Claiming land in the 1890s

A lot of Stutsman County land was given to the Northern Pacific Railroad.

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Stutsman County is a big county.

It's 64 townships, each comprising 36 square miles means there is something in the neighborhood of 1.5 million acres of land contained within its boundaries.

That should mean there would be a lot of land available for homesteaders in the 1890s shortly after North Dakota achieved statehood.

It would seem that was not the case.

A lot of Stutsman County land was given to the Northern Pacific Railroad as an incentive to build its transcontinental line from Duluth to the Pacific Ocean.


Through Stutsman County, and all of North Dakota for that matter, the Northern Pacific was given a checkerboard pattern of land amounting to half the land within 20 miles of its tracks.

The Northern Pacific route was more or less straight east and west and passed through Jamestown and Medina. Half the land, usually the odd-numbered sections for 20 miles either side of the tracks, belonged to the railroad.

In addition, two sections in each township were set aside for public schools. This land initially belonged to the federal government but was granted to the state of North Dakota at statehood and wasn’t available for homesteading.

For the majority of Stutsman County, the lands within 20 miles of the Northern Pacific tracks, only 16 sections of a township's 36 sections were available for homesteading.

Some of this land was claimed by early settlers. At the time of statehood in 1889, less than 266,000 acres were available for homesteaders.

A prospective homesteader had to locate his land, determine the legal description of the claim and then travel to Fargo if the claim was in the eastern part of the county, or Bismarck for the west to file the claim. After making improvements and living on the land for five years, the homesteader became a landowner.

There were other ways to claim a portion of the Dakota dream.

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The Northern Pacific was eager to sell its land for needed revenue and the knowledge that more settlers would provide future passenger and freight traffic for the line.


The railroad offered much of its land east of the Missouri River in North Dakota for $4 per acre. Even adjusted for inflation, that would be a bargain at $133 per acre today.

Becoming a Stutsman County landowner in the 1890s wasn’t expensive and values certainly have increased over the years.

To paraphrase Will Rogers, “Invest in land, they aren’t making anymore.”

Author Keith Norman can be reached at

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