Donation Land Claim Act of 1850

Webfoot Area DLC Boundary Map 2

Many of the settlers buried in the Odell Pioneer Cemetery were owners of land that they acquired as a part of the Donation Land Claim Act (also known as Oregon Donation Land Law) of 1850. What is a Donation Land Claim, and why is it an important part of the Odell Cemetery history?

In 1850, Congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 to encourage the American settlement of public lands in the Oregon Territory, free of charge, which consisted of the present-day states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. In 1843, the Oregon Provisional Government granted white male United States citizens to 320 acres of public lands; if they were married, their wife would be eligible to receive an additional 320 acres. In 1850, the Provisional Government reduced the size of the possible land grant to a total of 320 acres per married man, with the provision that the settlers cultivate and remain on the land for four years 2. The United States Congress legitimized the Oregon Provisional Government's land grants in the 1850 Donation Land Claim Act, following more or less the same requirements:

  • Must have arrived in Oregon Territory between 1 December 1850 and 1 Dec 1853;
  • Must be male;
  • Must be white or mixed-race Native American;
  • Must be above the age of 18 years old as of 1 Dec 1850;
  • Must be a United States Citizen, or declaring to become a US Citizen (declaration made prior to 1 Dec 1850);
  • Must reside on and cultivate the land (make improvements) for 4 years before the legal title to the land would be granted. 3

The Donation Land Claim Act was intended for the agricultural development and settlement of public lands. The size of the land claim depended on marital state as well as when he arrived in Oregon Territory; while a white married man who arrived on or before 1 Dec 1850 was entitled to 640 acres of public land (320 for him, and 320 for his wife), the same man who arrived after 1 Dec 1850 and 1 Dec 1853 was entitled to half of that amount. In addition, the minimum age eligibility was raised from 18 to 21 years of age for settlers who arrived after 1 Dec 1850. 4

In 1853, widows and heirs were afforded the rights to a deceased's land claim. Also, in lieu of the 4-years residency requirement, settlers could opt to pay for the land at $1.25 an acre after only 2 years. 5 In 1854, the law was further amended to reduce the previous residency and cultivation requirement from 4 years to 1 year. Also in 1854, land was no longer available for free; instead, it was available to purchase at the previously-established rate of $1.25 per acre, with a limit of 320 acres. The Donation Land Act officially expired in 1855, but the 1854 policy remained in place until the Homestead Act of 1862. 6

In Oregon, total of 7437 land grant patents were issued under the Donation Land Act of 1850. 7 Approximately 30,000 white emigrants arrived in Oregon Territory by 1855, settling 2.5 million acres of land. 8

Why is the Donation Land Claim Act relevant to the Odell Pioneer Cemetery?

Many of the pioneer families who emigrated to the Oregon Territory did so as a result of the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850. The vast majority of the people buried in the Odell Pioneer Cemetery either themselves were lured to Oregon due to the opportunity to acquire free land, or their parents did so.

Why would the settlers risk everything to emigrate to the Oregon Territory?

As each family's reasoning for making the journey to Oregon Territory was their own, the decisions to take on the 2100 mile trek are as diverse as the people. It was certainly an arduous journey; it is estimated that about 30,000 of the 350,000 people who began the journey died of disease alone. That doesn't factor in the deaths caused by: gunshot wounds; extreme and/or unexpected weather conditions; accidents such as drownings, crushings by wagon wheels, accidents with livestock; wild animal attacks; and, aggression from Native Americans. 9

We can make some assumptions as to the pioneer's motivation to emigrate, but of course, they are not verified and are purely a theoretical exercise:

  • Manifest Destiny

    It is difficult to ignore the concept of Manifest Destiny as a major motivating factor for many pioneers to settle in Oregon Territory. Manifest Destiny was the belief that the United States was destined by God to expand and spread democracy and capitalism across the west. After the signing of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 (which added the land from the Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountains to the United States), the annexation of Texas, and then the acquisition of the Oregon Territory from Great Britain in 1842, there was an overwhelmingly prevalent belief that it was a God-given right to American citizens to settle the West. 10

    It is unlikely that our settlers were immune to the extensive amount of propaganda newspaper articles, advertisements, and personal stories which glorified the riches of Oregon. John Odell, in a letter he sent to his brother-in-law who was contemplating moving to Oregon one year after the Odells, wrote in a letter that was published in the Delphi Weekly Times: 11

    "You ask me if I think we have bettered our condition, as to health and climate and the means of making a living. I think we have. In respect to making a living, a man can live here with one half the work he could in the States; for the reason, that the grass is green all Winter, and that cattle which is the principal part of the wealth of the country, can live without being fed through the winter."
  • Farming Families

    Most of the families who settled in the area around the Odell Pioneer Cemetery were farmers, and came from generations of farming families. This, of course, would make the offer large parcels of free fertile agricultural land extremely enticing.

  • Previous history of emigration

    Many families, including the Peerys, Odells, Cooverts, and Samuel Angell's family, had previously relocated from more established areas (such as Virginia, North and South Carolina) to the then-frontier states of Indiana and Kansas. It is not yet clear why these families moved from the established states to the frontier, as they were often successful farmers with vast holdings of land and property. Perhaps they wanted to escape the hold of the established government in those areas, perhaps they wanted a chance to expand their farms beyond what they family previously held, or perhaps they wanted to move to a new climate for health reasons. It is speculation, at this point, why these families had a history of moving to new, rural areas throughout the generations. Perhaps it was simply "in their blood".

  • Religion.

    The pioneers who settled near what became the Odell Pioneer Cemetery were devout Methodists. Jason Lee, one of the first Methodist missionaries to travel to Oregon Territory in 1833, founded a mission at French Prairie and later moved the site in 1841 to Mission Mill (in present-day Salem). 12 The proximity of Mission Mill to the Webfoot area is unlikely to be coincidental; there was already a strong community of Methodists in this part of the Willamette Valley that would have drawn the settlers to this area.

    The families who emigrated from Carroll County, Indiana, were extremely active in the Methodist religion. John and Sarah Odell were among a group (including Samuel Angell's parents) who organized a Methodist society in Deer Creek Township, Indiana, in November of 1826. 13 John Odell first built a schoolhouse where Methodist services were held, later building a larger church in its place. 14

    For John Odell, it certainly seems natural that he would be drawn to remote country where he could help spread Methodism; he did it once before when he moved first to Wayne County, and then Carroll County, Indiana. While it is unknown if this was the primary motive behind their move to Oregon, it likely contributed to their decision to make the move.

Without finding personal diaries or other documentation that includes the reasons why the pioneers made the journey to Oregon, understanding the political, economic, and social climate of the era helps us to put into context the possible rationale behind families undertaking such a risky and dangerous move to settle the west.