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school section

160 acres of public land set apart in a surveyed township by the United States government for the support of common schools.

…Manly had a homestead proven up on and a tree claim on which he was growing the 5 acres of trees required by law to get title (3405 trees planted about 8 feet apart each way), 160 acres each claim, a school section between where any one could cut the hay, first come, first served. -manuscript, The First Three Years

The only Little House book in which Laura Ingalls Wilder mentions school sections is in her posthumously published The First Four Years, where she says that a school section lay between Almanzo’s homestead (which had already been proven up on) and his tree claim (where they lived when first married), and that anyone could cut the hay on the school section, first come, first served. The school section was also where Almanzo and Peter Ingalls (Laura’s cousin) let graze the flock of sheep purchased with Laura’s salary from teaching in the Wilkin School. Wilder didn’t feel the need to explain what a school section was in her manuscript, but had she edited and published her First Three Years manuscript during her lifetime, she might have thought it necessary to explain to her readers exactly what a school section was.

The U.S. Land Ordinance of 1785 was set forth the rules by which public lands in the Western territory would be disposed of. The land was first surveyed into townships of six miles square, containing 36 sections of land each one mile square. The ordinance decreed how sections would be numbered, and that “there shall be reserved the lot [section] 16 of every township, for the maintenance of public schools within the said township.” In 1848, Section 36 was added as a school section in each township, making two sections per township set aside for the benefit of schools. A school section was never intended to be where a school house was built; rather, the individual state or territory decided how the school section(s) in their state or territory was to be used as well as how and when they would be disposed of (sold). Each state/territory in which Laura Ingalls Wilder lived and wrote about in the Little House books – Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, and Dakota Territory – handled school sections differently.

Kingsbury County, Dakota Territory / South Dakota. Although it was against the law to cultivate, harvest minerals, remove timber, build, or settle on school sections when the Wilders were living on Almanzo’s tree claim (in Section 9, outlined on the map in green) or homestead (in Section 21, outlined in red), authorities tended to ignore the law when residents from sections adjoining the school section (in this case, Section 16 lay between Almanzo’s claims) pastured animals on or harvested native grasses on the school section. Local newspapers frequently announced who was cutting hay on a school section or warned readers not to remove the haystacks someone had left there to haul home later. The assumption was that when school lands were sold, they would likely be purchased by a farmer whose land joined the school section so that he might increase his holdings, and they would act as a steward of the land in the meantime. It wasn’t the practice to prosecute bona fide settlers unless destruction to school land was severe.

Under Dakota Territory laws, school lands were granted for educational purposes and could only be disposed of at public sale after statehood at a price of at least $10 per acre or the appraised value if higher, with the proceeds constituting a permanent school fund, the interest of which could only be used in the support of schools. One section of school land could be leased for periods of up to five years by one person or company, but no school lands leases have been located prior to statehood for Kingsbury County.

Unfortunately, if Almanzo Wilder had any plans to someday purchase school section land and link his two claims into a much larger farm, due to illness and other hardships, he was unable to do so. He sold his homestead in 1888; South Dakota became a state the following year. Meanwhile, the trees on his tree claim failed to thrive and he was forced to relinquish his claim, but he held onto the land by immediately filing on it as a preemption, giving him time in which to pay for the land. In September 1891, Almanzo sold his preemption to Dakota Loan & Investment Company for the same amount he paid for it: $200.

After statehood, school sections in Kingsbury County were first offered for rent to the highest bidder by the Superintendent of Schools on the courthouse steps; rental records were forwarded to the Commissioner of School and Public Lands. O.H. Parker of Brookings served as Commissioner from 1889-1891. Banker Thomas H. Ruth of De Smet served as South Dakota’s second Commissioner of School and Public Lands from 1891-1895. The notice he had printed and displayed in De Smet shows that he wasn’t as lenient about “first come, first served” haying on school sections!

In 1890, Superintendent Rollin Gleason fixed the minimum rental price at two and a half cents per acre for a one year lease, noting that at that price about $800 would be added to the school fund that year. Quarter sections in Section 16 between Almanzo’s claims were rented for $4.40 each per year, with John Armstrong renting the entire section for $17.60 for one year. Armstrong was in the stock-raising business and divided his time between Ontario, Canada, and De Smet. His nephew – also named John Armstrong – is mentioned in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Road Back” diary and published in A Little House Traveler (2006).

Redwood County, Minnesota. The Organic Act of March 1849 that established Minnesota Territory reserved sections 16 and 36 in each township for the support of schools. The March 1861 session laws provided in detail for the appraisal, sale, and leasing of school lands and how the income was to be invested, with the records to be overseen by a State Board of Commissioners of School Lands. In 1863, the revised laws allowed for the sale of pine timber on school lands, and in Redwood County during the Little House years, it was illegal for settlers to remove any trees from school sections for personal use.

When the Ingallses were living in North Hero Township from 1873-1876 and upon their return to Walnut Grove in 1877, there had been no school lands leased or sold in Redwood County. Some nearby counties began selling school land in 1876, but the grasshopper years had left settlers low on cash, with farmers barely having enough wheat for bread and seed, and no money for additional land, according to the Redwood Gazette in October 1876. In March 1878, the State Auditor appointed D.L. Bingham and George Belt to appraise all school lands in Redwood County, with the sale of school section land advertised to begin on Monday, May 13, 1878, at the courthouse in Redwood Falls, with bidding for each quarter section starting at the appraised price. Fifteen percent of the purchase money and interest at 7% was due in cash at the date of sale, with the rest paid in full or in annual installments up to twenty years from the date of sale. The sale price of each parcel wasn’t recorded in the Redwood Falls newspaper, but the school section nearest Walnut Station (Section 36 in Springdale Township, which was two miles south of Walnut Station) was said to bring the highest price of any land sold on that date. The minimum price of school land by law was $5 per acre.

Redwood County school land records are part of the 23 reels of microfilm of 45 volumes of records dating from 1863-1942 archived at Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, including school land sales deeds and patents. Could Charles Ingalls have purchased school land in Redwood County? It’s doubtful, as he still had possession of a tree claim in Redwood County when the Ingallses returned to Redwood County from Burr Oak, Iowa, and didn’t relinquish it prior to the family’s move to Dakota Territory in 1879.

Pepin County, Wisconsin. School land sales didn’t affect the Ingallses when living in Pepin County. Only Section 16 had been reserved for the benefit of schools, and in the 1850 when patents were first being issued through the early homesteading years, no school sections had been sold.

Osage Diminished Reserve, Montgomery County, Kansas. Sections 16 and 36 had been set aside for the benefit of schools in Kansas, and the control of school sections by the state once Osage land in Montgomery County was ceded, surveyed, and open to legal settlement was an important part of treaty negotiations. Because Charles Ingalls was a squatter on land not open for settlement, the land had not been surveyed, and there was no easy way for the Ingallses to know what section they built their log cabin on until it was surveyed. Depending on how close to section or quarter section lines the cabin had been built, it might turn out that Ingalls’ cabin, barn, and garden were all in different sections!

The Ingallses had been in Montgomery County about a year when the land they occupied was surveyed, and they were found to have built on a school section (if one accepts Margaret Clement’s research pinpointing the location of the cabin on the SW 36-33S-14E, because a hand-dug well was on the SW 36 in the 1920s). Under Kansas law, this meant that Charles Ingalls would have to pay the appraised price of $3 per acre for land in Section 36, money he didn’t have. Click HERE to read more about the sale of school lands on the Osage Diminished Reserve.


school section (FFY years 1, 3, 4), see also Sale of School Lands on the Osage Diminished Reserve