Cliven Bundy argues that he has primacy over the federal government in controlling the land around his ranch because his family was here before the Bureau of Land Management was created. It’s not true. The BLM controlled—and was present in—the territory of Nevada before the Bundys. It just wasn’t called the BLM yet. It was called the General Land Office.

The Bureau of Land Management is an agency within the Interior Department. Its functions preceded the creation both of the Interior Department and the BLM.

Following the American Revolution, Congress enacted two laws—the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787—to begin surveying and settling the lands of the West, though what was then called “the West” was on the far side of the Alleghenies, particularly Ohio. As the nation reached farther and farther west, and the original states surrendered their claims to additional land in the west, those functions were placed in a newly established General Land Office in the Treasury Department. Generating revenue to fund its functions became part of its operations.

On March 3, 1849, the Land Office was transferred to the new Interior Department. Over the years, it gained more duties and other agencies were created to supplement its work, including a Grazing Service, also within Interior. Their combined functions included many of those now held by the Bureau of Land Management. Over the years, functions were added to Land Office responsibilities under laws like the Mining Law of 1872 and the Taylor Grazing Act.

In mid-19th century, the General Land Office operated in states with public lands through surveyors general. The office of U.S. Surveyor General of Nevada was operating at least as early as 1861, three years before statehood. Its 1861-1869 records are in the San Francisco office of the National Archives (Record Group 49.7.9). The first U.S. Surveyor General of Nevada arrived in Carson City to take up his duties on June 22, 1861.

Bundy has said his family arrived in Nevada in 1877. By then, the General Land Office had been functioning in Nevada for 16 years, since territorial days. In 1877, the U.S. Surveyor General of Nevada in the General Land Office was E.S. Davis. He had a staff of three—J. Butler, J.W. Parker, and T.D. Parkinson. They were on hand to shake hands when the arriving Bundys crossed the state line, should the occasion have presented itself. Indeed, the newcomers in Bunkerville may have met one or more of the staff members or Davis, since they circulated around the state, including the relatively new section of Nevada—Clark County, added to Nevada from Arizona Territory in 1867.

The General Land Office and the Grazing Service were consolidated into a single agency in 1946, its name changed to—the Bureau of Land Management. But it had been operating in Nevada all along.

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...