Legislative Branch

Guide to Senate Records: Chapter 12 Public Lands 1816-1946

Table of Contents

Chapter 12. Records of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs and Predecessor Committees, 1816-1968

Records of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs and Predecessor Committees, 1816-1988 from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States

Committee records discussed in this chapter:
Records of the Committee on Public Lands, 1816-1921 and the Committee on Public Lands and Surveys, 1921-46
The 1816 Motion creating several standing committees.  
Motion for the appointment of standing committees, December 5, 1816 (SEN14A-B6) from NARA's National Archives Catalog.  

12.3 The Committee on Public Lands, one of the original standing committees of the Senate, dates from the December 10, 1816 approval of a Senate resolution introduced by John Barbour of Virginia. Prior to this time, bills, petitions, and memorials relating to public lands were referred to various select committees.

12.4 Judging from the volume of early records and from citations in the Senate Journal, the Public Lands Committee was one of the busier and more important committees. One historian has determined that by 1838 Congress had enacted 375 laws dealing with the public domain, and had considered and either reported adversely or simply ignored many more proposed bills. The committee had jurisdiction over all legislative proposals relating to the disposition of the public lands, but it also was responsible for finding legislative remedies to private land disputes involving land grants from other governments. (See also the description of the records of the Committee on Private Land Claims.) Disposition of public lands, in and of itself, was a complex responsibility. In addition to overseeing the activities of the General Land Office, with its system of registers and receivers who served as sales agents of the public lands, and considering bills for general and special preemption laws, bounty lands, and claims, the committee acquired jurisdiction over such matters as aid to educational institutions, and support for railroad construction and other internal improvements. In the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the jurisdiction of the committee was expanded to include responsibility for the national parks system and other national resources, including energy and timber. The 1921 reorganization of Senate committees abolished the Committee on the Geological Survey and transferred its jurisdiction to the renamed Committee on Public Lands and Surveys.

12.5 One of the provisions of the 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act (Public Law 79-601) added to the basic jurisdiction of the Public Lands and Surveys Committee responsibility for mining, irrigation and reclamation, territories and insular possessions, and relations with Indian tribes from the Committees on Mines and Mining, Irrigation and Reclamation, Territories and Insular Affairs, and Indian Affairs, respectively. The new committee was named the Committee on Public Lands. The Senate soon realized that the name of the committee was too limited to describe its actual jurisdiction, and on January 28, 1948, approved S. Res. 179, 80th Cong., which changed the name to the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs.

12.6 The records of the Committee on Public Lands (57 ft.) include the following series: Committee reports and papers, 1816-47 (4 ft.); committee papers, 1847-1946 (22 ft.); petitions, memorials, and resolutions of State legislatures referred to the committee, 1816-1946 (26 ft.); legislative dockets, 1867-1917 (20 vols., 2 ft.); legislative calendars, 1913-34 with gaps (9 vols., 5 in.); petition and memorial docket, 1893-95 (1 vol., 1 in.); executive dockets, 1879-1919 with gaps (12 vols., 1 ft.); and minutes, 1892-1946 (1 ft., including 15 vols. and loose papers, 1941-44). Legislative case files on bills and resolutions referred to the committee, 1901-46, are found in the series of papers supporting specific bills and resolutions. Records of the committee for the period January 1947-January 1948 are described in the section of this chapter on records of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs.

1816-1901 (14th-56th Congresses)

12.7 In comparison with other 19th century standing committees, the Public Lands Committee is one of the most thoroughly documented. The records for the 1816-1901 period alone consist of 43 feet of material. There are few Congresses for which there are no records in the principal series, and even among the series of bound records, the gaps in coverage are minor. The unbound records are fairly consistent in format; the committee reports and papers (4 ft.) consist of original and/or printed copies of committee reports on bills, petitions, and memorials referred to the committee and assorted supporting papers. From the 30th through the 56th Congresses (1847-1901), the committee papers (14 ft.) consist largely of legislative case files, arranged by bill number and typically including correspondence and other supporting papers. The committee papers also include papers that are not associated with a particular bill or resolution, original transcripts of hearings that were printed, Presidential messages, and executive communications and reports. The petitions and memorials (23 ft.), especially those prior to 1861, are also occasionally accompanied by supporting papers. One notable feature of the 19th century records is the large number of cartographic items, including many hand drawn or annotated printed land survey maps, which are found in all three series of unbound records. Several documents referred to the Public Lands Committee have been published in the Territorial Papers of the United States, especially for Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, and Missouri.

