Military Land Grants

The system of granting free land in the public domain to men who served the United States during military conflicts—or, in the case of their death, to their heirs—was implemented in 1788. Following the Revolutionary War, this system of issuing military bounty warrants served as a way for the cash-poor United States to use large tracts of land to meet its obligations to soldiers. Warrants for Revolutionary War service were issued under acts of 1788, 1803, and 1806. The first series of warrants for the War of 1812 were issued under acts of 1811, 1812, and 1814. Some of the land set aside for these warrants was located in what would become Arkansas.

Before any warrants could be issued, the land had to be surveyed. An act of May 6, 1812, provided for the survey of six million acres of public land fit for cultivation for military land grants. By August 1815, the commissioner of the General Land Office announced that two million of those acres would be located between the St. Francis and Arkansas rivers in what would become eastern Arkansas. Surveyors discovered that much of the tract of land in this area was subject to overflows from the rivers and not suitable for cultivation, however, so more land in Arkansas Territory had to be opened for survey. As late as 1821, additional land was still being surveyed to meet the military bounty land quotas. As soon as the surveys were completed in a district in Arkansas, the U.S. government set up a land office to advertise and handle land sales for that specific district. Land agencies opened by individuals who operated for profit also emerged around Arkansas.

On November 11, 1823, the Arkansas Gazette published an act passed by the Arkansas Territorial General Assembly to regulate the collection of taxes on military bounty lands. The act made it the duty of each county sheriff to enter and list on the tax books all bounty land in each county that had been issued three years prior to June 1, 1824. The act further provided that the owner had four months after the land had been entered by the sheriff to pay the taxes due on the land. If the taxes were not paid by the deadline, the land would be sold for the amount of the taxes due on the land. If the land had been transferred, the taxes were due from the date of transfer.

Many acres of land in Arkansas were granted in this way. The amount of land given depended on the rank of the veteran, and veterans had to apply for the land. The land was located by lottery, and a patent was issued for the land. As most of the veterans were not residents of Arkansas and never claimed their land, land speculators purchased large amounts of the bounty land at the tax sales and later sold it at a profit. One such land speculator made lists of veterans who had never applied or received their military land grants and tried to contact them to purchase their land warrants at reduced prices. He also had partners from outside Arkansas who helped locate veterans eligible for bounty land warrants.

At first, most of the land warrants were issued for specific parcels of land. Over the years, acts were passed so that the warrants were issued for the number of acres, and the person holding the warrant could locate available land at any Arkansas land office and use the warrant to pay for the land.

Other acts allowed Native Americans who had served in the U.S. military—beginning with the War of 1812 and in conflicts with other Native Americans, such as the Creek and Seminole Wars—to be eligible for military land grants. Other acts allowed state militia veterans who were enlisted for short periods of time (such as during the roundup of Cherokee to be taken to Indian Territory) to apply for warrants.

Thousands of acres of land in almost every county in Arkansas were obtained through the military bounty land system. Government land records show the act under which the warrant was issued, the name of the veteran, his rank, the conflict where he served, the number of acres of land, and the legal description of the land under the range and township system. When heirs were involved, their names were included. If the warrant was assigned, that information was also on the warrant. On March 22, 1852, an act was passed that made it possible for the veteran or his heirs to assign their warrants over to others. The warrants were also approved by the U.S. president in office when the warrants were issued.

An example of one such warrant was warrant No. 65018 issued to Miles Killian, acting assistant surgeon of the North Carolina militia during Cherokee removal. This warrant was for 160 acres located in the district of land available for sale in Little Rock (Pulaski County). It was assigned by Killian to William B. Wait and approved by President James Buchanan.

An act to end the military land grants was passed in 1858. Veterans or their heirs were given five years to claim land under the system, and no warrants were to be issued after 1863.

For additional information:
“An Act to Regulate Taxes on Military Bounties.” Arkansas Gazette, November 11, 1823, p. 1.

General Land Office Records. Bureau of Land Management, United States Department of the Interior. http://www.glorecords.blm.gov/ (accessed August 18, 2014).

Logan, Robert R. “Notes on the First Land Surveys in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 19 (Autumn 1960): 260–270.

Smith, David A. “Preparing the Arkansas Wilderness for Settlement: Public Land Survey Administration, 1803–1836.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 71 (Winter 2012): 381–406.

Carolyn Yancey Kent
Jacksonville, Arkansas

Last Updated 8/25/2014