.

The goal was to get land into the hands of frontier settlers; however, it often worked into the hands of land speculators who hired individuals to buy it at reduced prices or put in a claim on the land, hold it for years, and then let it drop, thus returning it, theoretically, to the public system. Putting a claim on the land and actually settling on it were not required under the law passed by Congress. This, with the other acts, became administrative nightmares for most secretaries of the Interior.

Keep in mind that adjudication of swamp-land claims came under the direct control of the secretary, and his word on them was final. This included the instructions to surveyors on how to go about such work, especially in areas which were already surveyed prior to the passage of the act. Because of this and the fact that most states were surveyed in their “dry” periods, most of the states qualified to select lands under the act of 1850 chose to send out selecting agents, usually surveyors, to directly observe and report what were actually swamp and overflowed lands. Throughout the late 19th century, these selections were often challenged by citizens, politicians, and government agents. These questions had to be answered by the department and, more specifically, the secretary of the Interior.

Finally, although this is not a total picture of the problems faced by the various secretaries, we should keep in mind that this officer also had the power to depart from the regular system of rectangular surveying when he felt it impracticable. The secretary also had the power of ordering the appraisement and sale of reservations for town sites, such as that in Tombstone, Arizona, where the original incorporators apparently failed to file a proper survey required by law. The designation of agricultural lands apart from mineral lands also falls into this range of powers. Most importantly for the settlement of America and all surveyors, the secretary of the Interior must take the measures to insure the final completion of the public land surveys. The office of the secretary of the Interior is a long way up the bureaucratic ladder from the deputy in the field; however, as seen briefly above, the office and the men and women who have held it play and abstract an active role in the life of all surveyors. It’s always good to know where the buck stops.

About the Author

  • Joe Knetsch, Ph.D.
    Joe Knetsch, Ph.D.
    Joe holds a Ph.D. in history from Florida State University and, since 1987, has been the historian for the Division of State Lands, Florida Department of Environmental Protection (working in the Bureau of Survey Mapping). He has authored more than 35 articles on the history of surveying and teaches the course on the history of surveys and surveying in Florida for recertification purposes in the state of Florida. He is also a contributing writer for the magazine.

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