Land Grants, Westward

Land Grants, Westward Expansion and Pioneering Clays

By Kennerly Clay

Did your Clays head west after 1850? 

They may have been direct or indirect recipients of land grants that were conferred after the Land Grant Act of 1850.

By 1860 the U.S. Government had amassed 685.3 acres in territory through the Treaty of Paris, the Louisiana Purchase, and let’s not ignore the nefarious land-grabs from Native Americans through Indian “relocation” and outright slaughter. This government land was now called the “public domain.”

The map is titled Map of the Land Grant of the Kansas Pacific Railway, from Kansas City, Mo. to Denver Col. T.. It was made in 1869 by Henry Seibert & Bros. The original map is 28 x 40 cm. In addition to the rail line, the map shows Native American habitation and bison ranges. The line between Kansas City (east) and Denver (west) is separated into the two sections (the western extension to Colorado was built in 1879, several years after the eastern section). The coloration indicates the extent of the land grants on either side of the rail line. Source: Public Domain

As a young country with limited resources, the United States saw the opportunity to leverage its land, particularly through westward expansion.

And how was the west expanding? By railroad of course.

So the government would sell huge tracts of land to the railroad companies at a deep discount. The plots were sold in a checkerboard fashion in alternating quadrants on opposite sides of the railroad track as it was being laid.

The contingency was that the railroads would help ensure successful promotion and development of towns and communities along the major railway lines. As people were “sold” on the idea of going west and settling on these RR plots, the adjacent, government-owned pieces of land would increase in value.

Who was eligible to receive land grants?

Aside from the railroads, the govern­ment used land grants as a reward for military service. This was called-bounty land warrants.

Specifically, land grants were issued to veterans of:

Military veterans would apply at their local office to receive the land grant.

Although Civil war veterans were generally not in the land grant pool, as time went on, the grants were given to a wider range of military service veterans.

Although the idea was to encourage people to go west, those lands often went unused by those who received them. If you have East Coast Clay ancestor military veterans, for example, who applied and received land grants yet never went west, it’s quite possible they transferred the land to someone else

A clause allowed for sale and transfer to others so the land often went to someone who did want to venture westward, or to someone who was already there and wanted more land. As for the higher-valued government land, the wealthier folks who could actually afford it ended up staying on the East Coast

Bounty Land Warrant, Act of 1850, 80 acres, #2998, issued to Alexander Blair, private, Captain Dudley’s Company, Colonel Woodfolk’s Regiment, Tennessee Militia, War of 1812.

If you think you have a Clay ancestor who may have received a land grant for military service, you can search the Records of the Bureau of Land Management and find original documents like the one shown above. Or, if you know the person from whom your Clay ancestor purchased land–who was perhaps a land grant recipient–you can search by that person’s name.

The Homestead Act of 1862

Thus the Homestead Act of 1862 was born. Since people weren’t going west as quickly as the railroads were proceeding, and therefore, there weren’t enough people to support local economies and railroad services, the government decided to open up the land opportunity. 

The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed access to plots of land out west for just about anyone who could come up with $1.25/acre and could survive the trip. Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska were big draws at the time. 

Missouri Clays, migration and land grants

We caught up with a couple of our Clay Family Society kin, including Marcia Hovenden, whose 3rd-great-uncle, William B. Clay, migrated from Kentucky to Missori to Illinois. William’s sister Julina Witten Clay was Hovenden’s third great grandmother.

Born ca. 1817, Wm. B. married Malvina Harmon. Thanks to research provided by CFS’ Pat Dunford, the 1850 census of Daviess County, Missouri, shows William B., age 32, b. Kentucky, with his family, Malvina, 33 (VA), Daniel P., 11 (KY), Rebecca 9 (VA), Precilla (VA) 7, John M., 4 (KY) and William Z. T. 1 (KY). In 1860, we find William B. and Malvina in Grand River, Daviess County, with Daniel P., now 21, John 14, and Zach T. 12.

