Legislative Branch

Guide to House Records: Chapter 13: Public Lands

Records of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs and Its Predecessors

Committees discussed in this chapter:

Records of the Committee on Public Lands (1805-1951)

Jurisdiction and History

13.4 When it was established on December 17, 1805, the Committee on Public Lands was given jurisdiction over matters relating to "the lands of the United States."1 Throughout the 19th century, the committee was primarily concerned with the sale and settlement of public lands. Over time, however, the committee exercised jurisdiction over certain land claims, minerals and waters on public lands, irrigation, forest reserves and game living in them, national parks, conservation, land grants, foreign ownership of land, and administration of the lands of the public domain. In 1911 the Committee on Private Land Claims was abolished and the subjects in its jurisdiction were passed to the Committee on Public Lands.

13.5 Under the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 the Committees on Indian Affairs, Territories, Mines and Mining, Irrigation and Reclamation, and Insular Affairs were abolished and their jurisdictions were combined with those of the Committee on Public Lands. The committee's jurisdiction after the 1946 reorganization included the following subjects:

  • 1. Public lands generally, including entry, easements, and grazing thereon; 2. Mineral resources of the public lands; 3. Forfeiture of land grants and alien ownership, including alien ownership of mineral lands; 4. Forest reserves and national parks created from the public domain; 5. Military parks and battlefields, and national cemeteries; 6. Preservation of prehistoric ruins and objects of interest on the public domain; 7. Measures relating generally to Hawaii, Alaska, and the insular possessions of the United States, except those affecting the revenue and appropriations; 8. Irrigation and reclamation, including water supply for reclamation projects, and easements of public lands for irrigation projects, and acquisition of private lands when necessary to complete irrigation projects; 9. Interstate compacts relating to apportionment of waters for irrigation purposes; 10. Mining interests generally; 11. Mineral land laws and claims and entries thereunder; 12. Geological survey; 13. Mining schools and experimental stations; 14. Petroleum conservation on the public lands and conservation of the radium supply in the United States; 15. Relations of the United States with the Indians and the Indian tribes; 16. Measures relating to the care, education, and management of Indians, including the care and allotment of Indian lands and general and special measures relating to claims which are paid out of Indian funds.2

13.6 On February 2, 1951, the name of the committee was changed to the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs to more accurately reflect the full scope of its jurisdiction.

Records of the Committee on Public Lands, 9th-81st Congresses (1805-1951)

Record Type Volume Congresses (Dates)
Minute Books 20 vols. 33rd-34th (1853-57), 39th (1865-67), 43rd (1873-75), 46th-60th (1879-1909), 80th (1947-48)
Docket Books 35 vols. 19th-36th (1825-61), 39th-40th (1865-69), 42nd-61st (1871-1911)
Petitions and Memorials 28 ft. 9th-45th (1805-79), 48th-64th (1883-1917), 68th-69th (1923-27), 73rd-81st (1833-51)
Committee Papers 14 ft. 9th-45th (1805-79), 47th-57th (1881-1903), 59th-61st (1905-11), 63rd-64th (1913-17), 69th (1925-27), 74th-80th (1935-48)
Bill Files 37 ft. 58th-65th (1903-19), 67th-68th (1921-25), 70th-71st (1927-31), 73rd-81st (1933-51)
TOTAL: 79 ft. and 55 vols. (7 ft.)  

13.7 Minute books provide a record of committee meetings. Docket books record the receipt of legislation and petitions by the committee. The entries are organized by the date the committee received the material. One large docket volume contains information for the 19th through the 27th Congresses (1825-43).

13.8 Petitions and memorials exist for almost every Congress during the committee's existence. Some of the petitions ask Congress to respect the rights and dignity of Indians and blacks. One of the earliest, dated December 1806, is a plea from a group of Wyandot "Warriors and Women [who] speak with one voice to the Seventeen States--Father, we now beg of you that you will relinquish to us, the whole of the Reserve in this place... it is the place where we were born, where our ancestors were born; and where they, and many of our relations lie buried" (9A-F5.1). As late as the 62d Congress (1911-13) the committee received petitions concerning the sale of a Huron Cemetery in Kansas City, KS (62A-H26.3). Residents of Washington County, OH, petitioned the 25th Congress (1837-39) for a "homeland" for freed slaves, stating that if Congress "set off a tract of land in one of her territories to be occupied by the Free people of color as a colony... multitudes of our black population would immediately emigrate to it" (25A-G18.2).

13.9 Petitioners requested that the Federal Government grant the States public lands to sell in order to finance the establishment of schools. Files of petitions requesting land grants for various educational purposes are among the records of nearly every Congress between 1845 and 1867. One of the earliest petitions, which is among the papers of the 12th Congress (1811-13), came from the Reverend Gabriel Richard, pastor of the Catholic Society in the Territory of Michigan, who outlined his plan to educate both white and Indian children (12A- F9.1). A joint memorial submitted by the Alabama legislature in February 1830, requested "a grant of lands by the Congress of the United States for the use of a female Academy in each county of this State" for "the proper and necessary education of the females of this free and happy Republick" (21A-G18.3).

