Lands, Public, in the United States, refer to such lands as are held in ownership by the national government. Originally, indeed, the states which united in 1787 laid claim to the whole of the United States territory; but they speedily ceded to the national government all the lands which were not strictly within their limits. As a consequence, the United States became possessed of vast regions in the west. With the admission of new states into the Union vast tracts fell to the federal government, especially in the case of the Louisiana purchase and the acquisitions of Texas, Florida and Alaska. At the present time the lands still undisposed of reach over 800,000,000 acres. These lands are administered by the General Land Office, a bureau of the Department of the Interior. The great bulk of them lies in Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North and South Dakota, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Colorado, California and Alaska. In Alaska alone there are estimated to be 359,492,760 acres of public lands.
Congress has been very liberal in the disposal of these lands, chiefly in the following ways: First, in the earlier days, by very cheap sales, either for cash or credit and in large bulk. Second, by grants to the states, especially for railroads, for canals, for irrigation and for education. Third, by grants to individuals for their services to the state. Fourth, for closer settlement, especially under the preëmption and homestead laws (see Homestead Laws). The last of these methods is now chiefly favored. Each state admitted to the Union since 1850 receives one township in every 18 for education, an additional grant of four townships for a university and a grant for a college of agriculture.