Starting in colonial times, military bounty land was given as a way to encourage people to enlist in the military. However, it wasn’t especially popular until 1788 and it stayed fairly common until 1855. After that, such claims began to drop off, but they still occurred from time to time until the 1960s. Bounty-land records can be helpful in two ways. First of all, they can prove that a person served in the military. Second, they can pinpoint that person’s location at a given time. In cases where hears placed land claims, those records may contain even more beneficial bits of genealogical information.
In colonial times, military service often led to obtaining free land. The 1675-1676 King Philip’s War Narragansett Campaign is one example of that. However, it is important to note that a lot of military free land acts were passed privately and land was given to reward those who had served the colony well. Anyone willing to settle on the Indian frontier in armed settlements was promised quitrent-free land for a period of 20 years by a 1701 Virginia act. Then, in 1763, the Crown ordered bounty land to be given to privates in the British Army located in the colonies who planned to stay in the colonies. Although that included mustered privates, militia unit members were not included. The same proclamation also granted bounty land to indigent officers who served in the French and Indian War. The 1776 "Hessian deserters were offered 50 acres each by Congress, but most of them did not accept that offer. Continental line soldiers were also promised land in 1776. Captains were granted 300 acres, while non-commissioned officers and privates were granted 100 acres. Other ranks also received acreage, but amounts varied quite a bit. Other states besides Virginia that granted bounty land included: Connecticut, Massachusetts (Along With Maine), New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia
Around 35,000 people whose names appeared in grants from those states have been compiled and are listed in Revolutionary War Bounty Land Grants Awarded by State Governments (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1996). The following states did not give out bounty lands: New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey , Delaware
Continental line privates in North Carolina were given a square mile of land (640 acres), which was the largest amount given to privates by any state. By contrast, the least generous state was Maryland, which only gave each private 50 acres of land. However, Maryland had to give out small amounts, since it didn’t control much land in the west. Grants given by Massachusetts were actually of lands located in Maine. The federal government granted 100 acres of land to several privates, but those privates could not get a land grant from Massachusetts. Privates from any other state were allowed to get land bounties from their state of residence and from the federal government. It is also important for researchers to note that it appears as though bounty land granted by Connecticut had nothing to do with giving land for military service. Connecticut’s bounty land was given in the Ohio Fire Lands as a means of compensating those whose homes had bee burned in the revolution.
Although Congress promised land to soldiers, it didn’t keep its promise very quickly. Anyone who applied was to be given bounty-land warrants in 1788. However, the Ohio U.S. Military District didn’t open up until 15 years after the Yorktown victory. When that Military District finally did open, in 1796, it was the only land where revolutionary land grants could be used. That lasted until 1830, when those lands were enlarged, even though the original plan had been to open up lands in Illinois, instead. Cleves Symmes and the Ohio Company bought millions of acres located in Ohio in 1787 and 1788. One-seventh of the purchase price of that land was paid via federal land warrants for bounty land. Three more military land reserves were created for War of 1812 veterans. Scrip acts made it possible to redeem warrants for the Ohio lands and the Virginia United States military districts. Those acts were passed for Virginia in 1830 and Ohio in 1832. Those warrants could be redeemed in any Indiana, Illinois, or Ohio GLO office. All warrants for federal bounty land could be used in any GLO office as of 1842.
An act was passed in 1788 that allowed soldiers the option of selling their land warrants, as opposed to waiting to obtain the land themselves. Thanks to that act, land speculators quickly gained control of large amounts of land. In fact, less than a tenth of all soldiers who were given bounty-land grants (or heirs of those soldiers) ever got the land. That means that, from a research standpoint, warrants and applications for them contain a lot more useful information than the case files relating to land entry. Applications and warrants are much more useful for pinpointing proof of a person’s military service. Generally, when a soldier sold his warrant, the buyer’s signature was written on the back. However, sometimes warrants changed hands several times and only the final buyer of the warrant signed it. For instance, Mexican War veteran warrants had nothing printed on the back or the insides. So, each buyer could sign as they purchased the warrant.
Eventually, there came a time when warrants didn’t have to be used on military reserves. At that point, dealing in warrants became a major business venture. In fact, there were brokerage forms setup specifically for that purpose. They would buy in the eastern half of the country and then sell to settlers and brokers living in the western part of the country. In fact, price quotations for warrants could often be found in 1850s newspapers that specialized in financial information. From 1820 onward, the federal government charge $1.25 per acre for the majority of the land that it sold, which set a price ceiling on the market. For instance, in 1854 and 1855, 160-acre warrant prices peaked at around $1.20 per acre Soon after that, an act was passed (also in 1855) which caused the market to be flooded.
Estimates indicate that about half of Iowa was purchased using bounty-land warrants. It was the state were the most warrants were uses.
Although special rights for homesteads were granted to Civil War veterans, bounty land was not given out beyond the year 1855. Civil War veterans in1870 were given the right to claim double the land in railroad grant areas that other people were allowed to claim (160 acres as opposed to 80 acres). In 1872 they were also allowed to deduct their military service time from the 5-year homesteading requirement.
All acts that were passed between 1788 and 1855 required that either the military serviceman himself or his airs apply for the federal bounty land in question. The National Archives has a section devoted to Military Service Records. Record Group 15 in that collection holds the applications for bounty land warrants. Record Group 49 at the Suitland, Maryland National Records Center holds the records for all patentees who actually surrendered their warrants in order to claim land.
All patents, including those from land warrants, were treated the same by the GLO and filed in the same way. The Springfield, Virginia BLM Eastern States Office has the official copies of those records on file. Researchers should try to figure out the act, warrant number, and acreage in order to get the best results from their research. An example would be:
Warrant Number 8256, 40 Acres, Act of 1852
Although the National Archives may be able to figure that information out for the researcher, having some or all of the information readily available can speed up the research process. The best way for the researcher to obtain that information before asking the National Archives for assistance is to examine the application files for bounty land.