top of page

Richards in the Land Office

Fighting land fraud and promoting conservation

When William A. Richards became assistant commissioner, in 1900, and then commissioner of the General Land Office (today’s Bureau of Land Management, or BLM), it was the largest bureau in the Department of the Interior. It had charge of one-third of the acreage of the United States, land that remained to be claimed by homesteaders and others.


As assistant commissioner Richards was praised for his fair and competent handling of the 1901 Oklahoma land opening. The infamous land-rush system had been changed to drawings by lot. Another federal appointee from Wyoming, Willis Van Devanter, who was assistant attorney general for the Department of the Interior, had a hand in devising a fair way of drawing lots for the precious acres, and he would defend the government in a suit by Chief Lone Wolf and other tribesmen who did not want to lose any more of those acres to whites.


When Richards was acting commissioner, he took a step that resulted in the exposure of the massive Benson-Hyde land-fraud scheme, and he also found a way for President Theodore Roosevelt to create the nation’s largest forest reserve, the Tongass in Alaska.


Roosevelt was so pleased with Richards’s performance that he appointed him commissioner in early 1903. Richards continued to fight the myriad forms of land fraud, was responsible for seeing that other land openings were conducted honestly, and made important contributions to Roosevelt’s conservation agenda.


Prehistoric ruins and natural wonders of the vast West were wide open to looting or exploitation. By 1903 Congress had established six National Parks, but bills to protect numerous archeological and other important sites went nowhere until Commissioner Richards acted. In 1904, after New Mexico archeologist Edgar Lee Hewett sent him a long report naming places needing protection, Richards published it in a circular with photos, maps, and related documents. This led to the Antiquities Act of 1906, which empowered presidents to create National Monuments. Among them would be Jewel Cave in South Dakota, Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico, the African Burial Grounds in New York City, the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean, and millions of acres in Alaska. The Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and the Petrified Forest were National Monuments until Congress made them National Parks.


Richards also helped Roosevelt create the world’s first wildlife refuge, Pelican Island.


These stories will be told in fuller detail later, but those interested can find out more about Tongass and Pelican Island in the following articles:

Conrad, David E., Creating the Nation's Largest Forest Reserve: Roosevelt, Emmons, and the Tongrass National Forest. Pacific Historical Review, Feb. 1977, Vol. 46, No. 1, pp. 65-83 Univ. Calif Press. Jstor. 76

bottom of page