Grover Cleveland

Letter to the Secretary of the Interior Concerning Settlement on Railroad Lands

April 28, 1887

Washington, D.C.. April 28, 1887.

Washington, D.C.:

DEAR SIR: I have examined with much care and interest the questions involved in the conflicting claim of Guilford Miller and the Northern Pacific Railroad Company to certain lands in Washington Territory. The legal aspects of the case have been examined and passed upon by several officers of the government, who do not agree in their conclusions.

Miller claims to be a settler upon the land in question, whose possession dates from 1878. He alleges that he has made substantial improvements upon this land and cultivated the same; and it appears that he filed his claim to the same under the homestead law on the 29th day of December, 1884.

The railroad company contends that this land is within the territory or area from which it was entitled to select such a quantity of public land as might be necessary to supply any deficiency that shall be found to exist in the specified land mentioned in a grant by the government to said company in aid of the construction of its road, such deficiency being contemplated as likely to arise from the paramount right of private parties and settlers within the territory embracing said granted lands, and that the land in dispute was thus selected by the company on the 19th day of December, 1883.

A large tract, including this land, was withdrawn by an order of the Interior Department from sale and from pre-emption and homestead entry in 1872 in anticipation of the construction of said railroad and a deficiency in its granted lands. In 1880, upon the filing of a map of definite location, the land in controversy—and much more, which bad been so withdrawn—was found to lie outside of the limits which included the granted land; but its withdrawal and reservation from settlement and entry under our land laws was continued upon the theory that it was within the limits of indemnity lands which might be selected by the company as provided in the law making the grant.

The legal points in the controversy turned upon the validity and effect of the withdrawal and reservation of this land and the continuance thereof. The Attorney-General is of the opinion that such withdrawal and reservation were at all times effectual, and that they operated to prevent Miller from acquiring any interest in or right to the land claimed by him.

With this interpretation of the law and the former orders and action of the Interior Department, it will be seen that their effect has been the withdrawal and reservation since 1872 of thousands, if not millions, of acres of these lands from the operation of the land laws of the United States, thus placing them beyond the reach of our citizens desiring under such laws to settle and make homes upon the same, and that this has been done for the benefit of a railroad company having no fixed, certain, or definite interests in such lands. In this manner the beneficent policy and intention of the government in relation to the public domain have for all these years to that extent been thwarted. There seems to be no evidence presented showing how much, if any, of this vast tract is necessary for the fulfillment of the grant to the railroad company ; nor does there appear to be any limitation of the time within which this fact should be made known and the corporation obliged to make its selection. After a lapse of fifteen years this large body of the public domain is still held in reserve, to the exclusion of settlers, for the convenience of a corporation beneficiary of the government, and awaiting its selection, though it is entirely certain that much of this reserved land can never be honestly claimed by said corporation.

Such a condition of the public lauds should no longer continue. So far as it is the result of executive rules and methods these should be abandoned; and so far as it is a consequent of improvident laws, these should be repealed or amended. Our public domain is our national wealth, the earnest of growth and the heritage of our people. In the case under consideration I assume that there is an abundance of land within the area that has been reserved for indemnity, in which no citizen or settler has a legal or equitable interest, for all purposes of such indemnification to this railroad company if its grant has not already been satisfied. I understand, too, that selections made by such corporation are not complete and effectual until the same have been approved by the Secretary of the Interior, or unless they are made, in the words of the statute, under his direction.

You have thus far taken no action in this matter, and it seems to me that you are in a condition to deal with the subject in such a manner as to protect this settler from hardship and loss.

I transmit herewith the papers and documents relating to the case, which were submitted to me at my request. I suggest that you exercise the power and authority you have in the premises upon equitable considerations, with every presumption and intendment in favor of the settler, and in case you find this corporation is entitled to select any more of these lands than it has already acquired, that you direct it to select, in lieu of the land upon which Mr. Miller has settled, other land within the limits of this indemnity reservation, upon which neither he nor any other citizen has in good faith settled or made improvements.

I call your attention to sections 2450 and 2451 of the Revised Statutes of the United States, as pointing out a mode of procedure which may perhaps be resorted to, if necessary, for the purpose of reaching a just and equitable disposition of the case.

The suggestion herein contained can, I believe, be adopted without disregarding or calling in question the opinion of the Attorney-General upon the purely legal propositions which were submitted to him.

Yours, very truly,



On May 23, 1887, carrying out the views of the President, you entered a rule upon the several railroad and wagon-road companies for whose benefit withdrawals of indemnity lands were then existing to show cause why the orders of withdrawal should not be revoked and the lands covered thereby restored to the public domain.

On August 13, 15, and 17, 1887, after hearing argument by attorneys of various interested companies, you revoked the indemnity withdrawals of twenty-two railroads and two wagon roads, and directed that the lands embraced therein be restored to the public domain and opened to settlement under the general land laws.

The necessary instructions for the restoration of the lands affected by these orders have been issued by this office to the registers and receivers of the proper land districts.

As the result of the foregoing upwards of twenty-one million acres of public land have thus far been released from reservation for the benefit of railroad and wagon-road corporations and opened to public entry under the settlement laws of the United States.

A tabular statement, showing the names of the roads affected by said orders, the location of the lands, and the number of acres restored, will be found in the miscellaneous pages accompanying this report.

Grover Cleveland, Letter to the Secretary of the Interior Concerning Settlement on Railroad Lands Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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