Saturday, June 10, 2017

Land! by E. Ayers

I've covered tiny things that affected everyday life. So this time I thought maybe I would write about something really BIG that also had a bearing on the lives of those who went west. It was the land itself. Who owned it, what was there, and how it could be settled.
           The land was totally wide-open, raw land, except the government owned the land. (Yes, you could argue that the Am. Indians owned the land, but they believed there was no ownership - it was there for them to use.) A large chunk of our western lands was obtained from France in the Louisiana
Purchase of 1803. Most of the land beyond that portion was owned by Spain. Eventually we owned what is now known as the contiguous United States. I'd say it was a slow process, but not really. A hundred nine years, after the Louisiana Purchase, to create the 48 States is relativity fast when you look at history. The land after being purchased was surveyed and marked in neat squares creating boroughs or counties. (Well, until the land wasn't as easily divided because of mountains, etc., and by then, the government was running out of money to have the land surveyed.)
Quite a bit changed in the course of those years, and we needed a faster way to travel to the west. The government decided that we needed to build railroads, they began to divide the land based on where they thought the railroads should go. Then that land was allocated and eventually "sold" to the railroads. (Only the surface land and not what was under it.) But to prevent congestion of settlers (don't laugh) along those railroad lines, the government granted the right for the railroads to own the land, but they only owned every other square of land. And the squares were laid like a checkerboard. So, in theory, the railroad owned a square on this side of the track and the government owned the other side of that track, only to switch every few miles.
People moving west, once this land was subdivided, were allowed to homestead on the government squares, but not on the railroad squares. Each checkerboard square was 10 square miles and a square was granted to the railroad for every mile of track they built. Sounds like they were given the squares after they built the tract. Well, maybe in some places, but for the most part it was already laid out and allocated before the railroad tracks were started.
The government made some decisions about where the tracks should go, which size rails to use (that determined the type of locomotive and cars on those tracks), what steel to use, how steep the grades should be, and the number of degrees a curve could have. In today's world, it sounds sensible, but back then it forced standardization because wheels and tracks were different, and provided some of the first safety features. Then railroads were "loaned" money to build the tracks. The more difficult it would be to lay the track through areas of land where there were mountains, rivers, or hills, the more money they were given. Speculation on railroads became a major investment opportunity because in theory the railroads could make huge profits. People made fortunes or lost them. But these tracks often weren't constructed as quickly as our government thought they would be. Many railroad companies went belly-up because the cost for them to lay the tracks far exceeded any estimates.
There are tons of early maps showing railroads cross-crossing the land. What they really show is what is supposed to be there. Since the railroad wanted to build an additional rail line through Wyoming, they were offered these lands in a series of checkerboard squares. Surprise! That railroad wasn't built until well into the 1900's because it wasn't worthwhile for the railroad to actually spend the money to build it. The rail line was started several times and abandoned several times. But the railroad had the land and they sold that land to raise the money to pay the government back for that amazing loan. (Are you confused yet?)
Honestly I was so confused that it took a historian from BNSF to straighten it out for me. But I was looking at a map with the railroad on it. And the Internet was populated with the old maps showing that railroad. How could it not be there? It was merely proposed, and the land granted to the railroad much like our right-of-way today. (That right-of-way might look like a road on the map, but it's not really anything and might have trees growing in the center of it.)
