Mar 182013
 
Mercer County - Preemption Act

March 12 appears to be a good day to think about our history as settlers. Not as people who are willing to settle, but as a people who seek adventure and are willing to settle uncharted land. In 1664, the first “naturalization” act was passed. I was unable to find the text of that act. If you have any idea where I can find it, please pass it along. However, I learned a great deal during my quest to find that document. 

As people began to travel to established colonies, they may or may not have been subjects of the country that laid claim to the land. Several attempts to form colonies, for example the settlement of Florida by the Spanish, failed. The founding of each colony has its own fascinating twists and turns, but more about that in future posts. As more and more of the colonies fell under British rule, it was decidedly an advantage to be a British subject. Many rights, in the early years of settlement, hinged upon loyalty to the Crown. Of course, ultimately, it was British citizens themselves who led the revolt because they felt their rights as free born Englishmen were being trampled. 

During the early settlement period it was possible to become “naturalized.” Prior to 1700, the highest legal status could be purchased from Parliament for approximately 50 pounds. Parliament would not entertain applications from Catholics, non-Christians, and others deemed unworthy of such subjectship. Denization, a lessor form of citizenship, was available for those who did not qualify or could not pay the hefty price. While those who were denizens could own land, they could not vote. It is interesting to note how valuable the right to vote was once considered, in comparison to the number of American citizens who feel their vote is meaningless choose not to exercise that right….. Due to hardships that existed in the early days of the American colonies, many settlers did not seek to become naturalized at all. As settlers increasingly arrived from other countries, the colonies developed naturalization policies outside of those sanctioned by the British government However, those settlers continued to not enjoy many of the rights held by British subjects. 

Now, let’s jump to the mid-1800’s. There was another type of settlement going on…settlement of the Western Territories. Once again, people who settled in these lands were not necessarily interested in adhering to rules and regulations set forth by the government. Although the Federal Government attempted to auction off land, settlers often “squatted” on property before it could be surveyed and legally auctioned. Congress began passing legislation that would address the issue. Those acts allowed the squatters to legally purchase the land they had settled. In 1841, Congress passed the Preemption Act that gave anyone who resided on a piece for property, no larger than 160 acres and for at least 14 months, the opportunity to purchase the land for twenty-five cents per acre before it could be publicly auctioned. The attached image is a map describing how Mercer County, Illinois was divided using the this principle. Searching court records reveals there were hundreds of cases relating to who settled land first, whether people could settle on specific types of land (e.g., school property), and whether or not companies had actually settled land as they claimed. The Preemption Act was eventually replaced by the Homestead Act

Immigration and naturalization in the American colonies is a fascinating subject. I will pass along more information about the history of said policies in the future. What did I learn from my first look at the subject? Although we are a land of immigrants, the issue of immigration and the rights of immigrants has never been simple

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