If you have an ancestor who came into what is now Texas in the 1700s or 1800s, understanding the history, jurisdictions, and records will be key to your research. This is the last of a three-part series where we’ve explored the Spanish, Mexican, Republic, and Statehood eras of Texas.
We want to learn about our ancestor’s actions. Land can reveal military service, the time when the family moved to Texas, how long they had lived on the land, and more. The land records can reveal military service if the ancestor or his heirs received a grant for his involvement in a war or other conflict. The land grants include the original surveys, complete with a map showing the neighbors. Because the ancestor could choose his own land, the neighbors were likely his family, friends, or acquaintances. Research the land grants of the neighbors to see if there are any clues to your ancestor. Did they serve in the military together? Did they move into the area at the same time? Land grants have many possibilities for research.
In part 1 we discussed the Spanish Colonial Era in Texas and in part 2 we learned about the brief, but important Mexican Era. This article will focus on how the Republic and then the State of Texas issued land to the thousands of settlers that poured in after independence from Mexico in 1836.
Republic of Texas
History of Land
The Mexican Congress passed the Law of April 6, 1830, prohibiting further immigration from the U.S. and canceled all empresario contracts with only Austin and DeWitt getting permission to continue. This law angered the settlers who wanted family members and friends to join them in Texas. Land speculation also was a problem and by 1835 talk had begun of gaining independence from Mexico. Delegates from various parts of Texas gathered to draft a declaration of independence and constitution that was patterned after that of the United States. The Republic of Texas declared its sovereignty on 2 March 1836 and continued as an independent body until 19 February 1846 when it joined the United States.
Once Texas gained independence, the First Congress of the Republic defined the boundaries of the Republic and required all previous land transactions to be submitted to the newly formed General Land office. All vacant land was the property of the Republic. The Republic needed to fund a militia in defense again the Native American tribes and Mexicans. With land its primary resource, the government issued bounty grants to soldiers according to how long they had served in the Army of the Republic. Various acts determined how much land was awarded. Because of the importance of the land for revenue, the Republic took great care to obtain land records from the land offices under Mexico and those records kept as the Republic and later the state of Texas. Because of the care taken, these records are a treasure trove of information for a genealogist.1
Land Application Process
During the unstable period after the revolution and the development of a new government, the Republic issued headright grants from 1836 to 1842 to keep settlers in Texas. These grants initially were for 4,605.5 acres per family or 1,476.1 acres per single man. The Republic wanted to encourage more settlers in order to increase the tax base, raise land values, and protect against Mexican and Native American raids.
In 1837, each county had to create a board of land commissioners to review the land claims for headrights. Fraudulent practices occurred within the system with witnesses less than credible in some cases, but the county boards approved almost all the claims. The men serving on the county boards would have been their friends and neighbors. In total over 30 million acres were granted through headright certificates. The process to obtain a headright grant consisted of several steps for the applicant. Once the applicant completed the steps and the land commissioners approved the patent the original was sent to the grantee and a copy made for the Texas General Land Office. The sequence of application follows.
- Complete an application to the board of land commissioners in the county of residence.
- Choose land in the county of residence or any county with available land.
- Prove residence and marital status by two witnesses.
- Pay $5.00 to the board for a certificate.
- If valid, choose a plot and have it surveyed.
- Certify the field notes and send them with the application to the General Land office.
- Receive a patent signed by the President of the Republic and land commissioner.
Headright Grants by Class
The records were filed and indexed by time periods called classes. By noting the “class” on your ancestor’s land grant, you can learn much about when the ancestor arrived in Texas and what he had to do to receive the headright grant.
