On the Challenge and Promise of Understanding Historical Development Through Publicly-recorded Property Institutions

Historical political economy research demands thorough interrogation of data with respect to its underlying meaning given the specific context under which the data was recorded – seemingly obvious public dates may not indicate what they seem to upon first blush! Land patent dates from the 19th Century US frontier west, which are now widely available, indicate legal tenure security, but do not fully characterize the claim process and therefore can mask underlying development forces. For instance, in several frontier contexts, land patents issued later than appropriated water rights on the same parcel. But the history of the US West itself provides a way to understand this statistical shortcoming as a historical political economy question, which can mitigate some of the oversights the patent dates may themselves have. Grounded in sound economic and political theory, as well as a deep familiarity with a given historical period, careful use of public data from multiple sources can thus reveal deeper insights about processes of development occurring long ago. Natural resource institutions were central to the development of the US West during the 19th century, which thus makes the empirical palette much richer than it might initially appear. First, the date that title issued to a particular natural resource class can be used along other recorded data to reveal important frontier development dynamics, and the specific context can result in preferable identification for data from one resource class as compared to another. Second, the complementarity of natural resources to frontier development suggests examining claims to distinct natural resources in conjunction with one another may reveal patterns of development that a single data source conceals. By first exploring institutional dynamics within natural resource classes, and then complementarities among these resource classes, this paints a more complete picture of local development which can then be used to get at deeper questions of persistence over time. In particular, at the level of granularity and resource complementarity that I proceed to detail, these linked data can be used to probe questions about the resilience of individuals and communities in the face of the institutional and economic shocks that characterize much of the history of the US west.

Settlement of the US West in the 19th Century was a massive experiment in public land policy through ownership transfer of millions of acres of land through various laws intended to spur development of land, minerals, and timber (Robbins 1942; Gates 1968). On an undeveloped frontier, natural resource institutions are of unique significance due to the primary role these inputs play in the first phases of frontier settlement and development (Anderson and Hill 1975; Libecap 2007). Central to western development was the state and local definition of water law suitable to the relative scarcity in the US West (Bretsen and Hill 2006; Leonard and Libecap 2019), for agriculture and mining were both water intensive industries due to the demands of crops/livestock and ore refining, respectively. A common institutional solution to prevent conflict among competing water claimants in times of scarcity was that of prior appropriation, a water doctrine that awarded a senior right to a water claimant that proved their beneficial use prior to other claimants. For the purposes of identification, this creates an incentive to get claims in early (Alston and Smith 2022, forthcoming) compared to the slower process of land rights definition that I detail subsequently, which arguably makes inferring settlement upon year of water appropriation more reliable than date of land or mineral patent issuance.

An Arizona Homestead After Nearly Six Years of Improvements, 1898 (image from National Archives)

Despite the local nature of natural resource development on the frontier, securing complete title to land or minerals required the issuance of a patent from the General Land Office in Washington DC. The fact that the governance of complementary natural resources emanated from distinct spheres of political authority indicates that recordation could vary in observable ways according to the distinct institutions governing these processes, but also presents a channel by which national political forces can indirectly influence local outcomes. As one example of this in the US West, land title uncertainty in Montana created by a national railroad land grant forfeiture movement delayed and deterred local investment in water rights by up to five years on affected land parcels, a temporary institutional effect that nonetheless had persistent economic consequences (Alston and Smith 2022, forthcoming).

More general issues with the way in which formal title to land and minerals emanated from the federal government suggest that land patent data present vexing possibilities for scholars interested in inferring development outcomes surrounding them. At the scale of continentally persistent outcomes over a century later, the date a patent issued in Washington is arguably a workable proxy for the time at which land development initially occurred (Allen 2019; Allen and Leonard 2020), but there are several reasons why this date obscures a more granular empirical lens on the local economic dynamics that led to the development of the US West. The process of interfacing between Washington and a local land office on the frontier was subject to mechanical costs, costs which varied due to access to transportation routes and fixed factors like terrain ruggedness. Furthermore, land surveying lagged development in many places on the frontier (Decker 1960), which itself presented an obstacle to title issuance (and inferring date of settlement from the date of patent issuance). Finally, the administration of the General Land Office was subject to significant public critique during the latter half of the 19th century, including congressional investigations and public rebukes from the Supreme Court to issue delayed patents, not to mention a fire that destroyed land records in the office’s early phases (Dunham 1937; Limerick 1987; Alston et al 2012). Both varying costs of patent issuance from place to place coupled with comparatively low government capacity led to my research collaborator’s realization that local land office tract books on the county level in the state of Colorado could enable identification of a more reliable date for initial land development, one which likely varies by months from actual entry, as opposed to years (if not decades in certain instances!). A research question that emerges from this more granular data surrounds a measure of federal government capacity on the local level, in terms of the time lag between land entry and patent issuance (Smith et al 2021).

