The Legacy of Railroad Land Grants

“The Railroad Land Grant Legend in American History Texts” Robert S. Henry, 1945

In a 1945 attempt to stem the tide of liberalism in American History textbooks, Robert S. Henry says the public (especially students reading high school and college texts) has been misled by accounts of “huge,” “breath-taking” tracts of land given to railroad companies out of the public domain.  The truth, he says, is that much less land was actually given: only about 9.5% of the continental U.S.. Henry claims the government ultimately got a good return on its land grants in the form of increased value of the rest of the land due to railroads going through them, and also in special government freight rates. And in any case, he says, the social, political, and military benefits of national unity outweigh any costs incurred or opportunity costs.  The old maps, he says, mislead the public by drawing broad swaths across the west, when actually the railroads were only granted half the area drawn, in alternate sections, like a checkerboard, and some of the grants were forfeited because no one built railroads to qualify for them.  In all, only about 131 million acres were ultimately gifted to the railroads, according to Henry.  After the 1884 presidential election, he said, “when the Democratic party issued a campaign poster featuring what purported to be a map of lands granted to railroads,” the issue became a political football and the facts gave way to legend.

Henry’s article appeared in the 1945 Mississippi Valley Historical Review and set off a storm of protests, many of them carried by the same journal, and reprinted in Carstensen,
The Public Lands. David Maldwin Ellis suggested that 49 million acres of land grants by the states were also relevant in the discussion. (145)  And, even if granted lands had been forfeited or released, they still counted as grants and they had still made those lands unavailable to settlers for many years -- in some cases well into the 20th century.  The real extent of the land ultimately granted, according to dissenting historians, was slightly over 223 million acres or nearly 17% of America (146).  Ellis pointed out that “The General Land Office withdrew from public appropriation not only the primary limits [of the land grants] as required by law, but also the lands within the indemnity limits...The railroads sometimes tried to oust genuine homesteaders who had made their selections before the location of the railway route.” (146-7) In other words, the broad swaths drawn across the West were pretty accurate.


Fred A. Shannon called Henry’s article “a piece of special pleading for the current lobby of railroad interests to secure the repeal of clauses in the land-grant acts...for rate concessions on carrying government traffic.” (157) Henry was assistant to the president of the Association of American Railroads when he wrote his article. The big black swaths across the map, Shannon said, should be widened “by 50 per cent so as to show the indemnity zones,” rather than shrunk in the public imagination. “It must not be forgotten,” Shannon said, “that until 1887 settlement was excluded from government sections...and from 50 per cent of their width clear beyond the zones proper.” And what about Henry's claim that ten percent of the nation handed over to corporations wasn't so much? “The railroads got just about one-tenth of the United States and for years restricted settlement in three-tenths of the United States,” Shannon concluded.  “This ratio is much higher in the West, where most of the grants lay.” (158)

I think this series of articles says some interesting things about how history (especially popular history, but really all history) has often been done, and about what we need to be wary of when reading.  In the first place, even taking Henry’s numbers, railroad land grants were breath-taking.  Nearly ten percent of the land area of the nation?  Proportionally more, in unsettled areas, where pioneers were competing for farmlands.  And an area at least double that (or nearly 1/3 of the land in the United States) held back from sale?  That’s pretty extreme.  Second, whether the government got it’s money back is not the question.  Everyone seems to have lost sight of the fact that private, corporate, for-profit railroad development with government handouts wasn’t the only way transportation, or the American West, could have been developed.  And it’s not like there weren’t people saying this at the time (one of the "Peppermint Kings" of my dissertation, A.M. Todd, for example).  We just don’t remember them.  What does that say about the textbooks that are being read by high-schoolers now?