Collecting the first link in the chain

January 8-14, 2018

By Jay Edwards


As collectors and their treasures go, it makes sense that Billy Roehrenbeck of Pulaski County Title might become passionate about acquiring antique land grant certificates.


“A friend gave me my first one years ago,” Roehrenbeck recalls, “and after finding and purchasing a few more on eBay, my goal became to get at least one from every president’s administration.”


There are land grant certificates from the first 33 administrations, the last being Harry Truman. Roehrenbeck has obtained originals from all but four of those. He’s still in search of one from George Washington, John Adams, William Henry Harrison and Truman.


“Washington and Adams are kind of rare,” he says. “And the problem with Harrison is that he was only in office for 31 days before he died from pneumonia. So I don’t suppose there were that many certificates signed during that period.”


During Andrew Jackson’s second term, it was discovered one day that over 10,000 land grant certificates had stacked up, waiting the president’s signature. Congress, realizing something needed to be done about this, passed a law which allowed the president to assign a secretary to do the signatures, and this was the way it was done henceforth.


“From a collectors standpoint, the certificates signed by the president are more valuable than the ones signed by a secretary,” Roehrenbeck says.


The system of granting free land in the public domain to men who served the United States during military conflicts—or, in the case of their death, to their heirs—was implemented in 1788. Following the Revolutionary War, this system of issuing military bounty warrants served as a way for the cash-poor United States to use large tracts of land to meet its obligations to soldiers. The first series of warrants for the War of 1812 were issued under the acts of 1811, 1812, and 1814. Some of the land set aside for these warrants was located in what would become Arkansas.


“It’s interesting,” Roehrenbeck says, “that in a true patent search you research the whole history of ownership. Your first link in the chain, typically, is a land patent or land grant.


“The first ones in Arkansas were given out to the veterans of the War of 1812. The reasons being that it gave them compensation for their service and it encouraged them to come and settle and build a life, in that new land created by the Louisiana Purchase.”


This past summer, Roehrenbeck and his partner at Pulaski County Title, Jeff McKay, sponsored a tour for title men and women to the Louisiana Purchase State Park.


“I posed a question to the group,” Roehrenbeck recalled, “Let’s say you are issuing title insurance on this transaction back in 1803 and you are looking at risks and claims. Now when Napoleon Bonaparte agreed to sell to the United States, who held title to the land?


“It was kind of a loaded question for them because they all knew that Napoleon was emperor of France. But in reality, Spain actually held the title because they had agreed to transfer it to France. But that treaty had not yet been ratified, and wasn’t until November 30, 1803. Twenty days later they flipped it to us. When I used the word flipped, everyone kind of groaned.


“Anyway, there was a verbal agreement between France and Spain, where France agreed they would not transfer it further, but of course they did, and we ended up with it. Spain had a title claim, and if a title policy had been issued on the greatest land purchase of all time, then there’s a chance Arkansas would not be part of the United States.


“It’s neat to think that this is the kind of thing we look into every day, insuring titles that came out of that transaction.”


Changing back to collector from title searcher, Roehrenbeck remembers when he got his first certificate that was signed by the nation’s fifth president, John Quincy Adams. “It was from a man who was handling an estate sale for another man who had a framing business in the northeast,” he tells. “After I told him I wanted it he said there were a lot of other documents and if I wanted to see them, he’d send me a spreadsheet. When I got it, most of the stuff on it was from the Civil War, and not what I was looking for. But there was also another land grant that was signed by Benjamin Harrison. At the time I didn’t have one from him and it got my attention. Then I noticed that the date was wrong. Well, it turned out that the Benjamin Harrison who had signed it was not the president, but his great-grandfather, Benjamin Harrison the fifth, who had signed the Declaration of Independence and was governor of Virginia after Thomas Jefferson. The certificate I was looking at transferred 2000 acres, with Harrison signing as the grantor, to the grantee, a man named George Washington. I couldn’t believe it. Here was a document transferring property to one founding father by another founding father.


“Naturally I wanted it but I had to wait over an hour for the seller’s business to open. I told him I wanted to authenticate it and he said he’d give me thirty days to return it. When I got it I held it up to the light and could see the watermark, dating the paper to the late 1700s. Then later, one of our guys found an auction catalog and it was actually in there, showing that it sold in an auction back in 1950 for $75.00.”


It is in Roehrenbeck’s collection with the other treasures he’s acquired.


“This collection,” Roehrenbeck says, “while there is a monetary value, really means more to me because of what I do for a living. I’m one of the fortunate ones who does something he likes, and being able to collect historical real estate documents from our country’s past, gives me a lot of joy.”


Sources: Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture & Raiders of the Lost Archives 




More on Military Land Grants aka: Military Bounty Warrants in Arkansas


On November 11, 1823, the Arkansas Gazette published an act passed by the Arkansas Territorial General Assembly to regulate the collection of taxes on military bounty lands. The act made it the duty of each county sheriff to enter and list on the tax books all bounty land in each county that had been issued three years prior to June 1, 1824. The act further provided that the owner had four months after the land had been entered by the sheriff to pay the taxes due on the land. If the taxes were not paid by the deadline, the land would be sold for the amount of the taxes due on the land. If the land had been transferred, the taxes were due from the date of transfer.


Many acres of land in Arkansas were granted in this way. The amount of land given depended on the rank of the veteran, and veterans had to apply for the land. The land was located by lottery, and a patent was issued for the land. As most of the veterans were not residents of Arkansas and never claimed their land, land speculators purchased large amounts of the bounty land at the tax sales and later sold it at a profit. One such land speculator made lists of veterans who had never applied or received their military land grants and tried to contact them to purchase their land warrants at reduced prices. He also had partners from outside Arkansas who helped locate veterans eligible for bounty land warrants.


At first, most of the land warrants were issued for specific parcels of land. Over the years, acts were passed so that the warrants were issued for the number of acres, and the person holding the warrant could locate available land at any Arkansas land office and use the warrant to pay for the land.


Other acts allowed Native Americans who had served in the U.S. military—beginning with the War of 1812 and in conflicts with other Native Americans, such as the Creek and Seminole Wars—to be eligible for military land grants. Other acts allowed state militia veterans who were enlisted for short periods of time (such as during the roundup of Cherokee to be taken to Indian Territory) to apply for warrants.


Thousands of acres of land in almost every county in Arkansas were obtained through the military bounty land system. Government land records show the act under which the warrant was issued, the name of the veteran, his rank, the conflict where he served, the number of acres of land, and the legal description of the land under the range and township system. When heirs were involved, their names were included. If the warrant was assigned, that information was also on the warrant. On March 22, 1852, an act was passed that made it possible for the veteran or his heirs to assign their warrants over to others. The warrants were also approved by the U.S. president in office when the warrants were issued.


An example of one such warrant was warrant No. 65018 issued to Miles Killian, acting assistant surgeon of the North Carolina militia during Cherokee removal. This warrant was for 160 acres located in the district of land available for sale in Little Rock (Pulaski County). It was assigned by Killian to William B. Wait and approved by President James Buchanan.


An act to end the military land grants was passed in 1858. Veterans or their heirs were given five years to claim land under the system, and no warrants were to be issued after 1863.


For more information regarding military land grants in Arkansas history visit:


Source: (Carolyn Yancey Kent, Courtesy of Encyclopedia of Arkansas) 




Billy Roehrenbeck of Pulaski County Title spreads out a few of the many land grants from his collection on his desk. (Photo by Becca Bona)