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Overheard in GenForum: Public Domain Land Tract Sales
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

December 23, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I have a printout of Public Domain Land Tract Sales from the Illinois State Archives database. It shows an entry for my 3rd great grandfather in 1853. In the column marked "total price" the word Warrant is entered. The "price per acre" column shows $0.00. Does anyone know what this means? -- Ron

A: Land records are often overlooked by researchers. After all, they often contain just boring legalese in the land descriptions. Most researchers are quick to point out that their ancestors never left the really juicy land records with the land descriptions that include family relationships.

However, you have come across one of the reasons that we should seek out the land records. You just never know when they will lead you to other records, in this case valuable records.

Don't overlook land records, you never know when they will lead you to more valuable records.

Understanding Bounty Land

One of the methods that the newly formed government of what would become the United States of America used for paying its military personnel was to give them land. After the end of the American Revolution, as the states were ratifying the Constitution, there was a sort of "rider" attached to the ratification of the Constitution. Each of the states agreed to give up claims to millions of acres of land west of the Appalachian mountains in the area that would eventually become the states for Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and others in what we know as the Midwest.

While a large portion of this land was to be sold as a method of raising money for the newly formed and bankrupt government, there were some areas that were set up as payment for services rendered in the Revolutionary War, and then again in the War of 1812.

Bounty Land Acts

Over the years, Bounty Land acts have been created. The first act was that of 9 Jul 1788. Each act offered ways in which the land could be dispersed. Generally this had to do with the number of acres the veteran was entitled to. The size of acreage that the soldier may have been entitled was sometimes dependent on their rank when they left the army.

In 1796, a Congressional Act established the Congressional Military Tract in what was Ohio. Unlike other townships that were setup on the six-mile-square, the lands in the Military Tract were set up on a five-mile-square township division. Another requirement of this act was that those purchasing the lands were required to purchase a minimum of a quarter-township, which was 4000 acres (that's a lot of land). Unfortunately, most bounty warrants were for a much smaller amount of land , usually about 160 acres. Therefore, soldiers either had to go into this together, or pay out of their own pocket for the remainder of the land.

Additional acts were created each determining:

  • How much land
  • How the land was to be listed on the warrant
  • How long the soldier had to be in service
  • And other such requirements

Some of these acts would have affected the land your ancestor received in Illinois in 1853.

Locating That Record

Your next step will be to locate that land record. You will want to begin in the county in question. It is very likely that the land record may appear in the actual deeds for that county. If it does you will find that it may include all the necessary information for requesting a copy of the land case file.

Such records will sometimes list the actual act in question that entitles them to the land. It may include the soldier's rank, and it may list the land case file number. It is this land case file number that is so important in your research.

Another place to search for the land case file number is in the Bureau of Land Records database which has been indexed from 1820 to 1908. If you do find your ancestor in this database, you will indeed find everything you need to be able to request a copy of the land case file from the National Archives. You will also have a scanned image of the land patent, though you don't want to stop there. Be sure to order the complete land case file.

Ordering a Land Case File

As I mentioned, it is essential that you have the land case file number. Without this number, the National Archives cannot find your file. Once you have the file number, you will need to fill out NATF Form 84. This is then sent off to the National Archives for processing.

You can find online ordering information at the the NARA Order Forms for Military Service and Family History Records web page. You can send an e-mail request and the forms will be mailed to your home. Then once you fill them out, you will mail them in. You can either request that they charge your credit card (in which case you will supply them with that information on the form), or you can ask that they contact you with costs once the file has been located. The National Archives will then locate the file, put it aside and contact you as to how much it will cost for the copies. You then mail in the payment and they will send you the copies. If paying by credit card, these steps are avoided.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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