Land Surveying Camp in Ogden Utah, 1876 (image from National Archives)

More generally, a measure of the average lag by county from settlement to title issuance could shed light on how perfecting title to a resource lagged productive use of the resource itself. Although not causal, such a dynamic measure of local economic institutional capacity could clarify how relative prices define additional benefits to better securing use of a given resource (Demsetz 1967). In the context of mineral development in the US West in particular, an economy in titling corresponded to productive industrial scale economies. While prospecting was an activity suitable to individual pursuit, mining increasingly relied on economies of scale surrounding efficient production of the most valuable claims, extending tunnels far beneath the surface of the rugged Rocky Mountains, and refining ore at increasingly bulky and chemically intensive levels. This distinction in efficient scale between discovery and production meant that promising mineral claims had market value long before the claim was officially patented by the federal government (Gerard 2001). Relatedly, this suggests that the most valuable claims should have been more likely to be patented, and that claim perfection should correspond to upward changes in commodity prices, both research questions that can be explored through comparing mineral claims to mineral patents in local land office tract books.

The existence of large privately-owned transportation networks with significant economic interests in frontier development led to its own set of political economic issues (Mercer 1982), which varied depending on the time and place in question. Railroads whose surrounding development lagged construction did not initially want to rush surveying, due to the tax liability associated with the land titles that would issue following survey completion (Decker 1960). This was even more the case given that railroads could and did sell lands for which they had not yet received title (Alston and Smith 2022, forthcoming). More generally, though, the influence of the railroad companies in the GLO was undeniable, perhaps due simply to the sheer magnitude of land being issued to the railroad (Fogel 1962; Atack & Passell 1994). This is not to mention outright corrupt reasons which were decried with (anecdotal) fury in literature more contemporary to the time, such as unduly facilitating development in areas near a given railroad, approving railroad land exchanges without sufficient scrutiny, or prevailing in specific land disputes against competing claimants (Powers 1889; Dunham 1937). This level of railroad influence in land policy makes adjusting the lag in patent issuance already described as a measure to control for proximity to rail networks a way in which to calculate the potential magnitude and sign of the influence on patent issuance in each area. Furthermore, controlling for this effect could provide a robust measure of federal government capacity in the frontier US West in ways that shed light on the role of private and public actors in fomenting frontier development (Ellickson 1991; Anderson and Hill 2004; Allen 2019; Blevins 2021).

As noted previously, development of the US West surrounded resource complementarities, perhaps nowhere more so than the link between water and land development. While I have already referenced evidence that defects in federal title to land can affect incentives to develop complementary locally governed resources, it is likely that there is considerably more purchase to be had through exploring the link between development patterns among nominally distinct resource classes. One puzzling finding in the literature deals with the long-term negative effects of obtaining land title through the Homestead Act, as compared to other routes to title in the West (Allen and Leonard 2020). The insight of comparing water rights acquisition to distinct means of land acquisition from the federal government may uncover systematic differences between classes of land claimants and the year at which they secured water, a difference that could partly explain the persistent consequences of distinct paths to land title.

Flume for an Irrigation Ditch in Colorado, 1909 (image from National Archives)

What I have described thus far forms much of the impetus of a years-long research project involving collaborators from numerous areas of expertise (Smith et al 2021). Our lofty goal? A microeconomic geography of natural resource rights to minerals, land and water, initially on the Colorado state level, matched to individual census records to explore within and inter-generational mobility as a function of initial land and natural resource property choices. Scholars have identified the path-dependent nature of transportation networks, showing how settlement persisted at natural transportation junctures whose network had long ceased to be dominant (Bleakley and Lin 2012). By developing a comprehensive map of land entries and patents by Colorado county and matching these to individual US census records into the 20th century, we are optimistic that we can make our own contribution to better understanding the persistence of development in some places as compared to others along the frontier.

Finally, though, a recent turn in the economic development literature has argued that the processes of decline are of underappreciated relevance to understanding the “successful” cases of long-run growth (Broadberry and Wallis 2017), which suggests that resilience is a component of persistent development that merits further consideration, including in the context of US frontier development described here (Alston and Leonard 2020). This provides an additional avenue of inquiry for our project surrounding outcomes for distinct communities with respect to the institutional and economic shocks that characterize the history of the US West in the 19th Century. As one example of the magnitude of the margin of “failure”, nearly fifty percent of homesteads ultimately failed (NPS 2021). With a dataset of land, mineral and water rights at the parcel level, as well as failed entries and never-perfected mineral claims by county, our project will explore several of these shocks’ immediate and persistent effects on development outcomes. For instance, one way to disentangle the effect of unanticipated shocks on development could involve comparing two distinct measures of frontier settlement that become available with more granular data as to land entry. By comparing the rate at which new entries are made under the public land laws, to completion rates of lands already entered at the time of a given shock, we can obtain an estimate of the relative effect of a shock on frontier arrivals as opposed to economic activity already occurring on the frontier.

