Heather Jager was a 2015 summer intern in the Archives 1 Reference Section in Washington, DC.
During my summer internship, I came across an orphan document – a document that has been separated from its file. It was made of parchment that was dry and slightly rigid; its bottom half had been torn off at some point before it was transferred to the National Archives, and the remaining piece had lines indicating that it had once been folded. The print on the document was in decent condition despite being covered in inkblots, but the handwriting was illegible. Any identifiable personal information, such as a name, was barely discernible. I noticed that President James Monroe’s name was clearly visible, but his signature was nowhere to be found. What sparked my interest, however, was what appeared to be a file number, #12336, on the document. Could this file number give me a clue about the identity of the document? With only that number to go on, I decided to try to find out more about the document.
I discovered that the document in question was a land patent (a document akin to a property title) that was issued to James Oneal, who enlisted in the United States Army during the War of 1812. A Congressional Act of 1812 gave men the incentive to serve in the U.S. Army in exchange for land. After one year of service as a Private in the 23rd U.S. Infantry, Oneal applied to the Army for a tract of land (“bounty” land) and was granted 160 acres of land in the Illinois Territory. Once approved, he was then issued a warrant that he presented to a regional branch of the General Land Office (GLO). After he surrendered said warrant, he was assigned land; however, he would not have received the land patent document at that time. The actual land patent was created by the GLO in Washington, DC. As soon as the patent was generated, it was then sent back to the local GLO office. At this point, Oneal was required to present himself at this office in person in order to obtain the patent, which he did.
While the original patent was given to the applicant, the information contained within said patent was transcribed into a ledger at the GLO headquarters in Washington, DC. The pages in the ledger were essentially a facsimile of the patent given to the land owner. If this was the normal procedure the GLO followed, what was an original land patent – or a portion of one – doing in James Oneal’s file?
After consulting with one of the archivists on staff who specializes in land records, I used the patent number on the document (12336) to track down Oneal’s file. In it was a letter, dated 29 December 1824, that helps to explain the condition of the warrant. In this letter, Oneal writes that while traveling to Illinois, his saddle bags, which contained the patent and vials of ink, were “knocked over board,” and the ink and water almost obliterated the writing from the parchment. Oneal’s letter also provides insight into the missing bottom half of the patent, and alludes not only to James Madison’s signature, but that of Josiah Meigs, who was the Commissioner of the United States General Land Office at the time this patent was recorded.
I then went a bit further and used Oneal’s patent number to search the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) website. (Please note that when the GLO merged with the Bureau of Reclamation, it was hence known as the Bureau of Land Management.) There I found a government copy of Oneal’s land warrant, and a map indicating the precise piece of land that was allotted to him. Upon further investigation, it appeared that Oneal’s land was located within Sangamon County, the location from which his letter to the Bureau of Land Management was sent. So, it appears that Oneal made it safely to his 160 acres, even though his land patent was a little worse for wear.
For researchers interested in bounty land warrant applications files before 1855—including those for the War of 1812 era—please consult Record Group 15 (Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs). For information about land entry files, researchers may want to check Reference Information Paper 114, Research in the Land Entry Files of the General Land Office .
Documents relating to the transaction of land from the government to an applicant should look at the series, “Land Entry Case Files” (NAID 7541372), which is in Record Group 49 (Records of the Bureau of Land Management). Surrendered bounty land patent files can be found in a subset of the above referenced series, specifically “Military Bounty-Land Warrants Under the Act of 1812, #1-28085” (NAID 4923870), which is also part of Record Group 49.
As for the orphaned document itself, it will be safely returned to its original file in the series, “Military Bounty-Land Warrants Under the Act of 1812, #1-28085” (NAID 4923870) mentioned above.