- Class 1 Act of 1836
- Settlers who arrived prior to 2 March 1836 and had not received a Mexican land grant
- Heads of families were eligible for one league and one labor of land
- Single men 1/3 of a league
- Those with a previous Mexican grant could augment the land up to the allowed amount
- The applicant was not required to live on the land
- Class 2 Act of December 1837
- Arrivals from 22 March 1836 to 1 October 1837
- Heads of families were eligible for 1,280 acres and single men 640 acres
- Required to reside in the Republic for 3 years
- Class 3: Act of 1838
- Arrivals from 1 October 1837 to 1 January 1840
- Heads of families were eligible for 640 acres and single men 320 acres
- Required to reside in the Republic for 3 years
- Class 4: Act of 1842
- Arrivals from 1 January 1840 to 1 January 1842
- Same as for class 3 but settlers had to cultivate at least 10 acres
- Filed under the class 3 heading
Colony Grants 1841-1844
The Republic of Texas needed still more settlers so reinstituted the empresario system used by Spain and Mexico. The congress gave the president authority to make contracts with individual empresarios. Each contract was unique and if you discover your ancestor was part of one of these colonies, you’ll want to research the specifics of the contract. In general, the colonists were to come from outside the Republic. These land grants were filed under the Class 3 heading and included four empresario colonies established under contracts with the Republic of Texas: Peter’s, Fisher and Miller’s, Castor’s, and Mercer’s.
There were many problems associated with these colonies because Texans with land certificates from the various land grant acts also wanted to settle in the land laid aside for the colonies. Some of the empresarios settled foreigners from Europe as well. Many Texans thought the foreigners were receiving the best land and the empresario act was repealed in 1844. Over 5 ½ million acres of public domain land had been conveyed to settlers through this system. The populations had grown substantially from about 38,000 to 130,000 and land prices had risen as hoped.
Below is an example of a Mercer Colony grant filed as a 3rd class headright, issued to Benjamin Cox. Charles Mercer located his colonists on the frontier as a defense again the Native American or Mexican raiders. Benjamin Cox came from Arkansas and became a Texas Ranger. Like many other Texans, he sold his original land plat and relocated. Notice the snippet of the survey map showing neighbors. The grant states a specific land description that can be used to locate it in modern-day Texas.
Texas Statehood: 20 December 1845
By 1845 the Republic of Texas had evolved from being a land of very large landholders as in the Spanish and Mexican era. Instead, the Republic had divided the land into much small parcels in order to increase the population. During the ten years of governance, the Republic had distributed over forty million acres of land. Taken together, Spain and Mexico had only distributed about twenty-six million acres. When Texas became a state, it retained its public land and is one of the state land states, meaning that it had the right to distribute its land, not the Federal government. The state constitution of 1845 recognized those titles granted by the previous administrations of Spain, Mexico, and the Republic as long as they were valid. The state continued to grant land to attract settlers, reward settlers, have more revenue.
Preemption Grants 1845-1854
The Republic passed the first preemption act in 1845. This meant that anyone who settled, lived on, and improved the land could purchase the land for $.50 an acre after three years. The settlers were allowed up to 320 acres of vacant public land. The state of Texas passed a similar law in 1853, then in 1854 passed another act reducing the amount of land to 160 acres. The program closed in 1856, but following the Civil War, Preemption was reinstated until the public domain land had been depleted in 1898. A settler could qualify by living on the land for three years and making improvements.
Military Land Grants: Republic and the State of Texas
Both the Republic and the state of Texas rewarded their soldiers with land because there was no other resource. Following the example of other countries like Spain and the United States it awarded bounty grants.
- Military Headrights 1836 – 1838
- Filed under the Class 1 heading for the same amount of land – 4,605 acres for the head of a family
- Granted to volunteer soldiers from 2 March 1836- 1 August 1836
- Bounty Grants 1837-1888
- Granted to soldiers who had provided military service to the Republic prior to 1 October 1837 according to the length of their service
- Grantees were allowed 320 acres for every three months of military service, up to 1,280 acres
- Donation Grants
- Awarded for participation in specific battles of the Texas Revolution such as the Alamo or Goliad
- Intended to be a reward for military service
- Most certificates were issued for 640 acres.
- Veteran Donation Grants 1879-1887
- Granted to veterans of the Texas Revolution and signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence through an act of the Texas legislature
- Repealed in 1887 because public lands had almost all been conveyed
- Confederate Scrip Grants 1881-1883
- Granted to permanently disabled Confederate veterans and widows of soldiers who died in service
- To receive a scrip land certificate, applicants had to present two credible witnesses of war service to the county court, and prove they possessed no more than $1,000 in property.
- Because half the public domain was reserved for the Permanent School Fund, the act required that, for each certificate, an equal amount of land be surveyed for the schools.
- Public land eventually ran out and the act of 1883 repealed the confederate scrip grants.
