Public lands were distributed to individuals, governments, and companies in a number of ways, including:
- Cash Entry - An entry that covered public lands for which the individual paid cash or its equivalent.
- Credit Sales - These land patents were issued to anyone who either paid by cash at the time of the sale and received a discount; or paid by credit in installments over a four-year period. If full payment was not received within the four-year period, title to the land would revert back to the Federal Government. Because of the economic hardship, Congress quickly abandoned the credit system and through the Act of April 24, 1820 required full payment for land to be made at the time of purchase.
- Private Land & Preemption Claims - A claim based on the assertion that the claimant (or his predecessors in interest) derived his right while the land was under the dominion of a foreign government. "Pre-emption" was basically a tactful way of saying "squatter." In other words, the settler was physically on the property before the GLO officially sold or even surveyed the tract, and he was thus given a pre-emptive right to acquire the land from the United States.
- Donation Lands - In order to attract settlers to the remote territories of Florida, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington, the federal government offered donation land grants to individuals who would agree to settle there and meet a residency requirement. Donation land claims were unique in that acreage granted to married couples was divided evenly. Half of the acreage was placed in the husband's name while the other half was placed in the wife's name. Records include plats, indexes, and survey notes. Donation lands were basically a precursor to homesteading.
- Homesteads - Under the Homestead Act of 1862, settlers were given 160 acres of land in the public domain if they built a home on the land, resided there for five years, and cultivated the land. This land did not cost anything per acre, but the settler did pay a filing fee. A complete homestead entry file includes such documents as the homestead application, homestead proof, and final certificate authorizing the claimant to obtain a land patent.
- Military Warrants - From 1788 to 1855 the United States granted military bounty land warrants as a reward for military service. These land warrants were issued in various denominations and based upon the rank and length of service.
- Railroad - To aid in the construction of certain railroads, a congressional act of September 20, 1850 granted to the State alternate sections of public land on either side of the rail lines and branches.
- State Selection - Each new State admitted to the Union was granted 500,000 acres of public land for internal improvements "for the common good." Established under the Act of September 4, 1841.
- Mineral Certificates - The General Mining Law of 1872 defined mineral lands as a parcel of land containing valuable minerals in its soil and rocks. There were three kinds of mining claims: 1) Lode Claims for gold, silver, or other precious metals occuring in veins; 2) Placer Claims for minerals not found in veins; and 3) Mill Site Claims for up to five acres of public land claimed for the purpose of processing minerals.
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