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.