The Swamp Land Act of 1850 gave Arkansas the right to identify and sell millions of acres of overflowed and swamp lands in the public domain and to use the proceeds to finance internal improvements, principally levees and drainage ditches. Arkansas eventually acquired more than 8,600,000 acres of land through the Swamp Land Act. This grant of land was of enormous importance to the state at the time, but it had little permanent impact on the economic development of the state.
In the 1830s, planters and land developers began to move into Arkansas, attracted by the rich Mississippi Alluvial Plain bottomlands. The alluvial lands, however, were subject to seasonal overflows. In addition, much of the bottomland was swampland, described by land surveyors as “unfit for cultivation.” The amount of inundated land in Arkansas was variously estimated at between 500,000 and 10,000,000 acres, which, by 1836, was potentially prime cotton-growing land.
Local planters built levees and dug ditches to reclaim the inundated land. The state supported these efforts by passing legislation in 1840 authorizing county courts to assess landowners a tax, which was used to fund the construction of levees. Even so, local efforts were never enough to hold back the seasonal floods or to drain the swamps.
The states on the Mississippi River, including Arkansas, lobbied the federal government for assistance or compensation for land reclamation. Millions of acres of land in the public domain, they argued, were made saleable through the reclamation efforts of the states and local landowners without compensation from the federal government. The states argued that since the federal government benefitted from these local reclamation efforts, levees were not an internal improvement local in nature, but instead were of national significance.
Partly on the strength of this argument, partly on the knowledge that the overflowed lands could never be sold, and prodded to action by the flood of 1848, Congress passed the first of a series of Swamp Land Acts in 1849 when it donated to Louisiana the overflowed land within that state. Having set the precedent with Louisiana, the next year Congress donated “public lands remaining unsold, on account of overflow, in the State” to the state of Arkansas.
The Swamp Land Acts signaled the beginning of federal involvement in flood control and land reclamation. The Swamp Land Act of 1850 was of immediate benefit to Arkansas because it allowed the state to address the demands of its citizens for internal improvements. Between 1851 and 1860, land sales raised more than $2,500,000, which was used to build more than 13,165,000 cubic yards of levee.
But there were few lasting results from the sale of land and the construction of levees. To claim the swamp lands, the state first had to survey the land and submit its claims to the U.S. General Land Office. The vague definition of “swamp lands” led to claims for lands that were not swamp lands—claims that were ultimately rejected by the U.S. Land Office. Because Arkansas was selling lands before claims were settled with the Land Office, many parcels were the subject of confused or contested land titles.
The swamp land grant was administered by a Board of Swamp Land Commissioners appointed by the governor. The board was responsible for identifying the swamp lands, selling them, and using the proceeds for levee construction. The board is widely believed to have identified the best tracts of land for sale to state officials, and to have traded land at below market value to levee contractors in exchange for services rendered. To stem these abuses, the legislature created the office of the Commissioner of State Lands in 1868, an office still in place in the twenty-first century.
Many of the levees that were built were ultimately ineffectual, as they were built too close to the river and were poorly constructed. As the river changed course, it washed many of the levees into the river. During the Civil War, most of this levee work was destroyed by both Union and Confederate forces, or it deteriorated for want of attention. By 1869, the levees were in worse shape than they had been in 1858.
After the Civil War, large grants of land were given to the railroads as incentive to lay tracks and attract settlers. Between 1851 and 1879, all but 127,000 acres of swamp land were sold. After 1879, the remainder of the swamp lands was transferred to the levee districts that were created in response to the formation of the Mississippi River Commission.
For additional information:
Bolton, Charles S. Arkansas, 1800–1860: Remote and Restless. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998.
Harrison, Robert W., and Walter M. Kollmorgen. “Land Reclamation in Arkansas under the Swamp Land Grant of 1850.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 6 (Winter 1947): 369–418.
Mary C. Suter
University of Arkansas Museum Collections