Navigation Menu+

land office

An office in which the sales of new land are registered, and warrants issued for the location of land, and other business representing the public lands is transacted. — Webster, 1882

“The Land Office was a one story board structure with a false square front, common in those days. Not even painted. The town of Yankton was new and crude. The official in charge was called the Land Agent. Clerks waited on applicants, showing the sectional map, on the counter behind which they stood. Any quarter section not marked x was still open to entry and could be filed on. A man ‘filed a claim’ on a homestead or tree claim and got his ‘first papers’ on it. I never saw those papers and neither Manly nor I can remember what they were called legally. They were always spoken of as first papers. There was no especial crowd when Manly filed, just a few men standing around in the rather bare office. I am using a mob scene at the land office when Pa files the next spring, so please don’t use that.” – 1937 letter from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Rose Wilder Lane

Provisions were made for the establishment of Dakota Territory land offices in March 1861 [Laws of Dakota, Volume 12, p. 239]:

“Sec. 18. And be it further enacted, That so much of the public lands of the United States in the Territory of Dakota, west of its eastern boundary and east and north of the Niobrara, or Running Water River, be formed into a land district, to be called the Yancton (Yankton) district, at such time as the President may direct, the land office for which shall be located at such point as the President may direct, and shall be removed from time to time to other points within said district whenever, in his opinion, it may be expedient.

“Sec. 19. And be it further enacted, That the President be, and he is hereby, authorized to appoint, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, a register and receiver for said district, who shall respectively be required to reside at the site of said office, and who shall have the same powers, perform the same duties, and be entitled to the same compensation, as are or may be prescribed by law in relation to other land offices of the United States.”

The first land office to open in Dakota Territory was located at Vermillion, opening July 16, 1862, with J.M. Allen (Register) and Mahlon Wilkinson (Receiver). Allen and Wilkerson owned The Republican, one of two newspapers in Dakota Territory at the time. The Vermillion office remained open until 1873. Other South Dakota land offices included Springfield (1870-1879), Sioux Falls (1873-1879), Yankton (1872-1893), Watertown (1879-1907), Mitchell (1880-1909), Huron (1882-1908), Aberdeen (1882-1911), Rapid City (1889-1925), Chamberlain (1890- 1913), Pierre (1890- 1948), Lemmon (1908-22), Gregory (1909-22), Belle Fourche (1909-25), and Timber Lake (1911-18). In each case, the earlier year is when authorized, so the date the office opened may have been the following year. For example, Watertown Land Office was authorized on April 5, 1879, but it didn’t open for business until May 1, 1880. — Report of the Commissioner of the General Land Office (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1906), 56.

Charles Ingalls’ Dakota Territory Homestead Filing. Although Laura Ingalls Wilder only mentions land offices in connection with the De Smet Little House books, Charles Ingalls had previously filed on claims in Minnesota through the land office at New Ulm. In By the Shores of Silver Lake (see Chapter 25, “Pa’s Bet”), Wilder writes that Pa goes to Brookings to file his claim, yet there was no land office in Brookings. By law, a claimant could “file before the clerk of the county court in cases where the family of the applicant, or some member thereof, is actually residing on the land which he desired to enter, or when he is prevented of appearing at the land office by reason of distance, bodily infirmity, or other good cause, from personal attendance at the district land office.” — Resources of Dakota: An Official Publication Compiled by the Commissioner of Immigration (Sioux Falls: Argus-Leader Company, Printers, 1887), 283.

Charles Ingalls’ homestead – NE 1/4, Sec. 3, T.110N, R.56W, 5th P.M. – was located in the Yankton land district at the time of his first filing on February 19, 1880, but he filed before Kingsbury County government had been organized and the position of Clerk of Courts had been filled; J. H. Carroll was appointed in March 1880. For legal purposes, Kingsbury County was attached to Brookings County for judicial purposes at this time. Most (but not all!) of the pages of Ingalls’ homestead file are online HERE. In documents numbered online as 16 & 17 (also shown below), note that the blanks were printed by George Hopp (editor of the Brookings County Press). The word “Land” (as in Land Office) on document 16 is crossed out, as the filing wasn’t made at the land office. Owing to the great distance of the United States Land Office at Yankton from his claim, as well as the fact that Kingsbury County wasn’t organized,” Ingalls appeared before William H. Skinner, Clerk of District Court. Skinner forwarded the documents to George Wetter (Register at the Yankton Land Office) and Lott S. Bayless (Receiver at the Yankton Land Office) recorded the claim filing.

From Charles Ingalls’ claim file: first filing documents submitted before the Clerk of Courts in Brookings and forwarded to the Land Office in Yankton.

Although Wilder wrote a harrowing tale of Pa’s effort to file at the crowded and violent land office, that doesn’t seem to have been the case. The entire population of Kingsbury County at the time Pa filed was said to be 50 residents. Kingsbury County contains 553,000 acres of land, in 24 survey townships. For the 6 survey townships surrounding De Smet, I located on a map all claims filed on prior to when Charles Ingalls filed on his homestead in February 1880. Those 6 townships contained 864 possible quarter-section claims (not excluding school sections and the lakes). At the time Charles Ingalls filed, there had been 157 tree claim filings (remember that tree claims didn’t require residency, and many were taken as speculation claims, changing hands one to five times before patent was issued), 88 homestead filings, 4 preemption filings, and 1 parcel of scrip (which included the De Smet townsite). After the railroad reached De Smet in May 1880, there was naturally an increase in filing because settlers were then able to ship carloads of goods.

Map showing location of tree claims (green), homesteads (red), preemption claims (blue), and scrip land (purple) filed on before Charles Ingalls first filed on his homestead.

Land Agent. In The Long Winter, Chapter 10, “Three Days’ Blizzard,” Wilder tells the story of Almanzo Wilder, who she says filed on his homestead at age nineteen (the legal age was twenty-one) by telling the land agent to “put him down as over twenty-one), winking to imply that he is telling a falsehood. Almanzo did file on his claim in person at the Yankton Land Office, and based on his ages reported in census data over the years, it’s entirely possible that he intentionally made a fraudulent claim filing. There are recorded tales of young men who were younger than 21 but who wrote the number “21” on the sole of their boot, thereby justifying the statement that they were “over 21,” because they were literally standing over the number.

land agent (TLW 10)
land office / Land Office (SSL 22, 25; THGY 20; PG)
land office business (SSL 26) – Prosperous, thriving, lucrative, busy. The term alludes to the throng of applicants at land offices to file on government land.