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The Coal Lands Act of 1909

On this date in 1909, the Golden Valley Chronicle alerted readers to a bill pending in Congress that would deny mineral rights to homesteaders. The Coal Lands Act was introduced by North Dakota Congressman Thomas Marshall. It would give homesteaders title to the surface land while denying them mineral rights.

The bill was prompted by the coal famine that began with a strike by coal workers in 1902. People died over the winter from a lack of coal to heat their homes. Panic set in. Even after the strike was settled, people were afraid that the supply of coal would run out. In 1906 Teddy Roosevelt withdrew 64 million acres of land from the Homestead Act thought to contain coal. Homesteaders who had worked the land in good faith could lose out. They would have to prove that their homestead was not valuable for coal to keep the land. Needless to say, homesteaders were outraged. Congress worked for the next three years to find a compromise.

Marshall’s bill passed and was signed into law. Homesteaders could keep their land, but the law contained [quote] “a reservation to the United States of all coal in said lands, and the right to prospect for, mine, and remove the same.” [unquote]

The newspaper noted that thousands of homestead proofs in North Dakota were being held up until the issue was settled. This was disturbing for people who had followed the rules by living on the land and making improvements. They were suddenly threatened with the loss of their land. They were not satisfied by compromise, since they would hold title only to the surface land. They would not be entitled to the mineral rights, which decreased the value of their homestead.

While this is an interesting 1909 story, the Coal Lands Act also rippled down through the decades to a 1999 Supreme Court case. The Southern Ute Tribe filed suit against the Amoco Production Company over methane gas in coal on tribal land. The tribe said that their rights to the coal on the land included the gas. Amoco said the gas was separate and distinct from the coal, which had been ceded to the tribe. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the tribe, determining that the understanding of coal in 1909 would not have included the gas. Therefore, the tribe retained the rights.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher                   


Golden Valley Chronicle. “Homesteaders Are Deeply Interested.” 1/22/1909. Beach ND. Page 1.

Legal Information Institute. AMOCO PRODUCTION CO. V. SOUTHERN UTE TRIBE (98-830) 526 U.S. 865 (1999) 151 F.3d 1251, reversed.  https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/98-830.ZO.html Accessed 12/12/2019.

Find Law. “Amoco Production Co. v. Southern Ute Tribe.” https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/526/865.html   Accessed 12/12/2019.

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