The American relationship with the land has evolved dramatically since pre- colonial times to present day. Prior to contact with the Europeans, Native American tribes had loose territorial boundaries; however, many Native American cultures didn’t contain the notion of land ownership. This changed when the Spanish, French, and English began colonizing and exploiting the New World. Across the board, these Europeans began taking the land from Native Americans, drawing upon the European ideas that land was worth more when bound and developed by man. Throughout the colonial period and the first hundred years of the United States of America, Europeans and their descendants privatized Native American lands at an astounding rate, erasing the idea of a frontier by 1890 (Merchant, 1993).
By the end of the 19th century, the U.S. government had seized the vast majority land that had been held in common by Native American tribes. The U.S. government then redistributed some of this land as smaller, individual parcels through Congressional acts, such as the Homestead Act of 1862. The Homestead Act gave parcels of 160 acres to adults who either were citizens or had intentions of becoming citizens, on the promise that they lived on and improved the land through habitation and cultivation, for five years. After the five years, the person who had occupied the land owned it, free and clear, after paying a small administrative fee (Homestead Act, 1862). Much of the other land was used for resource development to support the rapid industrialization of American society (Kline, 1997).
Unlike most other countries around the world, the United States was founded on a strong foundation of individual rights, which has complicated American property rights. Property bought and sold in America can include the rights to any resource on that property: mineral rights, air rights, timber rights, riparian rights, and surface rights, for example. When these are bought together, this is called a fee simple estate (“Mineral Rights”). If a fee simple estate has been broken up, the estate is then known as a severed estate.
Over the past 150 years, as the viability of mineral resources became more and more apparent, American property owners began selling or leasing their mineral rights separately from other parts of their estate. The ability to sever other parts of the property from the minerals lying under the surface, temporarily through a lease, or permanently through a sale, has created a complicated web of land and resource ownership in America today.