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Land and law in the age of enterprise: A legal history of railroad land grants in the Pacific Northwest, 1864-1916

Sean M Kammer, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Federal land subsidies to railroad corporations comprised an important part of the federal government’s policies towards its western land domain in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. In all, Congress granted over a hundred million acres to railroad corporations to subsidize construction of a transcontinental railway network. Long after the last such grant in 1871, these land grants continued to incite political contests in Congress and state legislatures and legal disputes in communities across the West. By the end of the century, railroad corporations had become manifestations not just of the threatening growth of corporate power in the United States, but also of the official governmental approach to public lands, the failed and corrupt implementation of that approach, and the apparent threat of resource depletion that resulted. Through its examination of the Northern Pacific’s land records, administrative and judicial opinions relating to public lands, and the transcripts of key cases involving land grants, this dissertation makes significant contributions to the historiographies of railroads, of federal land policies, and of the Progressive conservation movement. It treats the relationship between the government and railroad corporations not as one between regulator and regulated, but rather as one between co-managers of the nation’s resources and economy, and as one in which the legal boundaries of authority were uncertain. Most importantly, though, this dissertation provides insights into the failures of lawmakers and policymakers to standardize and categorize the social and physical worlds they governed. Legal conflicts, including those involving railroad corporations, ultimately exposed contradictions at the heart of the American legal order. These included contradictions between the promotion of individualism and the protection of community order; between notions that land should be owned by as many people as possible for the sake of building a virtuous, fair society and a belief that land should be commodified and exploited for sake of economic growth; and between characterizations of property as bastions of protection from the State and the use of property as a tool of the State in acquiring and maintaining power. Each of these contradictions can be negotiated but never resolved.

Subject Area

American history|Law

Recommended Citation

Kammer, Sean M, "Land and law in the age of enterprise: A legal history of railroad land grants in the Pacific Northwest, 1864-1916" (2015). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3714915.