Hovenden points out, “Notice that their oldest child was born in Kentucky, the next two children born in Virginia, and the two youngest children born in Kentucky.  Evidently they moved to Missouri some time in the 1850s.”

A plat in Plattsburg, Missouri

This makes sense in light of the land certificate below signed by President Franklin B Pierce on October 1, 1856, indicating the sale of 120 acres of public lands in Plattsburg, Daviess County, Missouri, to William B. Clay. The Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records indicates that this sale was under the Land Act of 1820, an earlier land grant which ended the payment installment system for land ownership but made it easier to own land by lowering the price from $2.00 to $1.25 (approximately $24/acre nowadays). 

This would’ve made it easier for the pioneering Wm. B., Malvina, and family to deepen their roots in Missouri.

William B. was a private in Company B of the Missouri Cavalry and was listed as missing from Gordon’s Brigade in Missouri. 

“The short Civil War record that was sent to me states that he was killed, wounded and missing of Shelby’s Brigade MO. Cavalry in the raid into Missouri August 29 to Dec. 18, 1864,” explains Hovenden. “I have a sheet from the United Daughters of the Confederacy showing that he received the Southern Cross of Honor.”

Little is known about Wm. B.’s family’s whereabouts after the Civil War. In 1870, however, we find a Daniel P. Clay, b. KY, age 32, a “patent right atty” in Macon County, Illinois, with his family: wife A.J., 30, b. Missouri; Lunetta F., 8 MO; William 4, MO; and Mary B., 1, IL. 

There is a marriage record in Daviess County, Missouri, 24 Jan. 1861 of Daniel P. Clay to Miss Amanda J. Carter. By 1880, Daniel P. is still in Macon County, Illinois, back to being a farmer, and has a new wife, Mary H., 24, (he’s 48). There is one additional child, Lafayette, age 2.

Dr. Henry Clay lineages westward ho

Clay Family Society member Connie Collins shares what she knows of her Clay family history that traveled west. Namely, Her 4th great-aunt Mahala Bruce Jameson and husband William Jameson traveled to Missouri with Rebecca Bruce Palmer and her husband Burton Palmer. 

Mahala is the daughter of John Bruce and Anna Doty,  granddaughter of Elizabeth Clay and John Bruce, and g-granddaughter of Dr. Henry Clay III and Rachel Povall.  

Rebecca Bruce is the daughter of John Bruce and Elizabeth Clay and granddaughter of Dr. Henry and Rachel Clay. Rebecca is CFS genealogist and long-time member Pat Dunford’s ancestress.

The Palmers and Jamesons went to Missouri in 1833 from Garrard County, Kentucky. Connie confirms that Mahala died in Lincoln County, Missouri, in 1876 so her assumption is that the family settled there. Supporting documentation shows land grants for Franklin County, on the border of Lincoln County, which may have been for William Jameson. 

“I did find an 1840 Census record for William Jameson in Lincoln County that matched some information but there are no names other than the head of household,” says Collins.

You can read more about this family line in Lineage of Sophia Elizabeth Kavanaugh-Bear: in (Argall-Filmer), Green, Clay, Bruce, and Palmer Ancestry (maternal), Loftus, (Woods-Wallace), (Miller-Dulaney), Kavanaugh (paternal) (Paperback)

The book is also available for download on

Continued Clay expansion

Myriad Clays would have settled throughout the middle and western states thanks to land grants in the 1800s and of course being descendents of early settlers. Are you a Clay family descendant with a westward expansion story to share? 

Join the Clay Family Society to participate in our group forum. 

Or stop by our Facebook community page to spark a new conversation.

Kennerly Clay is the editor of the Clay Family Society quarterly newsletter, Pieces of Clay. She is also the author of Finding Forgotten Secrets in My DNA, an ebook about exploring genetic and genealogical mysteries in her Clay and Bowen family lines.



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US Government Land Grants: “A pleasure to break the wild prairie” | Environment & Society Portal

United States Military Bounty Land Warrants • FamilySearch