Texas Land Survey System
Because Texas is a state land state, it does not use the federal land survey system of section, township, and range. Instead, the land has a unique system often measured in Spanish units of measurement. A “vara” is a unit of length and is Spanish for rod or pole. It measures roughly a yard or 33 1/3 inches. A “labor” is a measurement of area and is used to equal 1 million square varas. A labor equals about 177.1 acres. A “league” is also a measurement of area and equals 25 million square varas or 4,428.4 acres.
In the Mercer Colonist land grant for my ancestor Hickman Monroe Shults shown below, you can see the abbreviations for varas written as “vs.”2
The original land grant files are organized by land district instead of county. After Texas gained independence from Mexico, the General Land Office was created. The GLO was to issue new land patents and validate titles issued under Spain and Mexican rule. When the Republic of Texas was formed in 1836, the original 23 counties did not have well-defined boundaries. As the population grew, the county boundaries continued to change. After statehood, the Texas state legislature declared the 36 counties in existence on 15 February 1846 to be declared the land districts of the state of Texas. A full-color land district map can be viewed courtesy of the Texas General Land Office that includes the three-letter abbreviation used for the index.
The 1891 map below shows the basic outline of the 36 land districts.3
Finding the Records
The Texas General Land Office (GLO) is the place to start the search for an ancestor’s land grants. The Land Grant database currently has over 800,000 records. Start with the Surname Index or go straight to the Land Grant Search. The entire land grant packets are being digitized and are available online free of charge. If the record you are seeking is not yet digitized, it can be viewed onsite at the Texas General Land Office in Austin, Texas.
Other websites can be included in your research plan. The FamilySearch Catalog is another source for locating various materials relating to the Texas Land Grants. Search by Keyword > Texas Land Grants, or search by Place > Texas and select “Land.” The Ancestry.com collection “Texas, Land Title Abstracts, 1700-2008,” contains abstracts of the original land titles located at the Texas General Land Office. If an ancestor is located here, be sure to use the Land Grant database at the Texas GLO to view the original record.
After the original land grant was issued, further land transactions took place at the county courthouse. Many of these have been digitized by FamilySearch. Use the FamilySearch Catalog to locate them. Use the Place field: United States, Texas, [county]. Do not use the word “county” in the search. Under the topic “land and property” select “deeds.” Most of these records have been digitized and are available to view from home or at a Family History Center / FamilySearch affiliate library.
Using Land Records as Evidence
Some of the details that could be revealed in a land record are the place of emigration, the date of arrival in Texas, evidence of a wife and children, residence, associates, and military service. Take the time to transcribe the entire land file. See my blog post “4 Tips for Transcribing a Multi-Page Document File in Google Docs” for suggestions.
Using land records in conjunction with census, tax, court, and other records, a more complete picture of an ancestor’s life can be formed. Create a timeline of the life events and records of the ancestor to discover additional avenues for research and separate him from men of the same name. Study the laws and acts that resulted in the ancestor receiving land.
Take advantage of historic maps to learn more about the land. The Texas General Land Office website hosts a Land/Lease Mapping Viewer. This application displays original Texas land survey boundaries and more.
To see a map of the land patent for Hickman Monroe Shults, I entered the abstract # and could look at his land with several different views, including the one below. Notice H. Shults land plat in the center of his neighbors. This map is laid over a current map of Navarro County, and I can see that it is located south of the airport, just off of Highway 45. It couldn’t get any easier to see where my ancestor’s original Texas land can be found today!
It has never been easier to research the complicated land grants our Texas ancestors received. Using the information in this series, you can go forward to learn more about the why, when, and what about their move to Texas.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!
- Joseph M. Nance, “Republic of Texas,” TSHA Handbook of Texas (https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/republic-of-texas : accessed 19 February 2022)
- Texas Land Grant, Hickman M Shults grantee and patentee, 1852, Navarro County, Robertson District 3rd Class, Abstract 756, File Number 000598, The Texas General Land Office (https://s3.glo.texas.gov/glo/history/archives/land-grants/LandGrantsWorklist.cfm : accessed 18 February 2022).
- O.G. Kurio, “Map of the State of Texas Showing Original Land Districts,” Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1891, Map #73598, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office (https://medium.com/save-texas-history/organizing-the-archives-the-land-districts-of-texas-59dfad961698 : accessed 18 February 2022).