During the early English settlement period in North America, did settlers buy their land from the government, or did they simply find some land and build a home there?

To be more specific, I'm looking at

  • the period from, say, Roanoke to the French and Indian War
  • organized colonial areas like the Massachusetts Bay Colony or Virginia
  • 1
    What did your preliminary research show?
    – MCW
    Jan 15, 2018 at 12:29
  • 1
    @MarkC.Wallace, after 3 1/2 years since I asked this question, I don't recall exactly which facts I had learned before asking it and which since.
    – Joe
    Jan 20, 2018 at 17:33

3 Answers 3


In the pre-1760 period, most land was settled by squatting, but in some cases it was bought from the natives. The colonial government did not sell land to any great extent. In general, the colonial government was trying to encourage people just to come to the colony, which in itself was extremely expensive. The last thing they wanted to do was anything that would discourage them, like charge them for land.

The main point of contention in the early days was between adjoining farms. The general rule was that you owned any land you could surround with a stone wall three feet high. For this reason, if you drive around New England today, you will see drystone walls everywhere. They are the remnants of property stakes.

  • What changed in 1760?
    – Joe
    Sep 14, 2014 at 17:57
  • 3
    Nothing, that was your time limit, the French and Indian War. Land started to get sold by the US government after 1792. By about 1810-1815 land sales and speculation were widespread. Sep 14, 2014 at 18:51
  • 1
    in fact it wasn't unheard of for the government to provide settlers with free land if only they'd move to that area...
    – jwenting
    Sep 17, 2014 at 6:45
  • 1
    @TylerDurden: though squatting occurred beyond the frontier, most land was either purchased, or granted by the colonial government or Proprietors. Private individuals were not permitted to purchase land from the Indians. Jun 10, 2016 at 23:01
  • 5
    The ubiquitous fieldstone walls in New England may have had some use in showing property claims, but their main purpose was entirely practical: the soil was incredibly stony, so farmers had to put the stones their plows kept turning up somewhere. Building walls around their fields was an easy way to get rid of them.
    – Mark
    Jan 16, 2018 at 2:25

The accepted answer is entirely untrue. The headright system, where you got land for just showing up and paying your way across the ocean, was abolished long before the 1760s. Even in the 1600s, you had to get land legally from SOMEONE. You could get a large grant directly from a king or a company and then bring people in to settle the land. Those people would, 99% of the time, be purchasing land. Even under headright, you only got your 50 acres for free. The rest you had to buy, either by purchasing it outright or paying someone else's way across. Even when squatters came in to large areas of land, chances were they had to pay for it eventually, even if at a reduced price. There was very little land that was simply free to anyone who would improve it, ever, in the history of the country. Land speculation by absentee landlords drove up prices so badly in the 1700s that there was already a large mass of landless tenant farmers before the Revolutionary War. Part of the reason the Appalachians filled up quickly, including areas with pretty bad land, was because it was the only land that people could still buy affordably by the early 1800s. That's why there was a huge rush of settlers to the cheap railroad lands, as well as the famous '49ers going West. Land hunger on the East coast was extreme by that point. It wasn't until the West was completely opened that there was a major price correction.

  • 10
    Sources to support your assertions would greatly improve your answer. Jan 15, 2018 at 12:02

It is my impression that the government of the Pennsylvania colony had land agents and sold land.

I suggest that anyone interested who lives in one of the thirteen English colonies trace the history of his house from owner to owner and sale to sale as far back as he can, and perhaps he will find a sale from the colonial government.

  • 2
    you are correct - the Proprietors owned all of the land granted by the original charter, and those lands purchased by treaty from the Indians. Some was granted to immigrants, and other lands sold. Squatting also occurs. See hsp.org/collections/catalogs-research-tools/subject-guides/… for many details. All British colonies have similar, but differing systems. Federal land sales start about 1792, in frontier areas. Jun 10, 2016 at 22:56

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