Canal Lands were tracts of land donated by the federal government to several Great Lakes states in the 19th century to encourage internal improvements and aid in funding the construction of Canals. These states sold the land tracts to private parties to raise funds for canal construction.

Checkerboarding was used as a compromise method between opponents and proponents of such federal subsidies, and this subsidy system continued with land grants to railroads between 1851 and 1870.[1]

Previous grants

The federal government initiated donations to the states for internal improvements with the Ohio Enabling act in 1802. This act set aside 5 percent of the proceeds of sale of federal land within the state to fund roads connecting the state to the east coast, and for roads within the state.[2] This act was later amended to award two percent to build roads connecting Ohio to the East, and three percent for roads within the state. This established a precedent extended to other states, which received two, three or five percent of sale proceeds.[3]

Canal era

The era of canal building in the west began after the success of the Erie Canal in New York. States wanted to build canals to connect the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River basin. The first federal action to support such canals was for Indiana, to allow a canal between the Wabash River and Lake Erie, in 1824. This act was not utilized. The act of March 2, 1827 granted land equal to two and one half sections on each side of the canal to Indiana, that they could resell to support canal construction, with deadlines for completion of the canal, and free passage on the canal for the federal government. Part of this canal passed through Ohio, so the act of June 30, 1834 corrected the unpleasantness on Indiana being granted land in Ohio, and instead granted the land to Ohio. Grants of two and one half sections either side of canals were extended to other states for their projects, as in the table, along with some grants not based on that calculation.[4]

State Year Date Statue Canal name Grant area
Indiana 1824 May 26 Stat. 47 Wabash and Erie ---[5]
Indiana 1827 March 2 Stat. 236 Wabash and Erie 234,236.73 acres (948 km2)
Indiana 1830 May 29 Stat. 416 Wabash and Erie 29,552.50 acres (120 km2)
Indiana 1841 February 27 Stat. 414 Wabash and Erie 259,368.48 acres (1,050 km2)
Indiana 1842 August 29 Stat. 542 Wabash and Erie 24,219.83 acres (98 km2)
Indiana 1845 March 3 Stat. 731 Wabash and Erie 796,630.19 acres (3,224 km2)
Indiana 1848 May 9 Stat. 219 Wabash and Erie 113,348.33 acres (459 km2)
Ohio 1827
March 2
June 30
Stat. 236
Stat. 716
Wabash and Erie 266,535.00 acres (1,079 km2)
Ohio 1828
May 24
April 02
Stat. 305
Stat. 393
Miami and Dayton 333,826.00 acres (1,351 km2)
Ohio 1828 May 24 Stat. 306 (section 5) General canal purposes 500,000.00 acres (2,023 km2)
Illinois 1827
March 2
August 3
Stat. 234
10 Stat. 344
Illinois river and Lake Michigan 290,915.00 acres (1,177 km2)
Wisconsin 1838 June 18 Stat. 245 Milwaukee and Rock River 125,431.00 acres (508 km2)
Wisconsin 1866
April 10
March 1
March 7
14 Stat. 30
17 Stat. 32
18 Stat. 20
Breakwater and Harbor Ship 200,000.00 acres (809 km2)
Michigan 1852 August 26 10 Stat. 35 St. Mary’s Ship 750,000.00 acres (3,035 km2)
Michigan 1865 March 3 13 Stat. 519 Portage Lake and Lake Superior Ship 200,000.00 acres (809 km2)
Michigan 1866 July 3 14 Stat. 81 Portage Lake and Lake Superior Ship 200,000.00 acres (809 km2)
Michigan 1866 July 3 14 Stat. 80 lac la belle ship 100,000.00 acres (405 km2)
State Total grant
Indiana 1,457,366.06 acres (5,898 km2)
Ohio 1,100,361.00 acres (4,453 km2)
Illinois 290,915.00 acres (1,177 km2)
Wisconsin 325,431.00 acres (1,317 km2)
Michigan 1,250,000.00 acres (5,059 km2)
Total 4,424,073.06 acres (17,904 km2)

Ohio Canal Lands

Ohio had constructed a canal to connect the Ohio River to Dayton. The act of 1828 was to support extension to the Maumee River in the north, where it would connect to the Wabash and Erie Canal and Lake Erie. The 500,000-acre (2,000 km2) grant was applied to construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal in the eastern half of the state.[6] Ohio earned $2,257,487 from sale of their lands located in the northwest of the state.[7]

Other grants for improvements

The United States granted more than one million acres (4,000 km²) for military wagon roads in the nineteenth century.[8] Large amounts of land were donated to build railroads.[9] Section eight of the act of September 4, 1841, called the State Selection act, 5 Stat. 455, granted 500,000 acres (2,000 km2) per state for internal improvements.[10]


  1. ^ George Draffan, Taking Back Our Land: A History of Railroad Land Grant Reform Archived 2011-07-27 at the Wayback Machine, 1998,
  2. ^ Stat. 175 - Text of Act of April 30, 1802 (section 7) Library of Congress
  3. ^ Williamson, p. 238-239.
  4. ^ Williamson, p. 258.
  5. ^ land granted ninety feet either side of canal
  6. ^ Peters, p. 323.
  7. ^ Knepper, p. 62.
  8. ^ Williamson, p. 260.
  9. ^ Williamson, p. 268.
  10. ^ Williamson, p. 255.