Pensions and Bounty Land Warrants

The men and women who serve in the military are often compensated in some extra way for their service. In the case of the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, early Indian Wars, the Mexican War, and the Civil War, the records of these veterans' benefits — pensions and bounty land warrant applications — are perhaps the most valuable resources available for genealogical researchers.

Military pensions were granted by the federal government or state government to disabled and needy veterans, to the widows or dependent orphans of veterans, or to veterans who served for a certain length of time and lived long enough to receive the pension benefits. Pension files are often rich in genealogical information, containing such facts as birth date and place, marriages, residence at time of application, property holdings, and names of minor children.

Supporting documents, such as discharge papers, testimony from neighbors and fellow soldiers, marriage certificates, physician's reports, and family bible pages, can sometimes be found included with pension files, especially in cases where the veteran had difficulty proving their pension eligibility. These are the thick, juicy files that all genealogists drool over!

If your direct ancestor wasn't involved in the military or you can't find any records for him, look for the records of brothers, uncles, cousins, and neighbors. These may contain information and testimony that refer to your direct lineage. This is a research technique known as cluster genealogy.

The federal government, and some states, granted free land known as bounty land to veterans as an inducement or reward for service in the military. Bounty land warrants were issued from the colonial period until 1858, when the program was discontinued, to veterans of the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and Mexican War. Bounty land was not available for Civil War soldiers.

Veterans or their heirs could claim this free land by filing an application, known as a bounty land warrant application. If the application was approved, the individual was given a warrant that he could later exchange for land on which he could settle. The government set aside certain land districts in the frontier areas where veterans could redeem their warrant for bounty land.

Many historians believe that this was designed to lure the battle-trained soldiers and their families into areas where they could serve as a buffer against Indian attacks. Most veterans were too smart to fall for that ploy, and instead chose to sell their land warrants to speculators. Therefore, your veteran ancestor may have applied for a bounty land warrant, but never received title to or settled on bounty land.

Many of the early Revolutionary War bounty land application files from 1789 to 1800 were destroyed in a War Department fire. Most of the surviving applications relating to Revolutionary War and War of 1812 service have been combined with the pension files because they contain similar types of information.

An excellent online resource for these records is the Revolutionary War Pensions database at Fold3.com, with both a name index and digitized images reproduced from National Archives microfilm publication M804.

If Fold3.com isn't available to you, then check to see if your local library subscribes to HeritageQuest Online. There, the Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files database, which also includes an index as well as digitized copies of the original handwritten records, was taken from NARA microfilm M805, which reproduces selected portions of the pension and bounty land applications filed by Revolutionary War veterans or their heirs between 1800 and 1906, generally about 10 pages or fewer per file of the most genealogically significant documents. If you find an ancestor in the HeritageQuest database, you really want to consider accessing the complete file at Fold3.com as well.

FamilySearch.org (Civil War Pension Index Cards — free) and Fold3.com (Civil War and Later Veterans Pension Index — subscription) each host a searchable name index and images of the pension index cards of Union Civil War veterans reproduced from NARA microfilm T-289, Organization Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861–1917, with more than 3 million index entries documenting the pension applications of soldiers, sailors, and their widows.

A similar Civil War Pension Index is available on Ancestry.com, reproduced from NARA microfilm T-288, General Index to Pension Files, 1861–1934. It's worth checking both the T-288- and T-289-based indexes, as they each may contain slightly different information.

The War of 1812 Pension Project, a collaboration of the Federation of Genealogical Societies and the National Archives, is undertaking to digitize and put online the 180,000 pension files of soldiers who served in the War of 1812. A search engine query such as genealogy pension will turn up additional online sources of military pension records, such as the USGenWeb Archives Pension Project.

Copies of military pension claim files for military service from the American Revolution up to just before World War I (1775 to 1912), and bounty land warrant applications for federal military service prior to 1856, can be ordered online from the National Archives, or by mail using NATF Form 85. They will only copy up to 100 pages, however, and it's not at all uncommon for Civil War pension files in particular to run in excess of that, so you may get better results by hiring a professional genealogist to obtain the file in person from the National Archives. It's important to note that the National Archives pensions and bounty land warrants are based on federal (not state or Confederate) service. Pension records for Confederate soldiers are discussed in the Civil War section later in this chapter.

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