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An Early American Tradition—Squatting

Although early migrants were mainly British and obeyed English law, once they moved to America a different reality set
in. In England, occupying a plot of land for a long period without a title, squatting, was against the law.

In the newly formed United States of America, with no initial
resistance and many opportunities, squatting on available land quickly became a common practice.

Squatting in America is older than the nation itself. Even before the arrival of the Massachusetts Bay Company in New England, settlers without charter of grants were living at various places within the limits of the Bay. Some based their rights only on occupation and purchase from the Indians.

These early colonial Americans squatters had already occupied and improved 100,000 acres of land without, as one historian put it, a “shadow of a right.” British laws were
becoming increasingly irrelevant to the way many people lived and worked.

Squatters then began inventing their own species of property titles known as tomahawk rights, cabin rights, and corn
rights. Tomahawk rights were secured by making slashing cuts or initials of the person proclaiming the tree as a boundary
line. Cabin rights and corn rights meant staking out land by building a log cabin or raising a crop of corn. These rights,
for the most part, helped reduce quarrels over property lines with neighbors. They were also accepted in the early American frontier communities and became the source of legal title years later.

Preemption would become a principal key to the integration of extralegal property ownership into American law over the next 200 years. By the end of 1828, two-thirds of the population of Illinois was squatters, and in 1841, Congress yielded to pressure and legitimized their titles by the process of preemption. Preemption was a means by which a squatter could buy out the title to land in his use, though it could not really be called possession, but up to 180 acres that the
squatter was actually farming could be purchased retroactively at Congress’s price of $1.25 per acre.