12.8 The subjects of the records of the Public Lands Committee parallel the development of Government policy toward use of the public domain and the westward expansion of population. By the time the committee was established, Congress had already passed several laws providing special land preemption rights to settlers of certain lands in Illinois, Missouri, and Florida, and had approved private acts to grant land to or otherwise relieve individuals and groups of individuals. Congress also faced the thorny issue of settling disputes over title to lands in the Louisiana Territory granted prior to 1803 by the French and Spanish. Furthermore, in 1816 the General Land Office was also actively selling lands in various Territories, and many records referred to the committee concerned sales of public lands.

12.9 Many of the 19th century petitions and memorials and papers relating to bills in the Public Lands Committee records concern such matters as the administration of land offices, especially the establishment or relocation of the offices, and compensation of the registers and receivers in those offices. Also prominent among the records are those relating to special and general preemption laws, particularly the Distribution-Preemption Act of 1841, which established the policy that up to 160 acres could be purchased at $1.25 per acre and legalized settlement before purchase. Representative of the numerous petitions on this subject is one dated 1839 from 181 citizens of Milwaukee, Wisconsin Territory (25A-G18.1) and one in 1844 from Mormon leaders Lyman Wright and Heber V. Kimball (28A-G17.1). Records relating to preemption and, in the 1850's, to revision of the 1850 bounty land act are common for most of the pre-Civil War Congresses, but not all were referred to the Public Lands Committee; many petitions also on these subjects were "tabled" instead.

12.10 In the years just before the Civil War, homesteading became a dominant issue. Following the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, one wartime measure considered was to allow homesteading on the confiscated or forfeited lands in insurrectionary districts (38A-H17). After the war, veterans sought legislation to provide special treatment with respect to homesteading, including bounties to those who chose not to homestead (40A-H21, 41A-H21, 42A-H24, 43A-H22, 44A-H21, 48A-H24). Others proposed various steps be taken to assist freedmen to homestead (41A-H21, 41A-H21.2).

12.11 Also found for many Congresses are records relating to individuals or groups of individuals seeking passage of private relief bills. An interesting example is the 1838 petition of Marie Helene America Vespucci, a descendant of Amerigo Vespucci, for a grant of land and American citizenship (25A-G18.2). Cities and towns also sought legislation authorizing the donation or sale of Federal lands for their own public purposes; these petitions frequently were accompanied by maps of the property and other information of local interest. One such 1832 request from sundry citizens of Cook County, IL, contains a map drawn by petitioner James Herrington and other items relating to the history of Chicago in the early 1830's (22A-G16).

12.12 The Senate was also petitioned to grant land for agricultural and especially for educational purposes. For example, in 1821 the committee of superintendence of the East Florida Coffee Land Association sought a grant of land to cultivate tropical plants (17A-G12). In Alabama, a group of French immigrants known as the Tombechbee (Tombigbee) Association, similarly petitioned the Senate for land on which they could cultivate grapes and olives. Accompanying the petition are several exhibits, including a map and list of shareholders in the company, and the committee reported at least one bill in the association's behalf (21A-G17, 23A-E15). The heirs of Dr. Henry Perrine, who had been granted land in Florida for cultivating tropical plants, petitioned Congress for an extension of time to occupy and settle the land that had been granted (30A-H17.2).

