Wars, Indigenous Peoples, and Bounty Land Warrants

Today being Indigenous People’s Day (known to many as Columbus Day), it is fitting to look critically at one of the historic processes in U.S. history that served to transfer Indigenous people’s land to whites. Bounty land warrants constituted a form of “thanks” for service in military campaigns that extended white control over North America. Family historians who can trace their ancestry to the 1700s or early 1800s may be able to document how their ancestors either benefited or lost from this land transfer.
 
Bounty Land Warrant

Bounty Land Warrant



Bounty land warrants entitled soldiers and officers who had served in wars, principally the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War, to public acreage at no cost. The National Archives summarize the nature of these warrants, mentioning their connection with “Indian removal.” These warrants were established by acts of Congress, which specified the tract of land available, and how many acres would go to soldiers and officers of which level of service. For example, following the Revolutionary War, while a private or noncommissioned officer was entitled to 100 acres of bounty land, a major general was entitled to 1,100 acres; these warrants could then be sold on the open market.
 
As an example of the link between land warrants and dispossession of Indigenous peoples, let’s look at the 4,000 square miles that came to be known of as the U.S. Military District of Ohio, that was given to soldiers and officers of the Revolutionary War. The Shawnee had been the principle tribe expelled in this process, as detailed by Sultzman.
 
By the time the French and British arrived in the Ohio Valley, the Shawnee were returning to land still controlled by the Iroquois who had driven them out earlier, but who were only using it as a hunting ground. For a time, the British and French welcomed the Shawnee, viewing them as trading partners. As the French and British jockeyed for power, they drew in the Shawnee (as well as other tribes) as allies. In 1754, the Iroquois ceded the Ohio Valley to the British, which had the effect of pitting Shawnee who were living there against the British. I will skip over a lot of detail here about conflicts, raids, and rebellions that took place during the 1750s and 1760s. Of significance to the issue of land transfer, in 1749 Virginia, which laid claim to the Ohio Valley, had chartered the Ohio Company, a land speculation agency many white colonists were investing in. Refusal of the British to open the area to white colonist settlement was one of the sparks setting the Revolutionary War in motion. In all of the negotiating and trading that took place, the people who were not consulted were the Shawnee, who began to experience massacres at the hands of frontiersmen. When the Revolutionary War broke out, the British recruited the Shawnee to help attack Americans. While terms of British surrender did not specify what was to happen to the Shawnee and other Indigenous peoples in the Ohio Valley, the newly-formed U.S. government went ahead and established boundaries it wanted, negotiated with some but not all local tribes, forced white squatters and Indigenous peoples off land, and proceeded to survey it and offer it up for sale as if it were not already someone’s home.
 
This is a short version of the history of land that became bounty warrants that Congress offered to military veterans after the Revolutionary War. For service in the War of 1812, six million acres in the Territories of Michigan, Illinois and Louisiana were given to military veterans, transferring land of many other tribes to whites at no cost.  (Unlike the earlier land warrants, these could be transferred only through inheritance, not through sale.)
 
I became aware of this form of land transfer while in the process of researching some of my ancestors in Tennessee. While I have not been able to document land in my family tree acquired in this way, I do have ancestors that would have qualified for it, one of them ironically for his military involvement in helping to remove the Creek Indians from Tennessee during the War of 1812. I suspect the paper trail simply does not exist anymore.
 
Here are two places where you can find out more information, including whether any of your ancestors might have either gained or lost land (these sources record who gained land, but by identifying land tracts and tracing back who was there first, Indigenous peoples can estimate how their families were impacted):
  • The Bureau of Land Management provides access to millions of Federal land title records for Eastern Public Land States, issued between 1820 and 1908, as well as images of Military Land Warrants that were issued to individuals as a reward for their military service.
  • Ancestry.com provides some background on bounty land warrants, and has a search tool, if you know the name (and rank) of a veteran, and the state in which he was enlisted.

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