by Sunny McClellan Morton | Jun 28, 2012
During the colonial era and early years of the United States, cash-poor governments often lured men into military service with the promise of a chunk of frontier property. It was a win-win situation for land-hungry residents and governments that wanted to settle the frontier with their own people. The lands they handed out this way were called military bounty lands. Today they are a genealogical bounty for us. The paperwork process (whether or not your ancestor actually settled on land awarded) can tell us a lot about them.
The award of military bounty lands was a long-established tradition of the British crown. As early as 1646, the colonial government of Virginia gave lands surrounding frontier forts to the soldiers defending them. Colonial Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and West Florida also awarded military bounty lands.
Between 1788 and 1855, the newly-organized U.S. government continued the tradition, offering lands in exchange for service during the Revolutionary War, War or 1812, Mexican War, or ongoing conflicts with Native Americans. Many of these bounties were awarded in the 1850s, as the government retroactively broadened the scope of eligible applicants. Earlier awards were made within the U.S. Military Tract in Ohio. Later federal awards could be used for just about any unclaimed public domain lands.
States with disposable lands also awarded property for military service, though not always within their modern boundaries. Georgia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and South Carolina did award lands inside the state. Virginia awarded lands in modern-day Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. Massachusetts gave away parts of Maine until Maine took over the process when it became a state in 1835. North Carolina did the same in Tennessee until 1797, when the new state of Tennessee took the reins. (If land was awarded in a state not already mentioned (like Arkansas), look to federal sources.) Connecticut didn't award military service per se, but gave lots in northern Ohio to those whose property was burned by the British during the Revolution. Within many of these regions, there were defined "military districts."
Land bounties were not automatically issued to veterans. They had to be applied for. Successful applications were issued warrants, which confirmed eligibility for a certain amount of property. The warrant could usually be transferred or sold, and frequently was. But some veterans used their warrants to apply for patents, which conveyed ownership of specific property. Depending on the situation, either the granting agency or the applicant may have chosen the property assigned.
Land warrant applications for federal service have name, rank, military unit, service dates, and generally the residence and age at time of application. Surviving widows and other immediate heirs could make application on behalf of a deceased veteran, or follow through on a warrant issued. Those files will have additional information about that heir; for widows, that may include her full name (including maiden), marriage information, her age and residence.
There are a few different ways to approach this question:
It depends on who was granting the land. But it's worth it to check multiple sources, because except in Massachusetts, veterans were allowed to apply for bounty lands from both federal and state governments.
Federal land records are in the National Archives, and are searchable on various microfilms, depending on the dates and locations (order copies with form NATF 85C; learn more at Eservices; select "Order Reproductions"). A master index, "United States, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Applications," is searchable at FamilySearch. Most federal land patents, including military ones, are digitized and searchable at Glorecords.
For colonial and state grants, especially if you don't know in which state someone served, start with two published indexes: Bounty and Donation Land Grants in British Colonial America and Revolutionary War Bounty Land Grants Awarded by State Governments, both by Lloyd DeWitt Bockstruck and published by Genealogical Publishing Co. Find these in major genealogical collections.
Look for original records in historical societies or archives of the states that awarded them. For example:
As you can see, many bounty land records are available in digitized and/or indexed form on-line. Even if you have to order a microfilm and wait a few weeks, there's no reason not to claim the genealogical bounty available in these records. It might have taken your ancestors years to claim their rewards: it won't take you nearly that long to find them.
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