What is an Organic Act?

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  • Written By: Marisa O'Connor
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 17 February 2020
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An organic act is a type of law passed by the United States Congress that establishes an area of land as property of the United States. This type of act may also describe a law that delegates a certain group or agency to manage territory of the United States. The first of many organic acts occurred in 1787, and other examples of this type of law include the Act of 1871, the Act of 1890, and the Act of 1900 in Hawaii.

The first of these laws was the Organic Act of 1787, which created the Northwest Territory of the United States of America. This was passed in order to designate the first official territory of the United States when it was first formed. The territory was designated by the Congress of the Confederation of the United States. The Northwest Territory was made up of the land south of the Great Lakes, east of the Mississippi River, and, as the name suggests, northwest of the Ohio River. This is the first and perhaps most important organic law to establish territory of the United States.


The District of Columbia Organic Act of 1871 is an example of the other type of organic law, which delegates a group to manage the established territory of the United States. As the name suggests, the Act of 1871 served to instate a new government for the District of Columbia. This act merged the county of Washington, the city of Washington, and the city of Georgetown into a single territory under the federal government. It is for this reason that the area is often referred to as Washington, D.C. The act, however, was abolished in 1874, and the territory is now governed by an elected mayor.

The Organic Act of 1890 is another type of organic law that designated Oklahoma as United States territory, opening the region to homesteading. Much of this land was previously deemed Native American territory, and it took Congress more than a year to decide to include the territory in the Act of 1890. The Cheyenne-Arapaho, Kiowa-Comanche-Apache, and Osage reservations, among others, are now located within this territory. Present-day Lincoln, Payne, and Canadian counties are also included in this land.

Another example of organic law that designates a group to manage a territory of the United States is the Organic Act of 1900. This law formed a government for the occupied territory of Hawaii. Hawaii was declared a territory of the United States on August 12, 1898, but it wasn't until 1900 that a government was formed in the territory. This act was made effective retroactively, back to when the land was claimed by the United States in 1898. Hawaii became a sovereign state of the United States of America, with its capital at Honolulu, on Oahu island.


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