The Costs of Free Land: The Oklahoma Land Rushes

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Abstract

There is an extensive literature in economic history on the disposition of public lands of the United States. Absent from this literature is any consideration of the Oklahoma Territory and the two unusual methods used to dispose of its lands. One method was a land rush where entrants literally raced to claim surveyed lots; the other was a lottery where random chance determined who won. This article develops a model of resource allocation applicable to land rushes and lotteries and examines evidence drawn from the Oklahoma land competitions. The model suggests that rent dissipation occurred. The available evidence corroborates this: some, if not all, of the benefits participants gained from the allocation of “free lands” were dissipated, although there are distinguishable differences in the real costs imposed by the two methods.

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