Tennessee Mountain Stories

Land Grants and Curious Records

Today I want to share a recent research-find which has left me with more questions than answers.  I share it both for the sake of sharing and in hopes that you might supply some of the answers.  If you have any thoughts on the subject, please click “Comment” at the end of the article.  Squarespace, my site host, is currently having some issues with comments if you are using Internet Explorer.  If you are unable to comment here, you can share on Facebook; if you aren’t on Facebook, click here to send me an email and I’ll post the comments for you.  Thanks!


We have a pervasive myth among us that various family lands were granted to ancestors for military service, specifically during the Civil War era.  I’ve been systematically investigating these stories by simply locating the original deeds which clearly show the former owner and which have so far made no mention of government involvement in the purchases.  And then a visit to the office of the Registrar of Deeds threw me for a bit of a loop!


First about the myth:  I have heard from several different people, referring to lands across two or three counties, that land was granted to ancestors for military service.  Certainly, that is a proud tradition in the United States.  When our nation was still in its infancy, we needed to raise an army and we had a lot of land but very little money.  Therefore, after much paperwork, Revolutionary soldiers were granted lands based on their rank and length of service.  According to Kentucky.gov, one Captain Robert Todd (a random selection from their data) was granted 4,000 acres for three years of service as of February 21, 1784.  The document doesn’t really specify where this land was located; it only gives a ‘unit’ name “Virginia State Line”.  As the years past and more land was claimed in the country, soldiers were more likely to receive some form of monetary payment rather than the quickly disappearing free land.  There were still some land grants for the War of 1812 but these were Western grants.  As far as I can determine, the policy of granting land for military service appears to have ended just before The Civil War started.


If you’ve never looked at old property records, the process is pretty simple.  Deeds are indexed both directly (Grantor to Grantee) and in reverse.  As I flipped through the index for years 1865 – 1930, my eye was caught by a grantor listed something like, “Company D, Second Regiment of East Tennessee Infantry, U.S.”  This certainly appeared on the surface to be a military grant of some sort.  However, when I pulled the associated deed I found no specific mention of property.  Usually, there is a detailed description of the land, where it begins, how many rods or poles to the next marker, if there is a body of water on one boundary, and so forth. 

First half of William Stepp affidavit

First half of William Stepp affidavit


In this document, the reader is informed that Mr. William Stepp, age twenty-one, six feet tall of fair complexion with light hair and blue eyes, enlisted in military service in 1861 for the term of three years or the duration of the war.  He has been discharged from the service of the United States as of January 1865, this discharge taking place in Knoxville, Tennessee.  And that seems to be all of the facts presented.  There’s no property mentioned, even though this document in smack in the middle of property deed registrations.  There is no oath of allegiance as one might expect if it were a Confederate soldier returning home.  There is simply no indication why this document is registered, except that William Stepp is who he says he is.


I don’t even know what to call this document so it is hard to begin a search for its meaning.  In previous research about The Civil War, I have never heard of such a requirement for returning soldiers.  One expert I asked suggested the William Stepp document could be an affidavit to confirm identity for some other official document.  If that is the case, that essential other document doesn’t seem to be readily identifiable.


To compound the questions this raises, after studying my photocopy of the William Stepp document, I happened to notice the record preceding it seems to be a similar affidavit for William R. Davis who enlisted in 1862 and was discharged at Louisville, KY. 


Even though this mysterious record leaves me with more questions than answers, I am still very fascinated to find a physical description of Mr. Stepp along with information about where he was born and what his occupation was before the war.  These are the fascinating little tidbits I’m always looking for – aren’t they much more exciting than cold facts of names and dates?  I am awfully curious to learn more about this official document, but in the meantime, I think it’s sparked a short story!  I’ll try to put that together for you next week.


Until then, please leave me comments if you have any information to share.


Update 10/6/2014

While doing some other research, I happened upon this document which is a discharge record for one John Harding.  He's from Indiana, but it is the wording of the William Stepp document, verbatim. 

Now the only mystery that remains is why the discharge order issued in Knoxville, TN (Knox County)  was recorded by the Registrar of Deeds in Fentress County, TN.   The mystery continues...