We made the whole situation worse when the Yankees decided to squelch the Rebel forces during the Civil War by destroying the railroad tracks in the South. Some of those tracks took forever to rebuild, while others were quickly replaced after the War. So in the late 1860's, it looked like the railroads existed on maps, but they didn't. Money was spent on the railroads that had been destroyed during the War, thus taking away money from company funds that had been allotted to build railroads out west.
It took a large number of laborers to build these lines. These guys worked horrible hours and under even worse conditions. Yes, the Chinese, working west to east, laid a great deal of the tracks, but so did plenty of other people. Why? Because many were new immigrants often chasing the American Dream and many laborers couldn’t find work where they had been living. It was honest work with what was considered good wages for those days. Okay, it was lousy pay for a dangerous job with long hours, and they were doing it in horrendous heat and freezing cold. But they did it. It was a job and they were happy to have it. They lived in moveable tent cities with only basic amenities. As companies folded, failed, or whatever, many of these workers stayed where they were and homesteaded, because they were in the middle of nowhere with no funds.
The Homestead Act of 1860 gave the homesteader 160 acres. That really wasn't enough for people to raise cattle, so they turned them loose on government property and allowed them to graze freely during the summer. If someone had enough money, they could purchase a "square" This was actually a much smaller square than those railroad checkerboard squares, those railroad squares are 10 miles squared, and a simple square within that larger square is 1 mile by 1 mile. A square mile is 640 acres. So the homesteader of 160 acres was only homesteading a fourth of that one-square mile.
Many homesteaders were wise to the system and homesteaded on government land with nearby prairie but also next to railroad land. They bought the railroad land for a cheap price, because the railroads were frequently broke and in need of cash flow. Someone with money could take the homestead acreage and purchase quite a few one-mile squares from the railroad giving them a very large chunk of land.
The real kicker here is there was quite a bit of corruption going on in the lawless West, and buying land from the railroads was actually safer than buying land from the government. Frequently, the government really didn't know what they owned. But the railroads tended to keep accurate records. They knew exactly what they owned and where! It took until almost 1910 for the government to begin to settle who owned what. Too many people who bought land from the government had their money stolen by corrupt government agents and the papers were never actually filed with the government. Or they were filed and lost, or a fire wiped out the records. It was a huge mess. And the landowners were forced to prove what they had paid, and what had been homesteaded, including the dates.
The next big question is how did they know how much land they were homesteading? There weren't too many surveyors out west and those that were worked for the railroads. Besides a surveyor would have been expensive and the average homesteader had very little money. They marked the land themselves. They used chains, ten feet long between the first and last link. They started at a spot that was identifiable, often a tree or a large rock but frequently they started at a surveyor's mark on the corner of one of those county squares. They would pound the first stake into the ground, hook the chain over it, and stretch it out. They put a stake where the chain ended. Without removing that second stake they would swing the chain and drop the next stake. They had to pound a fence post into the hole that was made with the stake. And so it went for the perimeter of their 160 acres. It was a long, hard job, and they had to keep the line straight. (That's geometry, and I'm not going to explain it. I also seriously doubt that many settlers went to that much trouble. They merely sighted the fence line.)
Homesteading was fraught with problems beyond trying to create a house out of nothing, having clean water, and growing crops where there were none. We are rather spoiled today. We call the realtor, say we like that piece of property, a few people wave magic wands, and several weeks later, we receive a copy of the deed. Someone else has already surveyed the land, guaranteed that the house is sound, and the property actually has a clean title. I'm so glad I don't have to go out there with a mallet, a chain, a few spikes, and a shovel.

