The National Archives has an excellent PDF document “Research in the Land Entry Files of the General Land Office” that explains in detail the Federal land acquisition process in the United States.
Land warrants for military service were issued between 1788 and 1855. The essence of the process is that a soldier (or widow) who qualified would have to prove up their claim for a warrant. For the veteran this generally meant documenting his service, establishing that he was the veteran, and stating that he had not previously received a warrant. For the widow (or heir in some cases), this would mean proving the same items as the veteran in addition to proving their relationship to the veteran.
If approved, a warrant would be issued to the applicant. This warrant was essentially a coupon that could be redeemed for a specified acreage in the federal domain. The older of the warrant could go to the federal domain and claim property themselves or sell the warrant (assigning it) to someone else. That holder of the warrant could then go and claim the property.
The warrant was then traded for the property. The “surrendered warrant” was then returned to the General Land Office and a patent was issued to the patentee. The patentee is the person who obtained title to real property. If the warrantee (the person getting the warrant) never assigned it to someone else, then the warrantee was the patentee. If the warrantee assigned the warrant to someone else, then the warrantee was not the patentee.
The warrant applications and surrendered warrants are at the National Archives.
Which ones the researcher wants depends upon the person in which they have an interest and that person’s role in the land acquisition process. A few thoughts:
- Eleanor Fugate received a warrant based upon her husband’s Revolutionary War service. She assigned it to an individual, Samuel Downing, who was not a known relative or associate. She’s my relative. I obtained a copy of her warrant application as it proves up her husband’s service and her marriage to him. Her application for the warrant will mention nothing about Downing as he did not become involved in the process until after she received the warrant. The surrendered warrant file will document Downing’s acquisition of the property, but it will say little about Downing.
- Andrew Trautvetter received a warrant based upon his Mexican War service. His application will be of interest to Trautvetter researchers. Again, researchers who are interested in the assignee who received the patent probably are not interested in his warrant application.
- Warrant applications made by heirs. If the soldier is a person of interest, the application for a warrant based upon their service generally contains useful genealogical information.
- My ancestor is a patentee because he was assigned a warrant–in other words, someone gave my ancestor or sold to my ancestor their warrant. If that’s the case, I generally do not obtain the warrant application (since my ancestor wasn’t the applicant). I generally don’t obtain the surrendered warrant either as it usually only contains the warrant and documents about the completed claim that are usually bureaucratic in nature and don’t provide genealogically useful details. Usually.
US Federal land patents can be searched at the BLM website.