12.13 The connection between education and the public lands dates from the Northwest Ordinance of 1785, which, in providing for the division and disposal of public lands, stipulated that section 16 of each township was to be reserved for schools. The Public Lands Committee received numerous petitions and memorials seeking authority to dispose of section 16 lands (25A-G18, 30A-H17, 31A-H19.4, 33A-H19.2, 35A-H17.4). It became commonplace for colleges, universities, and even secondary schools, including private institutions, to request public land for their use, either for the physical site of the school or for sale by the school to raise operating funds or build an endowment. In 1818, for example, the trustees of Vincennes University sought to dispose of its surplus lands to raise money for operating expenses (15A-D12). Other typical requests are an 1828 petition of Philander Chase, president of Kenyon College, in whose behalf at least two bills were introduced (21A-G17); an 1832 memorial of the trustees of the Tuscaloosa Female Academy in Alabama (22A-G16); and an 1834 petition from the trustees of Woodward High School in Cincinnati, OH (23A-G15). Of particular interest are the papers relating to a bill to grant a township of land to the French University of St. Louis (now St. Louis University) that include a printed "catalogue of officers and students" in 1836 (24A-D15). The Senate was occasionally asked to grant land for the purpose of educating the "deaf and dumb" and the blind; as early as 1827, the Ohio Legislature requested such support (19A-G15) and several other States followed suit. In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, setting aside 30,000 acres of land within each State loyal to the Union for the purpose of endowing at least one agricultural university. Curiously, there is no documentation of the Morrill Act in the committee papers for the 37th Congress, although during that Congress, several petitions favoring legislation to donate land for agricultural and mechanical colleges were referred to the committee (37A-H15). After 1862, such petitions and memorials gradually diminished in number.

12.14 Records of the committee also illustrate how the public domain was used to encourage internal improvements such as canals, roads, and especially, railroads, by providing grants of land and rights-of-way through public lands. Prior to 1850, there are several petitions and memorials in favor of grants to specific canal and road projects or companies; examples include a petition of 225 citizens of Peoria, IL, in support of the Illinois and Michigan Canal (27A-G18) and memorials dated 1840 in favor of aid for the Portsmouth and Ohio Turnpike (26A-G17.1). In later years, such petitions and memorials called for the construction of military roads. Petitions on behalf of canal and road projects were outnumbered easily, however, by those on behalf or in support of land grants to aid the construction of railroads. Beginning in the late 1840's, with proposals by Asa Whitney and others for using public lands to help finance the construction of a transcontinental railroad (29A-G19), the committee received hundreds of petitions and memorials promoting various railroad projects (30A-H17.1, 31A-H19.3, 32A-H20.2, 33A-H19.1, 34A-H20.1, 35A-H17.3, 36A-H16.1, 39A-H20). Occasionally the Senate considered legislation, such as S. 119, 37th Cong., to confirm a land claim in the States of Iowa and Minnesota, that actually proposed to resolve a dispute over title to railroad lands, in this case between the Dubuque and Pacific Railroad and Edward Litchfield (36A-H16.1, 37A-E12). After the Civil War, support for such grants diminished in some quarters because some railroads for which lands were granted were never constructed and settlers along the rights-of-way wanted the lands put to other use. In other instances, railroad company policies and practices were perceived as detrimental to settlers along the road (40A-H21, 41A-H21.1, 42A-H24.1, 44A-H21, 46A-H21, 47A-H25, 49A-H23). Forfeiture of railroad grants that had not been strictly complied with became an issue during the organized farm movement in the 1890's (52A-J24, 53A-J31).

12.15 In addition to homesteading, private land claims, land grant colleges, internal improvements, and other subjects discussed above, the post-Civil War records also concern national parks, timber laws, irrigation, and reclamation. Records on these subjects are found among the committee papers and petitions and memorials of many Congresses; however, one file is worthy of special mention. In 1890, the committee investigated charges of mismanagement of the Yosemite Valley by the State of California. Among the records accumulated as part of the investigation is a volume of copies of letters from various sources, several printed items, and 23 photographs showing conditions in the Yosemite Park in the late 1880's that were taken by C.D. Robinson, a professional photographer and one of the instigators of the investigation (52A-F24).

