Finding & Using Military Bounty Land Records
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.
Who awarded military bounty lands, when and where?
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."
What does bounty land paperwork entail?
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.
How do I know whether my ancestor applied for bounty lands?
There are a few different ways to approach this question:
- Try to confirm whether your ancestor served in a military capacity before the 1850s. Look for evidence in family papers, obituaries, gravestones and pioneer biographies. Then find out whether the ancestor's military unit was administered by a government that granted bounty lands.
- See where your ancestor lived. Does he show up on the frontier in the early to mid-1800s for no apparent reason? It's possible he actually settled the land he was granted. Review histories of that area to see if the locale was a military district; identify the granting agency (state or federal government); look to the records of that agency. Remember that deeds recorded in counties won't include military land patents, only transactions subsequent to the original sale or award of the land.
- Search indexes of military bounty land patents and/or the records themselves (see below).
Where will I find bounty land records?
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:
- Connecticut recorded deeds to recipients in the Connecticut town where the recipient lost property to the British during the Revolution. These have been compiled and indexed in Bockstruck's Revolutionary War Bounty Land Grants.
- Georgia. The Georgia Archives has both bounty records and headright grants, which were issued to heads of household. The Family History Library has some transcribed Georgia records, too. Maryland. Plat maps and ledgers of Revolutionary War era-awards are at the Maryland State Archives . Various published indexes of Maryland's bounty land awards may found at major genealogical libraries.
- Massachusetts. Search Archives.com's collection "Maine, Revolutionary War Pension Applications" for awards made by the state of Massachusetts, but within present-day Maine.
- New York. The State Archives holds military and other land grant records dating from 1642. The Balloting Book, an 1825 index to New York bounty records, is searchable at siteWeb. An index to the New York Military tract on microfilm can be rented through a Family History Center near you.
- North Carolina warrants date before the Revolutionary War, too. Post-war bounties were distributed northeast of modern-day Nashville, Tennessee. The State Archives has all kinds of land warrants (see the Adjutant General's Office Records for military ones). These have also been published in several indexed volumes of Tennessee Land Entries Military Bounty Land (1783-1841) by AB Pruitt, available at major research libraries.
- Pennsylvania Land Office records are now at the Pennsylvania State Archives (click on "Land Records;" look for military bounty lands in both "Donation Land" and "Depreciation Land" records).
- The South Carolina Department of Archives and History has four volumes of bounty grant. Some of these are duplicated within the state's main grant books.
- Virginia offers searching of both Revolutionary War-era warrants and rejected applications at VirginiaMemory. Nearly 5000 Revolutionary War warrants awarded in modern-day Kentucky are digitized and searchable at The Kentucky Land Office site at siteWeb.
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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