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Revolutionary War Bounty Land

A land bounty is a grant of land from a government as a reward to repay citizens for the risks and hardships they endured in the service of their country, usually in a military related capacity.

By the time of the Revolutionary War, the practice of awarding bounty land as an inducement for enlisting in the military forces had been a long-standing practice in the British Empire in North America. Besides imperial bounty land grants, both colonial and municipal governments had routinely compensated participants in and victims of military conflicts with land. Land was a commodity in generous supply, and governments seized upon its availability for accomplishing their goals.

In their colonial tradition, the Revolutionary governments patterned their struggle for independence from Great Britain on the principle of bounty lands. They generally offered free lands in exchange for military service, but they strategically did so on the presumption that they would be victorious in their struggle. They would not actually award the lands until the war had been concluded and the British defeated. Such a policy not only imposed no financial constraints on the war effort but also insured a degree of support for the Revolutionary cause. The Revolutionary governments were cognizant that to the victor belonged the spoils and that defeat brought no reward. Bounty lands were an effective propaganda technique for enrolling support for the war among the citizenry and preventing them from lapsing into the British fold when the tide of battle ebbed.

Those colonies with unseated lands used their advantage to enlist support for the cause with the offer of free lands. Unfortunately, some of the Original Thirteen enjoyed no such advantage. There was no bounty land policy in Delaware, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, or Vermont. Those states lacked enough vacant land to support such a policy. Bounty lands were a feature, however, in Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia. Administratively, these nine states selected reserves in their western domains for the location of bounty lands. Such a choice was seemingly quite logical. By placing veterans on the frontier, the states would be able to rely upon a military force which in turn would be able to protect the settlements from Indian incursions. These state governments also realized that they had to encourage the ex-soldiers to occupy their newly awarded bounty lands, so they granted exemptions from taxation ranging from a few years to life to those veterans who would locate on their respective bounty lands. Such a policy also had the effect of retarding the exodus of a state's population. Since most of the Indian nations had supported the British during the Revolutionary War, the Thirteen States were cautious in approaching their former enemies. Populating the frontier with citizens skilled in defense offered the best prospect in enticing other settlers to join them. Veterans were knowledgeable in the use of firearms and in military strategy. Knowing that they would be defended if the need arose was reassuring to many settlers. The state governments also realized that the revenue derived from the sale of vacant lands in the west was badly needed. The extension of settlements on the frontier would, in time, also increase the tax rolls and contribute to the reduction of their Revolutionary War debts. In the aftermath of the war, the states with transappalachian claims ceded some of those claims to the federal government, but not until they had the assurance of being able to fulfill their bounty land commitments.

Accordingly, the issue of bounty lands has far wider geographical implications than the area encompassed by the nine state governments which instituted the practice. Besides the original states of Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia, the future states of Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Ohio, and Tennessee were directly affected by the bounty land system. While the administrative records were, with one exception, the purview of the former nine, the bounty land reserves involved the five transappalachian states. The states of Georgia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina either had no claims to transappalachian territory or relinquished their claims to the national government. Accordingly, their reserves for bounty lands lay within their own western borders. In the cases of Georgia and New York, these reserves were to be situated on the definition of their western borders as they existed in 1783. The bounty land reserves in those two states today would be described as being centrally located. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts allotted its bounty lands in the then District of Maine, which in 1820 achieved statehood status.

While most of the states awarded bounty lands for military service, there were two exceptions. Connecticut compensated its citizenry with lands in Ohio if their homes, outbuildings, and businesses were destroyed by the British. The Nutmeg State seemingly awarded no bounty land for military service per se. Georgia also issued lands to its civilian population who had remained loyal, or at the very least neutral, to the Revolutionary cause after the British restored royal control. There were no Revolutionary war bounty land grants within the current borders of the southern states of North Carolina and Virginia. The former issued its bounty lands in its western lands which became Tennessee. The latter selected reserves for its bounty lands in Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio before ceding its claims to the federal

government. The Continental Congress also made use of the policy of bounty lands. The federal government likewise selected a reserve in the Northwest Territory where bounty land warrants could be used to locate land. The U.S. Military Tract in Ohio encompassed portions or all of the counties of Coshochton, Delaware, Franklin, Guernsey, Holmes, Knox, Licking, Marion, Morrow, Muskingum, Noble, and Tuscarawas.

With the exception of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the other states permitted qualified veterans and/or their dependents to receive bounty lands from both the federal and the respective state governments. Accordingly, there may be relevant bounty land files for soldiers in the Continental Line at both the federal and state levels. While New York made some adjustments, double dipping was the norm in the other states.

Following the American victory at Yorktown in 1781, the various governments sought to implement their bounty land programs. The delay in establishing a governmental agency to fulfill the bounty land pledge holds dual benefits genealogically. Firstly, it increases the likelihood of the survival of a paper trail for proving Revolutionary War participation for many individuals who may not be mentioned in any other record. Secondly, because the benefits were still being processed as late as the 1870s in some jurisdictions, there may be a wealth of information pertaining to heirs in bounty land files. Not only do the records locate the veteran in time and place him in a given locality during the Revolutionary War, they also do so for him and/or his dependents in the years following independence when internal migrations within the nation complicate the identification of specific individuals in their various removals.

The index to those claims appears in the Index to Revolutionary War Pension Applications in the National Archives (Washington, D.C.: National Genealogical Society, 1976). The federal bounty land records are included in the National Archives micropublication, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, 1800-1900, Series M804, 2,670 rolls. Abstracts of these files appear in the four-volume work of Virgil D. White, Genealogical Abstracts of Revolutionary War Pension Files (Waynesboro, Tenn.: The National Historical Publishing Company, 1990-1992).

The appearance of an individual or family in the west after 1783 offers considerable challenge in learning the former domicile or in establishing filiation. A master index to the bounty land grants of the relevant state governments seemed to offer expeditious access to the records holding the potential solution to such a dilemma. While access to the federal records has long since been available in a master index, and while many localities have been treated individually by others works of varying quality, the absence of an overall index has impeded effective use of these significant records.

This article was submitted anonymously.


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