A bill for relief of Oklahoma settlers (Sooners). 
A bill for the relief of Oklahoma settlers--Sooners--many of whose titles to homestead entries had been questioned and a "Statement of the Case" of the Oklahoma settlers, May 21, 1894 (SEN53A-F29) from NARA's National Archives Catalog.  

12.16 Other noteworthy records of the committee are correspondence, affidavits, petitions, and printed matter relating to a timber claim and the Kaweah Colony, a late 19th century socialist/anarchist cooperative in Tulare County, CA (52A-F24, 53A-J31); papers relating to S. 2038, 53d Cong., for relief of Oklahoma settlers known as "sooners" (53A-F29); and papers, including a photograph, relating to S. 699, 56th Cong., to authorize the purchase of lands in the District of Alaska claimed by the Karluk Packing Company on Kodiak Island (56A-F34).

12.17 Other committee records covering the 1816-1901 period are legislative dockets, 1867-1901 (12 vols., 1 ft.); the petition and memorial docket, 1893-95, (1 vol., 1 in.); executive dockets, 1879-1901 with gaps (5 vols., 7 in.); and minutes, 1892-1901 (3 vols., 2 in.).

1901-46 (57th-79th Congresses)

12.18 The records of the Public Lands Committee for this period consist of 14 feet of material. Most of the committee papers (8 ft.) prior to the mid-1930's are originals or copies of executive communications, chiefly from the Secretary of the Interior and his assistants. Dispersed throughout, however, are some interesting exceptions, including executive session transcripts, records of investigative subcommittees, unbound minutes of committee meetings, and miscellaneous reports and correspondence. Unprinted transcripts document a meeting in 1937 relating to the settlement of the estate of Edward L. Doheny, one of the principals in the Teapot Dome scandal in 1923-24 (75A-F22), and hearings from the 1941 investigation of J. Ross Eakin, the superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (77A-F27). Investigative records in the committee papers include copies of contracts relating to Naval Oil Reserves No. 1 and No. 2 that the committee acquired during the Teapot Dome investigation (67A-F22) and subject files of the Subcommittee to Investigate the Potash Industry, 1935-41, pursuant to S. Res. 274, 74th Cong. (76A-F22). Also among the committee papers are minutes of committee meetings, 1939-44 (76A-F22, 77A-F27, 78A-F27), which are missing from the bound set of minutes. Among the more extensive files containing correspondence and reports are those relating to enlargement of the Olympic National Park in Washington, 1936-39, and to the feasibility of establishing a national park at the Royal Gorge in Colorado, 1939-40 (76A-F22). The Olympic National Park file includes a report of a private consultant that contains numerous photographs and maps.

12.19 Petitions and memorials (3 ft.) concern a variety of subjects, including several homesteading issues (57A-J62, 59A-J101, 62A-J79), the establishment and protection of national parks (numerous Congresses), reclamation (62A-J79, 66A-J54), water power (64A-J72, 65A-J53), and the leasing and control of range lands (59A-J102, 62A-J79, 69A-J37). Protests over the Hetch-Hetchy Valley water project, which imperiled the Yosemite Valley, are found in the committee papers (63A-F26) and tabled petitions (63A-K8) for the 63d Congress, rather than in this series.

12.20 Among the bound minutes is a separate volume for the meetings and hearings of the investigative subcommittee on the Teapot Dome scandal during the 67th and 68th Congresses (1923-24). These minutes and the copies of contracts described above are the only unpublished records on the Teapot Dome investigation found in Senate records. Overall, the committee minutes, 1901-46 (1 ft.), consist of loose papers for the 76th to 78th Congresses, 1938-44, and 12 volumes. The minutes for the 65th Congress (1917-19) and the 75th Congress (1937-38) are missing.

12.21 In addition to the series mentioned above, the committee records for the 1901-46 period also include the legislative calendars, 1913-34 with gaps (9 vols., 5 in.); legislative dockets, 1901-17 (8 vols., 8 in.); and executive dockets, 1901-19 (7 vols., 7 in.).

Table of Contents

Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States Senate at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-42). By Robert W. Coren, Mary Rephlo, David Kepley, and Charles South. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.