Ebook on pre-order for 99c

A Rancher's Request

Zadie Larkford, recently graduated from an Eastern women’s college, lives a quiet life in her hometown of Franklin, Virginia. Content to spend her days painting by the river and watching her friends marry, she is shocked to learn that her father has promised her hand in marriage to a complete stranger. Ultimately unable to disobey, she leaves her childhood home to travel – unaccompanied – to Creed’s Crossing, Wyoming to meet her betrothed.
Raised in a seafaring community in North Carolina, Duncan Lorde made the decision to leave his father’s prosperous fishing venture to make a life for himself in the west. Determined to succeed in the treacherous and unpredictable pursuit of cattle ranching, he has land, a small cabin, and a herd. All he needs now is a wife–a good woman who will cook, clean, and provide him with strong sons to help on the ranch. When Zadie arrives in Creed’s Crossing, the young daughter of his father’s old friend is far more independent and strong-willed than he expected.
The young would-be couple has barely begun to forge a bond when the forces of man and nature collide, impeding Duncan and Zadie as they struggle to fulfill … A Rancher’s Request.


  1. Whew! That's quite a bit of information to take in at once.
    The railroads..I have an old American History textbook with one map of existing railroads, say in the mid-later-1800s.
    I learned my lesson when I began a romance set out in West Texas along the New Mexico Border between Lubbock and Amarillo. Well, I had my female on a train...oops. No train during that period of time. I wrote a blog titled The Last Free Land in Texas...which I aimed for in my story. I backed off that story for several was she'd have to travel by wagon to get there. Now, I always check my little map about the trains.
    Good luck with your coming release!

    1. Trying to figure out which railroads actually existed is a total nightmare. And the second thing that will make me crazy is "square". *He owned a square.* Which square? What size square? And the term is still kicking around today.

      Thanks so much for slogging through my post and for the luck on my newest book. It was fun writing this story with so many local ties and a heroine who wasn't about to kowtow to anyone.

  2. E., a great and really informative read, interesting maps, too. I would like to share your blog with some other friends who would appreciate learning more about the history of our proud land, hope it's okay!

    1. Clicked my comment too quick before of course, wishing you top sales on A Rancher's Request.

    2. Go right ahead. I'm honored. It's totally impossible to look at western land without looking at the railroad lands. Even in the east the RR wasn't actually where it was supposed to be. Many times people disembarked and took a boat/ferry/barge to the other side of the river. Thanks for reading, Cheri.

    3. Thanks, Cheri. I've got my fingers crossed that all my readers scoop their copy while it's only 99c.

  3. Wow! You outdid yourself with this one. E. Such a treasure trove of information! It's definitely a keeper. I did a lot of research about the Union Pacific route for my first book, Darlin' Irish. Even visited the museum in Omaha and purchased a wonderful book about the RR at a nearby bookstore. But I never investigated all the historical details you did for this post. Huge thanks for sharing!

    BTW I love your book cover. Best wishes for continued success!

    1. Thanks, Lyn. I've had a love of trains since I was little girl and our property on the back end extended to the Reading Railroad. Even today I can hear trains and in the winter when the leaves are off the trees I can barely see the Norfolk Southern trains as they pass through town. So learning more about the railroads was an interesting excursion into history.

  4. Elizabeth, thank you for explaining this. I have researched railroads but your post included information new to me. This will be especially helpful in my writing. Love your new cover and I've preordered the book. I look forward to reading A RANCHER'S REQUEST.

    1. What surprised me was the fact that not all railroads were the same and the sizes of the trains wheels/rails varied. Oh the strange and useless things we learn. :-)

      Thanks so much for preordering. Zadie rode those trains more than most young women going west to marry. Don't want to give the whole story away. :-)

  5. Interesting info. I've researched railroads and it is very confusing. I sure didn't know about the checkerboard square miles. Your upcoming release sounds interesting. I'll get my copy today. Best of luck!

    1. I was so confused over so many things when it came to the railroads. I was also very surprised to discover that several of today's large rail companies employ historians.

      The government really worried that the land would populate only by the railroads. Of course, the east is filled with little railroad towns.

      Thanks, Linda. Enjoy the book.

  6. Imagine someone getting 160 acres of land for free (with stipulations, of course) in this day and time. I can relate to the Irish who had come from a country starving and plagued with problems to be this country, and then become mistreated and despised by everyone. Well, no matter the hard work and aggravation of homesteading when they could finally have land and a place of their own. Regardless of the hardships, homesteaders were up for the challenge.
    I loved the part about the railroads destroyed by Yankees with their missing parts yet still on the map. Big surprise when your travel came to an abrupt end. ha ha
    Great article, E.

    1. Thanks, Sarah.

      The Yankees rebuilt the most important railroads first. But I never could find what made a railroad route important. Although I'm certain it had to be goods that the North needed.

      When you look at the names that populated the west, quite a few Irish took advantage of that land. And I'm fairly certain many worked their west by laying railroad tracks. The lure of free land must have been a golden carrot to those Irish who had nothing. Even a soddy must have felt like a castle.


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