Family Tree Friday: Bounty land vs. pensions–what’s the difference, anyway?
Since the beginning of the Family Tree Friday blog, we’ve talked a lot about pension records and indexes, but I’m not too sure we’ve ever mentioned or even defined that other essential and related benefit of military service, the bounty land warrant! Pensions, of course, have been granted to veterans since the end of the Revolutionary War, at first just for disabilities suffered in the line of duty, but eventually as a general reward for military service during specific conflicts. However, From 1788 to 1855, the U.S. government also granted bounty land for military service. Army recruiters used the enticement of free land as an effective incentive to encourage enlistments. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress and several states first authorized the use of bounty land. The practice continued during later conflicts, whenever the nation called upon volunteers to serve in times of national crisis, particularly during the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. Bounty land was also granted for service during the Old Indian Wars of the Antebellum period, such as the three Florida Seminole wars that took place from 1817 to 1858. For the Civil War and later conflicts, the federal government stopped granting bounty land and only issued pensions for service and disabilities.
Initially, most early bounty land could only be claimed in military districts located within Ohio and other public land states in the former Northwest Territory. Later legislation granted land anywhere within the public domain. (Since the original 13 colonies came into the federal Union as sovereign states, their territory was never considered part of the public domain. Records about bounty land issued by those state governments, for land located within their state borders, would be held by the respective state archives. They are NOT federal records!) The administrative aspects of processing federal bounty land applications resided in various offices within the War Department until 1841, when the Secretary of War transferred those responsibilities to the Pension Office.
Congress passed a slew of bounty land acts between 1788 and 1855–too many, really, to make sense of in a short blog!–which set and revised the eligibility requirements for veterans and their heirs (including widows and dependents) to receive bounty land. Veterans who were granted bounty land by the government usually received a colorful, embossed warrant (such as the one shown below that was issued to my own ancestor, Daniel Heilman, for service in the War of 1812) that entitled them to take ownership of the land in the public domain. All the soldier had to do was surrender the warrant to a federal land office of his choice, or to the General Land Office, who would then locate the grant for him. A land patent was then issued to the veteran, and a legal description of the grant including its location was recorded in the land entry register.
For the most part, it seems that the majority of veterans who received bounty land never actually claimed the land itself–most of them, after all, were already well-established in their home communities when they went into military service, and many did not particularly want to go homesteading in the west. They were usually more interested in turning the bounty land into cash, so instead, they sold their bounty land warrant to a land speculator, who in turn sold the land to a third party who actually took up the homestead. This is exactly what happened in the case of Daniel Heilman. He received his bounty land warrant for 160 acres on December 1, 1855, and a month later sold the warrant and all rights to the land to Willson T. Keever. Two months later, on March 17, 1856, Keever sold the warrent to George W. Gunneson, who then surrendered the warrant to the federal land office at Chariton, Lucas County, Iowa, in exchange for a parcel of land located in the northwest corner of the county.
At the National Archives, we have several series of bounty land records that relate to different wars, all of them located in Record Group 15, Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Revolutionary War bounty land applications are included in the same series as the pension files (see ARC ID 300022). These records have been microfilmed as M804, Revolutionary War and Bounty-land Warrant Application Files, and are also available online via Footnote.com and HeritageQuest. War of 1812 pension and bounty land applications are also filed together (see ARC ID 564415); a digitization project is currently underway to scan these files as well on Footnote. Finally, there is a general series of bounty land applications that cover military service between 1812 and 1855 (ARC ID 567388), known somewhat infamously as the “Unindexed” bounty land series (although a database is currently being compiled by NARA volunteers. To date, the database covers applications for surnames A through Ho, so keep checking back as more progress is made!) Surrendered bounty land warrants and corresponding land patents are located in Record Group 49, Records of the Bureau of Land Management. The available records are too numerous to describe here, so contact us anytime for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org!