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Genealogy: Land grant records can produce research gems

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 28, 2002

Federal and state land grant applications may yield a mother lode of genealogical information if you're lucky enough to mine the right spot. But therein lies the rub. You may have to go digging in several places before you strike gold.

The information you seek could be at the National Archives and Records Administration, the Bureau of Land Management, a state archives or even in a county courthouse. That's because changing legislation routinely affected regulations and eligibility requirements for getting free land from the government, the location of land in the public domain varies depending on the time frame, and the land grant could have come from either the federal government or a state government.

Although sometimes a frustrating endeavor, the search is often worth the effort. Most applications give the applicant's name, age, birth date, residence, name of spouse and even immigration information, if the person was a naturalized citizen.

Various land grant programs existed through the years. Bounty land, homesteading, donation land entries and individual claims are the biggies. Applications relating to the first two contain the most genealogical data. Next week's column focuses on them.

BOUNTY-LAND WARRANTS: The Continental Congress came up with the novel idea of enticing men to enlist in the military and to serve until the end of the Revolutionary War with the promise of getting free land in the public domain. If they were killed, their widows or heirs could inherit the land. States also gave bounty land to Revolutionary War soldiers.

Eventually bounty-land warrants became a reward for wartime service performed between 1775 and 1855. Rank determined how much land each soldier got. Warrants acquired on the basis of Revolutionary War service could be sold or transferred, which means your ancestor may not have actually lived on that particular tract.

Qualifications varied from time to time as different legislation was enacted, but basically, the veteran or his survivors had to document his military service to get the land. Bounty-land warrant applications were eventually consolidated with military pension application files. Both are available from NARA. (Visit the NARA Web site,, or e-mail The cost is $17.25 per file.)

The last bounty-land act was passed in 1855. Because bounty-land warrants weren't given to Civil War veterans, anyone who filed a claim later than 1855 did so based on prior military service.

HOMESTEAD RECORDS: The Homestead Act, passed by Congress in May 1862, enabled each adult citizen to get 160 acres of land for a $10 fee, providing he or she agreed to cultivate the land, build a home on the property and stay there for five years. Aliens who had filed first papers could also file a claim. After living on the land for five years and paying a few more fees, the homesteader got title. A "commutation clause" added later allowed homesteaders to buy the land after living on it for six months and making some improvements. NARA has the actual application, but you'll need a legal description of the land to get it.

INDIVIDUAL CLAIMS: Before the United States officially acquired all the land from sea to shining sea, other countries owned chunks of it. Through grants or outright purchases from these nations, most notably France, Mexico, Spain and Britain, some individuals had laid claim to American soil and already settled on it. Records could be anywhere. Check with your local Mormon Family History Center or public library for more information.

DONATION LAND ENTRIES: To help strengthen America and to lay claim to land that might be in dispute with another country, the federal government gave away land in Florida, Oregon and Washington before the Civil War to just about anyone willing to settle it. NARA has files for Florida (1842-1850) and Oregon and Washington (1851-1903). State archives are another resource.

- Donna Murray Allen welcomes your questions about genealogy and will respond to those of general interest in future columns. Sorry, she can't take phone calls, but you can write to her c/o Floridian, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her at

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