Family History: the Basics – What are Donation Land Claims?

A donation land claim (DLC) was a mile square, 640 acres (2.6 km2) that was given by the U.S. government to settlers who met specific criteria.


Starting in 1810 and into the 1830s, the EuroAmerican population was mostly a small number of fur trappers and missionaries, who lived in conjunction with the Native tribes. The territory was held jointly by the United States and Great Britain. In order to lay exclusive claim to the Oregon Country before the British did, Congress passed the Distribution-Preemption Act of 1841 to encourage settlement by US citizens. The Act recognized squatters’ rights and allowed settlers to purchase 160 acres in the Oregon Territory for $1.25 per acre if they lived on it for fourteen months.

in 1843 at Champoeg, non-Native settlers in the Willamette Valley established a provincial government and chose to join the United States.  With this new government, the settlers were able to claim up to 640 acres for just occupying the land for four years.  The Native tribes were not part of the decision or vote and no treaties were signed with regard to the ownership of the land.

In 1846, a boundary treaty with Great Britain was accomplished giving the United States claim to the territory south of the 49th parallel.  When the Oregon Territory became official on August 14, 1848, the land grants made by the provincial government were declared void because there had been British subjects on the provisional government board.

The Territory’s first Congressional Representative, Samuel Royal Thurston (1816-1851), undertook the reestablishment of property rights as his first issue.  He wrote the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 to make the provisional government’s land claims legal and to make land grants to new settlers. It also established the office of the Surveyor-General of Public Lands in order to lay out the claims.


 The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 (Donation Land Act) was established on September 27, 1850 by the 31st U.S. Congress to encourage settlement in the Oregon Territory. It took effect on that day.  It expired in 1855 after issuing 7,437 land patents. Unfortunately, Native American ownership of the land was not recognized when it was given away.

A white, male citizen over eighteen years of age could be granted 320 acres, a half square mile. If married before December 1, 1851, a couple could qualify for the 640 acres. Husbands and wives each owned half of the total grant under their own names. It was one of the first U.S. laws to allow women to hold property.  A large number of marriages took place that year. 

It was available to whites or Native Americans who were descendants of whites. Native Americans were not considered citizens unless they were of mixed heritage.

The law required claimants to live on and work the land for four consecutive years before legally claiming ownership.  The four years could be counted retroactively. They were given a certificate giving them immediate ownership once the land was occupied.

To be eligible, the claimants had to have lived in the Oregon Territory prior to December 1, 1850.

In 1853, the Act was extended to those who arrived in the Oregon Territory after the December 1, 1850 deadline and before December 1, 1853, but they were granted half the amount of land, 160 acres for single male citizens and 320 for married couples. Then it was amended to include those who came to the Territory by 1855 and again the claims were half the original size. The law expired on December 1, 1855.  After that, the available land cost $1.25 an acre ($3.09/hectare) and was limited to 320 acres in any one claim. This policy continued until the establishment of the 1862 Homestead Act.


The claims were processed in Oregon City at the federal land office. Oregon City was the seat of government for the Oregon Territory. [It was the office that processed the patent granted for the plat of the city of San Francisco.  The paperwork had to be delivered by ship up the coast from California.]

By 1856, over 7000 settlers had acquired more than 2.5 million acres, mostly in the Willamette, Umpqua, and Rogue river valleys.

The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 created the office of Surveyor General of Public Lands for Oregon to survey the claims. In order to define the survey, the Willamette Meridian was established as a reference line. On June 4, 1851, the first Surveyor General, John B. Preston, drove a stake into the ground to mark the initial point, or origin, of the Willamette Meridian. An obelisk marks the spot, the Willamette Stone.  It is four miles west of what is now downtown Portland. The Stone is in Portland’s West Hills at 185 NW Skyline Boulevard, Willamette Stone State Heritage Park.

The plaque reads, “Beginning here, the Willamette Meridian was established running north to Puget Sound and south to the California border, and the baseline was established running east to the Idaho border and west to the Pacific Ocean. From these surveyed lines, the lands of the Northwest were divided into townships six miles square beginning at the west baseline numbering north or south and given a range beginning at the Willamette Meridian numbering east and west. Each full township is divided into 36 sections of land 1 mile square which are numbered starting at the northeast corner of each.”


In 1862, Congress passed the first Homestead Act to promote settlement of the Great Plains but it also applied to Oregon. Our family donation land claims were established by our earliest Oregon settlers. In later years, other family members established homesteads. For example, Henry and Sylva Hewitt Kerr homesteaded in 1929.

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