Nearly every state west of the Mississippi has "public land." In some of them, there's more land in the public domain - federally owned - than there is in private hands. In Arizona in particular only about 10 percent of the state is privately owned and therefore taxable by the state. All the rest is various tribal reservations or federally owned - and Arizona is a big state. In Texas there is practically no "public land" outside state and national parks. Why?

The answer lies in how Texas became a state.

Beyond the original 13 states, with only two exceptions, every state was once a territory. In a territory the United States owned-and could sell, grant, or keep-all land not previously privately owned. Across the

Southwest, Spanish or Mexican land grants and those who had purchased land from the descendants of grantees had their titles honored and their possession of lands secured - but nobody else did. It didn't make any difference how much land a family claimed or had improved, unless the owners could produce a title deed to that land proving purchase from recognized heirs of Spanish or Mexican grantees, the owners could get title to a mere quarter-section - 160 acres - and then only after 1862. The rest of the land belonged to the federal government. For that reason, an ad for a ranch in, say, Wyoming, might say "10,000 acres (320 deeded)." That means the seller actually owns only a half section. The rest of the land is leased for grazing and other purposes from the Bureau of Land Management or BLM.

One of the two exceptions to prior territorial status is West Virginia. Originally a part of Virginia, it was known as "the transmontaine" by those who wanted to make it sound sophisticated and "over the mountains" by those who didn't worry about that sort of thing.

In 1862 West Virginia seceded from the Confederate state of Virginia and petitioned the United States for admission to the Union as a state. It was accepted.

The other is Texas. Texas is the only state to join the United States by treaty. As an independent republic for 10 years, Texas owned all land within its borders not previously granted or sold-and that was about ⅔ of the present state. Texas also had a treaty-legal - though unenforceable - claim to about ¾ of New Mexico, the Oklahoma Panhandle, a little piece of the southwest corner of Kansas, nearly all of Colorado east of the Rockies and part of the Rockies themselves, and the area around Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Following the Mexican War, in exchange for ceding its claims to the lands in present New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming to the United States, Texas retained ownership of all unassigned land within the current borders of the state. Those lands were gradually sold or traded off.

In the 1880s the state deeded some 3,000,000 acres on the west edge of the panhandle to an out-of-state syndicate in exchange for building the current state capitol building in Austin. Those lands became the famous XIT ranch. Although the lands covered all or parts of 10 counties, the XIT brand was not chosen to symbolize "Ten in Texas," as the legend holds it was.

According to historian J. Evetts Haley, author of "The XIT Ranch of Texas," the brand was chosen because it could be burned with five touches of a running iron - X, XI, XII, XIT.

Much of the land was set aside to be sold to build and support a public university system in the state.

Texas wisely retained half the mineral rights on the "school land," and when oil was discovered on it the

University of Texas system became the richest state university system in the country.

By the mid-1920s nearly all the state-owned public land in Texas had been sold. Texas' first national park, Big Bend, had to be purchased from private owners.

For the record, Big Bend was supposed to be an international peace park like one on the Canadian border, but Mexico has never attempted to purchase and set aside the land intended for the park on its side of the Rio Grande.

Texas' second national park, Guadalupe Mountains, on the New Mexico line about halfway between the panhandle and El Paso, was a private ranch that was deeded to the nation as a park.

What is now Padre Island National Seashore was so tied up in ownership disputes - my own family had a claim, having ranched on Padre for a brief period during the 1870s - that the only way to settle the disputes was to bring the place under federal ownership.

Fort Hood, near Killeen in the middle of the state - World's Largest Armor Post - was acquired by the government through eminent domain in the early 1940s. Originally established as a temporary post - Camp Hood - the terms of purchase allowed the ranchers who had owned the land to continue to pasture cattle on it (and some of their descendants still do.) If the fort is ever decommissioned, the heirs of the original owners have the right to repurchase their ancestral ranches at the price they were paid for the land when it was taken.

"National forests," in Texas, are "national" only in name. Texas' "national forests" are a hodgepodge of private farms, timber-company-owned land, state-owned land, and a little - very little - federally-owned land.

And that's why there is virtually no "public land" in Texas outside state and national parks.

C.F. Eckhardt is a Seguin-based columnist who writes on a variety of topics about the old West and Texas history.


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(3) comments


Every state has public lands and much (east of the Mississippi at least) are easily accessed. Texas ranks 47th in terms of the percentage of publically owned land. Most of which is either inaccessible and/or inhospitable to the public. People accustomed to having access to public lands and recreational opportunities are sadly disappointed when relocating here. Yes, I realize that the highways leading here run both ways, but a state this large should be able to afford accessible public land. Texans should not have to wait for ranching heirs to donate undesirable /inaccessible land for that purpose.

Scott Massay

I just read this and as a multigenerational descendantant, Peters,(W.S.) descendant, Peters Colony, North Texas, (same time as Austin's Colony in Central Texas), proud Texan and an avid Texas history fanatic. I always love to read anything about our great state. The "XIT Ranch" was one the best stories and I would STRONGLY encourage anyone to read about it. Haley did write it, but there was an error in the story about how they came up with that "Brand Symbol". "XIT" actually stood for the 10 counties(Roman numeral 10 = X ) it spread out into, inside the state. XIT = 10 IN TEXAS, which rustlers would use a great variety of altrerations to that brand so they could steal the cattle to resale. Some of them were very ingenious to see. We traded the monsterous piece of what Texas thought was useless land. The real deal to the Chicago businessmen was good too. We traded them 3 million acres in the Panhandle, + 50,000 acres to just to pay for the Surveyor, which took years to accomplish. 6,000 miles of barbed wire, train car loads of fence posts, fence staples, and wire-stays, etc. Now look at what we DID get though. I've NEVER seen any grander Capital Building ANYWHERE!. Beats the heck out of the Whitehouse, Capital Building, or anything, by a country mile!!!!

camper gal

live in Montana
While the newspaper article above is not current MY concern is very current. I moved from Texas to Montana in 1983 and it was quite a shock to "understand" how much public land there was. To go camping is like a National Geographic picture. All is well maintained (what the wildfires or beetle kill don't get). Now we have a real rabble rouser from Utah (legislator Ken Ivory) who is trying to gain ground & enough supporters to turn our public lands over to the state. What a scary thought. If that happened we would then be in your position where you have to pay for a deer lease in order to have a place to hunt. We are so lucky and it breaks my heart to even imagine a change like some want.


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