Abandoned Homestead in Montana, 1908 (image from National Archives)

The definition of the law governing public land in the West can itself be understood as an institutional “shock” following a lengthy period of benign neglect. Prior to opening the public domain to all entrants, the federal government authorized preexisting settlers to make their squatting legal through making a preemption claim. By identifying any clusters of initial claims emerging under the Preemption Acts, these could provide a means of exploring the effect of previously existing settlement on subsequent development patterns. Because surveying lagged development in observable instances, this provides an additional treatment effect by which to explore the distinction between development and formalization, as the discrete completion of a survey can provide a means to identify places where development preceded formalization, and vice versa. This general treatment resultant from surveys being completed discretely also indicates another margin by which to explore the more general institutional processes discussed throughout in the context of a natural shock – there are several cases where large tracts of land reverted to the public domain through tribal treaties, including in the state of Colorado itself (Rockwell 1965). Furthermore, changes in processes at the General Land Office can themselves be understood as a shock to patent issuance in ways that may have an identifiable effect on issuance dynamics, including the wholesale withdrawal of public lands from patent issuance from 1888 – 1890 (Sterling 1940). Finally, it is worth noting explicitly that none of this analysis is intended to overwrite, let alone exonerate, the treatment of American Indian tribes by the federal government or local settlers during this period, which had demonstrably negative and persistent outcomes for the vast majority of tribes (Leonard et al 2020; Alston et al 2021).

Settlement also carried a distinct source of uncertainty – the realization of shocks to output prices that characterized much of the latter half of the 19th Century for minerals and agricultural output. Commodities price cycles are a well-studied phenomenon, including a recent contribution of real-price-adjusted data for commodities from 1900-2018 (Jacks 2019). Local economic indicators unsurprisingly track increases in local resource extraction, such that a mining boom has been linked to multiplier effects in terms of employment, wage, and house price increases (Carrington 1996; Michaels 2011; Feyrer et al 2017). Output prices are thus primary economic determinants for frontier communities specialized in a particular industry, whether it be mining or agriculture. Several distinct 19th century periods were marked by price volatility in minerals, beef, or wheat, such that our data should enable us to consider the effect of commodities price cycles on single-industry communities, as well as compare these communities’ resilience to those with more diversified economies. This corresponds to an ongoing work where I jointly examine the impact of initial resource concentrations on long-run outcomes (Alston and Leonard 2020), probing whether the natural resource curse operates at a persistent scale on the microeconomic geographic level.

Teams Hauling Ore in the Arizona Territory, 1897 (image from National Archives)

Due to both space constraints and where my own expertise lies, I have been largely silent as to the demographic component of development that is unquestionably an important determinant. Indeed, one of the principal ways to get at persistence requires matching land, water and mineral rights to the people who used the underlying resources in more or less productive ways over time, which is why one of my project collaborators is skilled in matching individual census records to names found on other records, including the property institutions discussed here throughout (Smith et al 2021). Coupled with a more granular identification of the within-resource institutional dynamics and complementarities between resource classes, we aim to clarify which of the public policy purposes underlying western land laws were realized, and which remained aspirational, and how these outcomes varied from place to place.

I have emphasized herein how the underappreciated complexities of publicly recorded property institutions can provide useful ways of getting at variation in local microeconomic geographies to the theoretically and contextually careful scholar. In sum, those of an empirical bent in historical political economy should hopefully remain humble given how much a historically recorded date can prove to conceal, but simultaneously heartened at the level of identification that more granular data across natural resource classes on the US frontier can ultimately reveal about initial and persistent development patterns. My collaborators and I are certainly excited about the possibilities for identification and analysis that this rich period in US history presents to the curious scholar.


  • Eric C. Alston

    Eric Alston is a Scholar in Residence in the Finance Division and the Faculty Director of the Hernando de Soto Capital Markets Program in the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder. He also serves as a Research Associate with the Comparative Constitutions Project. Alston received his MA in Economics from the University of Maryland and his JD from the University of Chicago. His research and teaching is centered in the fields of law and economics and institutional and organizational analysis, which he applies to research questions in the development of rights along frontiers, the design and implementation of constitutions, and questions of legal/institutional transitions more generally. Alston’s publications include constitutional design studies and archival historical research into development of property rights in the frontier US West. His current work examines the impact of railroad lands grants on irrigation development, the national characteristics that determine constitutional definition of subnational government, and the development of blockchain governance mechanisms in light of their similarities to constitutional amendment processes. Alston’s outreach and service activities include educational materials, instructional workshops, and comparative expertise to constitutional drafting processes and peace negotiations worldwide, working with organizations like International IDEA and the International Development Law Organization.

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