While our physical offices are closed until further notice in accordance with Austin's COVID-19 "stay home-work safe" order, the Handbook of Texas will remain available at no-cost for you, your fellow history enthusiasts, and all Texas students currently mandated to study from home. If you have the capacity to help us maintain our online Texas history resources during these uncertain times, please consider making a 100% tax-deductible contribution today. Thank you for your support of TSHA and Texas history. Donate Today »


John G. Johnson

GENERAL LAND OFFICE. The General Land Office was established on December 22, 1836, by the First Congress of the Republic of Texas. John P. Borden, the first commissioner, opened the office in Houston on October 1, 1837. He was enjoined by law to "superintend, execute, and perform all acts touching or respecting the public lands of Texas." The Constitution of the Republic of Texas honored all grants made by Spain and Mexico that were deemed valid by the republic; later, the state followed suit. The commissioner assembled from the archives of the former governments a record of valid land grants and translated them. The Spanish archives section of the Land Office is the depository of records of 4,200 Spanish and Mexican land grants. Valid Spanish and Mexican grants cover 26,280,000 acres within the present boundaries of Texas. Some of these grants have received special confirmation by the state legislature, but most of them stand on the original titles from the governments of Spain and Mexico. Borden moved the land archives from Houston to Austin in 1839.

Borden also began to survey and register the new grants that the republic was issuing. Those from the public domain were made to colonists who had failed to receive their titles from Mexico, to new settlers, and to all soldiers who had rendered service in the Texas army. Headrights, military bounties, homestead preemptions, and veteran donations, issued by Borden and successive commissioners, brought the total number of acres granted to 75,647,668. Sales for the purpose of paying the public debt added 2,990,136 acres. For internal improvements to the Capitol, irrigation, drainage, iron works, and transportation facilities, including grants to railroads, grants totaled 32,153,878 acres. For education (the University of Texas, Texas A&M, county schools, eleemosynary institutions, and the public school fund) grants totaled 49,530,334 acres. The individual grants, patents, and surveys by which the public domain has been disposed of are on file in the General Land Office, and a representation of each, surveyed by metes and bounds, appears on the original grantee map of the county in which the land is located. Although the financial potential of Texas public land was generally limited to surface properties, over the years mineral resources became financially important. In December 1960 the state resumed mineral development of the Gulf area, after Texas ownership was confirmed by the United States Supreme Court on December 12, 1960 (see TIDELANDS CONTROVERSY). The mineral revenues were consigned to the Permanent School Fund. New departments and equipment became necessary to manage the increased volume of business resulting from these modern trends.

Texas is the only public-land state with complete control over its public lands and over the proceeds resulting from the administration and sale of lands. As of 1992 the General Land Office was the management agency for 20.5 million acres of state lands and mineral-right properties, including submerged lands out to 10.3 miles in the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the money from agency leases, trades, and sales goes to the Permanent School Fund, which has received $6.1 billion since 1854. More than $700 million a year is earned from public lands to help finance public school education.

The General Land Office is headed by the land commissioner, who is elected. In 1893 the Texas House of Representatives impeached commissioner W. L. McGaughey; however, the Texas Senate acquitted him in the trial. Commissioner James Bascom Giles, first elected in 1938, resigned in 1955 and was later convicted in the Veterans' Land Board Scandal and sentenced to six years imprisonment. William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry, was employed as a draftsman at the land office from 1887 to 1891 and used it as a setting for two of his stories. The Old Land Office Building, first used in 1857, has been restored to house historic exhibits.


Patrick L. Cox, Land Commissioner Bascom Giles and the Texas Veterans Land Board Scandals (M.A. thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 1988). History and Disposition of the Texas Public Domain (Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1942; 2d ed. 1945). Garry Mauro, Land Commissioners of Texas (Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1986). Andrea Gurasich Morgan, Land: A History of the Texas General Land Office (Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1992). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

Image Use Disclaimer

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, John G. Johnson, "GENERAL LAND OFFICE," accessed July 07, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/mcg01.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on June 15, 2020. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
visit the mytsha forums to participate

View these posts and more when you register your free MyTSHA account.

Call for Papers: Texas Center for Working-Class Studies Events, Symposia, and Workshops
Hi all! You may be interested in this call for papers I received from the Texas Center for Working-Class Studies at Collin College...

Katy Jennings' Ride Scholarly Research Request
I'm doing research on Catherine Jennings Lockwood, specifically the incident known as "Katy Jennings' Ride." Her father was Gordon C. Jennings, the oldest man to die at the Alamo...

Texas Constitution of 1836 Co-Author- Elisha Pease? Ask a Historian
The TSHA profile of Elisha Marshall Pease states that he wrote part of the Texas Constitution although he was only a 24 year-old assistant secretary (not elected). I cannot find any other mention of this authorship work by Pease in other credible research about the credited Constution authors...