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Coal Land Restored


Theodore Roosevelt came West in 1884 to seek a new lifestyle. As a rancher, adventurer, lawman and statesman, his stay in North Dakota was relatively brief, but he was never forgotten by North Dakotans. In turn, Roosevelt fondly recalled his life in the Badlands and stated that if it wasn’t for his time there, he would have never been President.

In 1873, the Coal Lands Act was passed. It clarified the definition of coal land as mineral land that could not be homesteaded, but a clause in the law implied that the Coal Land Act did not apply to un-surveyed coal land in the public domain, and millions of those acres were homesteaded. However, in 1906 the US Supreme Court declared that any land with known quantities of coal should have been included as mineral lands, and, as a result, more than 66 million acres of land, located mostly in western states, were withdrawn from private ownership and restored to Public Domain status. This included preemptions, homesteads, tree claims and desert land claims involving thousands of acres in western North Dakota. Farmers and ranchers could retain ownership, but they had to pay ten dollars an acre for land over fifteen miles from the railroad and twenty dollars for land within fifteen miles. Many could not afford this price and had to forfeit their homestead. This included over one hundred and twenty-five homesteads in the area where Roosevelt himself had ranched.

Congress could not agree on a solution to the problem and the fight had been a bitter one. According to the Dickinson Press, “President Roosevelt remembered the part that western North Dakota has played in his life and expressed his sympathy, declaring that homesteaders should be given an opportunity of proving up on all claims.” On this date in 1909, he called a meeting with Secretary Garfield of the Department of the Interior, Commissioner Bennett of the General Land Office, and the Congressional Delegation from North Dakota. An agreement was soon reached. Having lived in the area, Roosevelt knew that for most of the land in question, the agricultural value was much greater than the value of the coal due to the quantity and quality of the coal. He directed the Land Office to issue land patents … evidence of title … as fast as the land could be proved more valuable for agriculture than coal, and Congress amended the law on March 3rd.

Although Theodore Roosevelt’s stay had been brief, his time in North Dakota made a significant difference in the lives of hundreds of North Dakotans.

Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis


The Dickinson Press February 20, 1909

Final Federal Coal Leasing Impact Statement, Proposed Federal Coal Leasing Program, US Department of Interior 1975