Public land states are states that the federal government formed from the public domain. The term public domain is defined as land owned by the federal government that is subject to sale or transfer of ownership under laws passed by Congress. It includes western lands that the original states ceded to the United States as well as acquisitions from foreign governments. Congress was initially responsible for matters relating to the settlement of land.
The Public Land system in the U.S. is an outgrowth of the Northwest Territory created by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 from lands that had been ceded to the fledgling U.S. government by Virginia and some other states. Records generated through this distribution process include thousands of diverse land claims and transactions regarding public domain, including military bounty lands, preemption rights, claims by refugees, agreements with Indian Nations, and the settlement of private land claims on public domain that the United States acquired from foreign governments.
The original 13 states and Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and West Virginia have no public domain. Several of these states ceded land to Congress for the benefit of the United States which became part of the public domain. To successfully claim land located within the public domain, one had to prove right to the land as recognized under public land laws. Claimants had to produce evidence to justify the basis for the claim. One type of land claim, private land claims on public domain that the United States acquired from foreign governments, often offers researchers a unique opportunity to gain detailed information on the claimants and their families.
The British, French, and Spanish governments granted a great deal of land within their American holdings to the inhabitants prior to the acquisition of the territories by the United States. After taking control of the land, the U.S. Government had to validate the titles originally granted by foreign authorities before the claimant could have legal possession of the land.
Congress also was responsible for the relief of veterans of the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 and passed many acts relating to bounty land, pensions, and other assistance to the soldiers and their families. Congress passed several public acts regulating veterans' claims that established common eligibility requirements and delegated to the Secretary of War the responsibility for administering the provisions.
Many veterans and their heirs, however, brought their claims directly to Congress for adjudication, and Congress passed private acts to reward these individuals. Bounty land claims within the Public Lands volumes can supply information about the claimants' military service and subsequent lives. For many veterans of these two wars, the bounty land claims supplement the compiled military service records and pension bounty land files available at the National Archives.
The requirements for acquiring public land were eased over a period of years, culminating in the Homestead Act of 1862 which made it possible to get title to land for free provided that the land was improved and occupied by the claimholder.