The Betterment Act
In the winter of 1808, William King proposed a legislative measure
intended to achieve a compromise between settlers and landowners on
the Maine frontier. For years, tension swelled between the two groups
because both felt entitled to the wild woodlands of Maine. Discord
grew on the frontier and legislators feared that a revolution would
The settlers did petition the government to intervene and sent letters
explaining that they could not pay the prices set by the landowners.
Proprietors, many of whom were in government, used their influential
connections to keep the settlers from achieving success in the courts.
But, as more and more settlers flooded the Maine frontier, the political
face of Maine changed. When these new citizens began to vote they chose
the opposition party – the Jeffersonians or the “Farmer’s
The Jeffersonians recognized that their success in Maine government
relied on the votes of the backcountry settlers so they sought a way
to appease settlers in these land dealings. William King, the lead
of the Jeffersonians in Maine drafted the Betterment Act late in 1807.
He recommended that:
• Any settler who had been on land for six or more years could
petition the court to intervene in a dispute with proprietor.
Proprietors were entitled to “land’s value ‘in a
state of nature’ and the value of the “betterments”
Improvements upon the land like plowed fields, wells, structures
and crops – belonged to the settlers.
Proprietor had option to accept wild land value and transfer
title to settler or could force the settler to leave & proprietor
would pay them for the value of the improvements.
Secure title was given to the settler when they paid the proprietor.
Settlers could pay the proprietor for the land over a series
When the Massachusetts General Court (legislature) addressed the bill,
two sections immediately caused dispute. The landowners wanted
their money immediately and were not amenable to a payment plan system.
Furthermore, there was great debate over how to price the wild land
value. Was it the original price when settler moved there or was it
the current going price for wild lands in Maine? A difference of $2-3
was at stake because the price had been about $1 per acre just after
the Revolution. The new prices were $4-$5 per acre.
As with any law, there were negotiations and the final act was different
than the original proposal. These changes drastically diluted the effectiveness
of the Betterment Act to protect the settlers. The landowners benefited
Settlers had just one year to pay.
Wild lands would be assessed at the modern values and not at
the lower values charged at the time the settlers moved onto the lands-a price difference of $3-4 per acre.
Proprietors were hoping this would discourage most settlers from negotiating
at all and would either pay immediately or would leave forfeiting all
the work they had done to improve the land. But there remained discord
on the frontier. Settlers who were more successful and had been able
to save a little did negotiate. Those who could not afford to negotiate
wanted more radical action and continued with armed resistance. New
tensions flared up between neighbors who could afford to pay for their
farms and those who could not.
Because the disagreements dragged on, William King submitted an amendment
to the Betterment Act in 1810. This change gave settlers up to
three years to pay for their land, but more importantly, it imposed
punishments for anyone agitating against surveyors and proprietors.
It allowed that the militia could be called in whenever proprietor’s
representatives were threatened. Those arrested could face fines,
which could be as high as $1000 and a one-year jail term.
This law had immediate impact. Once settlers had value in the land,
they were more and more cautious about jeopardizing their investments.
The Betterment Act represented a compromise – a stiff one—that
the settlers could not afford to pass up. More and more settlers accepted
these terms severely affecting the cohesiveness of the resistance.
Those with less time and money invested in their land, or those
who were reluctant to accept the payment terms eventually acquiesced
or moved away because the resistance continued to weaken as more and
more farmers negotiated with the proprietors.
Taylor, Alan. Liberty Men & Great Proprietors. Chapel Hill and
London: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
Special thanks: James S. Leamon