13.10 The State of Indiana applied for grants of land to establish asylums for the deaf and dumb, insane, and other "objects of Charity" (21A-G18.9). A 37-page manuscript prepared by D. L. Dix and entitled "Memorial in behalf of the Deaf-Mutes and the Blind of the United States," includes a table showing the number of deaf and blind individuals by State and how many of them were educated, and provides a brief history of the education of individuals who were sight and hearing impaired (31A-G18.7).

13.11 Matters concerning the national parks generated a large number of petitions during the latter part of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century (64A-H22.4, 69A-H15.3, 75A-H16.2). Although a tract of public domain had been set aside in March 1872 as Yellowstone National Park, one group of petitioners complained that "Sixteen years have elapsed without the enactment of any laws for the preservation of this Yellowstone Park from injury at the hands of trespassers" (50A-H25.2). As if to highlight their concern, a petition was presented to Congress from some citizens living in Montana who wanted to construct a railroad through the park to connect their mining interests with the Northern Pacific Railroad. The New World Mining District claimed that the only practical route for railroad construction was along the courses of the Yellowstone River and Soda Butte Creek. There are also petitions that opposed the construction of a railroad through Yellowstone National Park (53A-H28.3). During the 69th Congress (1925-27), petitions strongly protested the withdrawal of 8,000 acres from the southwest corner of Yellowstone National Park in order to provide grazing for cattle (69A- H15.3).

13.12 During the mid-1890's, mining and stock raising industries in California presented a petition for the repeal of the law establishing Yosemite National Park. Mining representatives claimed the park had significant potential as a mining area, while stockmen protested that they had always used the valleys of the park for grazing purposes. Restricting use of the park area, they believed, would significantly harm California's economic development (53A-H25.5). Other petitions concerning parks pertain to the National Park Service, established in 1916 (64A-H22.3); Kings Canyon National Park (76A-H22.4); and the purchase of the Daniel Freeman Homestead in Gage County, NE, to commemorate the filing of Homestead Number 1 (74A-H16.3)

13.13 The Federal Government granted more than 155 million acres of public land to various railroad companies to aid them in the construction of a nation-wide network of railroads. As early as the 26th Congress (1839-41), the committee received a petition from North Brookfield, MA, asking Congress to "make a suitable donation of [public] land to the several States through which the road would pass, to aid them in constructing it." They believed the "cost of construction would be inconsiderable in comparison to the vast beneficial results produced" (26A-G19.4). Files of petitions concerning grants of land for roads and railroads are among the files for nearly every Congress from 1843 to 1895.

13.14 Committee papers date from the creation of the committee and continue throughout its existence. A significant percentage of 19th-century committee records are claims from soldiers of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Indian wars. Claims for bounty land appear as many as 40 years after the soldier's military service. Among these records is a 297-page report on the history of boundaries and land ownership in Virginia. In addition, there is a list of Virginia military officers who had land warrants issued prior to December 31, 1784 (28A-D25.1).

13.15 Among the earliest records of the committee is correspondence from at least two men who were prominent in American history. In October 1805, George Rogers Clark petitioned Congress to confirm a land title given to him in 1779 by The Tobacco Son, chief of the "Pi-yankeshaw" Indians, which he accepted "for fear of creating dangerous suspicions on the part of the Indians" (9A-F5.1). Included with his petition is a certified copy of the original deed from "the Antient Records of Vincennes." The committee papers show that the committee reported that the prayer of the petition should not be granted because it violated the Constitution of the State of Virginia which stated that "no purchase of land shall be made from the Indian Natives, but on behalf of the public, by the General Assembly" (9A-C4.2). The second prominent American is Andrew Jackson who wrote to the committee chairman in 1824 about a land claim involving members of his wife's family (18A-C16.1).

13.16 From time to time, the Government needed to purchase private property to add to existing Federal lands. A letter of February 1831 from Secretary of War John Eaton recommends that the Government purchase additional land at Harper's Ferry, and enclosed documents from the Ordnance Department to show the necessity of making the purchase (21A- D21.7).

13.17 Throughout the 19th century, there are various reports regarding the distribution and sales of public lands. In the early records of the committee, there is a report dated December 30, 1813, from Edward Tiffin, Commissioner of the General Land Office, consisting in part of a statistical breakdown of the four hundred million acres in the old Northwest by Territory or State and showing how much of the land was of public or Indian ownership. The second part of the report included a narrative on "the character of the country" (13A-D13.1). Among the records of the 20th Congress (1827-29), is a manuscript report from the surveyor of the boundary line between the States of Georgia and Florida which includes the calculations involved in establishing the line (20A-D20.3). The papers of the 22d Congress (1831-33) include a report on the sale of public lands and the apportionment of the proceeds among the several States (22A-D21.4).

