Land records are some of the most useful items in a genealogist’s toolbox. They pinpoint specific people in specific places at specific times, and can serve as a stepping stone to other historic records that illuminate the lives of our ancestors. Sometimes land records can tell us a lot about a given moment in the broader history of Florida as well. The records associated with the Armed Occupation Act of 1842 are an excellent example.
By the end of the Second Seminole War, which lasted from 1835 to 1842, the number of Native Americans in Florida had dwindled considerably. Many had died in battle, and over 3,800 were forcibly removed to reservations out west. The few Seminoles who stayed in Florida retreated into the southernmost reaches of the territory. Eager to prevent any further conflict between the remaining natives and white settlers, Congress passed the Armed Occupation Act in 1842, which was designed to encourage settlers to populate the Florida peninsula. The idea was that if these settlers were limited by law to those who were able to bear arms, the territory would have the makings of an army at the ready if disturbances were to arise in the future.
Under the conditions of the act, any single man 18 years of age or older or any head of a family could apply for up to 160 acres of land through the government land offices at Newnansville and St. Augustine. If the settler established a home within a year, lived on the land for five consecutive years, and cleared and enclosed at least five acres of the granted land, he or she would receive title to the entire parcel for free. As each would-be settler selected his or her land and applied to the government land office for a permit, he or she would file an application affirming that they met the lawful requirements to receive it. These applications are excellent for genealogists because they identify the settler’s name, marital status, length of residence in Florida, and the location of the land desired. This is especially helpful information for those looking to identify the pioneer settlers among their Florida ancestors. Many of the settlers who took advantage of this law were from other parts of the United States, including ex-soldiers from the Second Seminole War. Consequently, in many cases these records are the first piece of a family’s paper trail in Florida.
A number of prominent Florida citizens received land under the Armed Occupation Act of 1842. Ossian B. Hart, governor of Florida from 1873-1874, received 160 acres of land along the Indian River just south of Fort Pierce. Douglass Dummett, who had arrived in Florida with his father in the 1820s, received land on Merritt Island, which he used to establish an orange grove whose fruit was reputed to be unusually hardy in the face of cold weather. A “castle” of a house was later built on the Dummett property by an Italian duke (more on Dummett Castle here). Mills Olcott Burnham, a Vermont native who moved to Florida in the 1830s seeking better health, received land near Ankona, also south of Fort Pierce. Burnham was a pioneer in pineapple cultivation, as well as a keeper of the Cape Canaveral lighthouse for over two decades.
So how do you go about using these documents? The State Library & Archives hold microfilm copies of these permit applications, along with an index (Record Series 1305). Also, the Department of Environmental Protection has digitized the originals as part of the LABINS database (click here to view it). To search the permit applications, set the “Document Type” field to “AOP” and add in the first and last names you wish to look up. Keep in mind that spellings for a single name can vary over time, so be prepared to try a few different versions of names if necessary. We recommend not filling out any other fields for this particular kind of search in LABINS.
If you find you have ancestors who received land through the Armed Occupation Act, you’ll likely also find them in the 1845 Election Returns, which are available digitally on Florida Memory. They may also appear in a number of records available for research in person at the State Library & Archives in Tallahassee. Check out our Guide to Genealogical Research for more details.