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O. Henry's 1900 story, "Georgia's Ruling", http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/ohenry/bl-ohenry-georgia.htm describes a dire social problem related to the USA land laws and the "land sharks":

When the state was young, she felt the need of attract- ing newcomers, and of rewarding those pioneers already within her borders. Year after year she issued land scrip -- Headrights, Bounties, Veteran Donations, Confeder- ates; and to railroads, irrigation companies, colonies, and tillers of the soil galore. All required of the grantee was that he or it should have the scrip properly surveyed upon the public domain by the county or district surveyor, and the land thus appropriated became the property of him or it, or his or its heirs and assigns, forever.

In those days -- and here is where the trouble began - the state's domain was practically inexhaustible, and the old surveyors, with princely -- yea, even Western American -- liberality, gave good measure and over- flowing. Often the jovial man of metes and bounds would dispense altogether with the tripod and chain. Mounted on a pony that could cover something near a "vara" at a step, with a pocket compass to direct his course, he would trot out a survey by counting the beat of his pony's hoofs, mark his corners, and write out his field notes with the complacency produced by an act of duty well performed. Sometimes -- and who could blame the surveyor? -- when the pony was "feeling his oats," he might step a little higher and farther, and in that case the beneficiary of the scrip might get a thousand or two more acres in his survey than the scrip called for. But look at the boundless leagues the state had to spare! However, no one ever had to complain of the pony under- stepping. Nearly every old survey in the state con- tained an excess of land.

In later years, when the state became more populous, and land values increased, this careless work entailed incalculable trouble, endless litigation, a period of riotous land-grabbing, and no little bloodshed. The land- sharks voraciously attacked these excesses in the old surveys, and filed upon such portions with new scrip as unappropriated public domain. Wherever the identi- fications of the old tracts were vague, and the corners were not to be clearly established, the Land Office would recognize the newer locations as valid, and issue title to the locators. Here was the greatest hardship to be found. These old surveys, taken from the pick of the land, were already nearly all occupied by unsuspecting and peaceful settlers, and thus their titles were demolished, and the choice was placed before them either to buy their land over at a double price or to vacate it, with their families and personal belongings, immediately. Land locators sprang up by hundreds. The country was held up and searched for "vacancies" at the point of a compass. Hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of splendid acres were wrested from their innocent purchasers and holders. There began a vast hegira of evicted settlers in tattered wagons; going nowhere, cursing injustice, stunned, purposeless, homeless, hopeless. Their children began to look up to them for bread, and cry.

Does this actually describe the historic reality?

On one hand, it is known that O. Henry worked as a draftsman in the general land office in Texas, so he probably had profound knowledge about the USA land laws.

On the other hand, the situation he describes is so convoluted, that I find it hard to believe it really existed.

Any information on this subject will be appreciated!

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

This is a very interesting question. I tried to track down references to this phenomenon and so far I found one, in a book by Caroline Kirkland: here on p.13 in a story called Land Fever a character says "Well! you're a land-shark, then - swallowin' poor men's farms." Seems like O. Henry was describing a fairly common occurence.

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Thank you, this is a fascinating story, timed to 1835-1836, which seems to be a witness to that land-sharkism. – Erel Segal-Halevi Jan 6 '13 at 6:38

Speaking as a resident of a neighboring state (which had its own land issues), while this was perhaps entertainingly phrased, nothing in there sounds at all unlikely or outlandish. Assuming (which I think is safe) that his "vast hegira" happened piecemeal rather than all at once, I find nothing whatsoever in there difficult to believe.

What is left is an entertaining exposition on the prevalence of endemic surveying errors (and the ability of the rich/well-connected to get such errors resolved in their favor). This most certainly was the case in eighteenth and nineteenth century America, not only on the local level, but even as regards to state boundaries.

The book How the States Got their Shapes goes into this in detail. If you ever wondered about the odd little straight-edge bends some state boundaries have (see Alabama), more often than not a surveying error was involved somewhere. Just thumbing through the first third of the book, I found surveying errors having a hand in the modern borders between five pairs of states, and out and out corruption probably involved in two. The border between Iowa and Missouri was particularly interesting, in that it involved both.

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Interesting, thanks! The obvious question is, then, how was this problem finally resolved? O. Henry tells about a fantastic event that lead to a ruling that became a precedent - but this is probably fiction, so what has actually happened? – Erel Segal-Halevi Jan 4 '13 at 6:52
@ErelSegalHalevi: That's a follow-up question :) – Felix Goldberg Jan 4 '13 at 12:09

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