13.18 Periodically, the committee was charged with the responsibility of inquiring into apparent "wrong-doings" concerning subjects under its jurisdiction. During the 19th Congress (1825-27), the committee investigated charges preferred against George Graham, Commissioner of the General Land Office by John Wilson, a surveyor, who claimed that Graham was withholding several important papers belonging to other persons. Among the committee papers are transcripts of testimony and depositions relating to these charges (19A-D18.2). During the 22d Congress (1831-33), an investigation of the General Land Office was conducted, and the committee records include related correspondence, financial statements, testimony, and copies of reports from the Surveyor General (22A-D21.2).

13.19 The committee papers include correspondence, copies of bills, and other supporting documents concerning the disposition of Indian lands. The records of the 22d Congress, for example, include an extensive file (3 in.) on efforts in 1832 to determine the status of a lease authorized by a treaty concluded with the Chickasaw Indians in 1818. Among the papers are copies of the minutes of the treaty negotiations with the Chickasaws in 1830, depositions, correspondence, and other supporting materials (22A-D21.3). Another interesting file concerns charges of "fraud, corruption, violence, and murder" made against some of the Army and civil officers who managed the dramatic "run" opening 6,000,000 acres of the Cherokee Outlet to white settlement in 1893. The file documents the subsequent hearing, including copies of statements, transcripts of testimony, and newspaper clippings (53A-F38.7). The papers of the 53d Congress also include files relating to white settlements on Mille Lac Reservation in Minnesota and the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon (53A-F38.11).

13.20 The Homestead Act of May 1862 allowed the head of a household to acquire 160 acres of surveyed public lands after 5 years of continuous residence and the payment of a registration fee. There is a large body of records over an extended period on a variety of topics relating to the Homestead Act and homesteaders in both committee papers (37A-E16.9, 45A-F30.2, 48A-F31.5, 53A-F38.5) and petitions and memorials (37A-G15.4, 48A-H25.5, 62A- H26.2). Eugene L. Guthrie, for example, was granted land as a homestead by the Government, had possession of it for 3 years, and had made significant improvements on the property when, in 1864, the Government "declared [the land] to be needed and reserved for the use of the U.S." There are letters from Guthrie and others seeking compensation for his loss (38A-E19.12). Among records of the 62d Congress (1911-13) are petitions requesting the Homestead Law be amended to reduce the required residency from 5 to 3 years (62A-H26.2).

13.21 Beginning in the 1850's, the Federal Government promoted railroad construction by granting public land to railroad companies for rights-of-way. In addition to this land, the companies received alternate sections of land for each mile of track laid by the company. The companies would then sell this land to individuals for a profit. In the records of the 51st Congress (1889-91) is correspondence concerning the restoration of lands within the 40- mile limit of the land grant for the Northern Pacific Railroad. Under the Homestead Act, many individuals settled and made improvements on public land. When the Northern Pacific Railroad began laying its track, the Government granted it land that had already been settled by homesteaders. Because the railroad's claim took precedence over the farmers, Congress decided that "those persons who after August 15,1887 and before January 1, 1889" settled on land now granted to the railroad could "transfer their entries from said tracts to other vacant Government land - they may select and receive final certificates therefore" (51A-F34.1, 53A-F38.6).

13.22 Other subjects represented in the committee papers include land claims in Illinois (11A-C7.1, 14A-C14.1), Louisiana (14A-C14.1, 38A-F19.6), and Ohio (9A-C3.1, 19A-D18.3, 21A-D21.6); geological surveys in Oregon and Washington Territories (33A-F16.2); the sale of mineral lands (29A-D18.3, 38A-E19.8); forest reservations and timber lands (37A- E16.11, 53A-F38.3); and Yellowstone National Park (53A-F38.12). There are many files concerning land grants for educational and charitable institutions, and for canals and river and harbor improvements.

13.23 Bill files contain copies of published bills, resolutions, committee reports, and hearings. The volume of records found in the bill files for the various Congresses varies dramatically. For example, bill files from the 58th to the 65th Congress (1903-19), measure approximately 13 feet. The volume drops dramatically for the years 1919- 41, but from the 77th to the 81st Congresses (1941-51), there are approximately 20 feet of records in the bill files. Most of the records in the bill files consist of published material on a wide variety of topics.


1 Annals of the Congress of the United States, 9th Cong., 1st sess., p. 286.

2 U.S. Congress, Constitution, Jefferson's Manual, and Rules of the House of Representatives of the United States, Eightieth Congress, H. Doc. 769, 79th Cong., 2d sess., 1947, p. 324.

Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States House of Representatives at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-245). By Charles E. Schamel, Mary Rephlo, Rodney Ross, David Kepley, Robert W. Coren, and James Gregory Bradsher. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.