Ohio History Journal




Ohio    Land       Patents              by KENNETH W. DUCKETT

NOT LONG AGO the public relations office

at a United States Air Force base wrote

a press release describing a "nineteenth

century land deed" owned by one of its

civilian employees. According to the re-

lease, a local authority had appraised the

document, signed by Thomas Jefferson as

president of the United States and James

Madison as secretary of state, at $25.

Autograph collectors, the release con-

tinued, had subsequently made offers of

up to $3,000 for it.

Such stories make excellent copy, but

they also lead to a great deal of un-

happiness and misunderstanding. Many

people who hold president-signed land

patents, after reading such a story, ex-

pect to sell them and pay off the mort-

gage on the house. On the average of

two or three times a week these people


52                                          OHIO HISTORY

call or write the Ohio Historical Society

offering land patents for sale, and they

are often shocked to learn that the So-

ciety, which has a collection of several

hundred accumulated in years past, does

not wish to purchase them, and, more

often than not, is not even anxious to

receive them as gifts. These same per-

sons are equally dismayed to find that

autograph dealers may offer them as little

as $5 for their patent, depending on its

condition and which president and other

government official signed it. Owners of

patents dated after 1832 are usually upset

to learn that the president's name on

their patent was almost certainly signed

by a clerk and that the patent's monetary

value is nil!

Land patents, sometimes called land

grants, take their name from the English

law term "letters patent," which is de-

fined as "a writing granting to a person

power and authority to do some act or

enjoy some right."   The patents for

Ohio lands issued by the United States

under a number of acts of congress.

though varying in form and content, each

granted a certain amount of land to a

person "to have and to hold" forever.

Prior to 1833 each of the estimated

eighty-five thousand patents issued for

Ohio lands was individually signed by

the president and co-signed by either the

secretary of state or the commissioner of

the general land office. On March 2.

1833, with a backlog of twenty thousand

land patents awaiting Andrew Jackson's

signature, congress authorized a clerk to

sign patents in his name, ending for all

time this arduous presidential task.

Because of their official nature and

content it is easily understood why thou-

sands of land patents are still held today

by descendants of Ohio pioneer land-

owners. But the very fact that they exist

in great numbers lessens their monetary

value. And while the historical value of

an individual patent is usually slight,

collectively they can be said to illustrate

the story of the disposition of Ohio's

lands, the state's greatest natural resource.

The thousands of president-signed land

patents for Ohio lands fall into three

principal categories: those for lands sold

at public auction, those for lands given

as compensation for civilian losses in-

curred during the Revolution, and those

for lands granted as bounties to encour-

age enlistment in the Revolutionary

armies. Of these three, the greatest num-

ber of early patents were issued to Revo-

lutionary soldiers and officers for lands

in the Virginia and United States mili-

tary land districts in Ohio.

The colony of Virginia, under its royal

charter, at one time claimed all of the

present state of Ohio. To encourage men

to enlist in its Revolutionary regiments,

the colony promised to give a land war-

rant to each enlistee redeemable after

the war for from a hundred to fifteen

thousand acres, depending on the en-

listee's rank and length of service. In

1783, when Virginia relinquished its

claim to lands north of the Ohio River,

it reserved for itself the Virginia Mili-

tary District of 3,850,000 acres between

the Scioto and Little Miami rivers to

satisfy its Revolutionary War bounties.

The surveying of the reserve delayed the

disposition of the lands, and it was not

until 1790 that congress directed the

president to issue patents to the Virginia

veterans, their heirs, and assigns.

The first settlement in the Virginia

Military District was Massie's Station

(later Manchester), founded in 1791 by

Nathaniel Massie. The earliest dated land

patent in the Society's manuscript collec-

tion is for one thousand acres granted

to Nathaniel Massie as the assignee of

Lieutenant Colonel Leven Powell. Powell,

like so many of his fellow veterans, sold

his land warrant to a speculator, Massie,

Virginia Military District land patent, signed by President Washington

who entered it and received the patent

for the lands, which he held and no

doubt sold later at a profit.

Much land in the Virginia Military

District remained unclaimed, and con-

gress extended the time limit for entries

again and again. Finally, in 1852, the

Virginia legislature released all further

claims to the district to the national gov-

ernment, and twenty years later the un-

granted land (76,735 acres) passed by

federal act to the state of Ohio, which

in turn granted it to the Ohio Agri-

cultural and Mechanical College, now

Ohio State University.

Although not as common as patents

issued for lands in the Virginia Military

District, thousands were granted by the


54                                           OHIO HISTORY

federal government in another military

land reserve in Ohio, the United States

Military Tract. Created by congressional

act of June 1, 1796, this tract contained

approximately 2,500,000 acres located in

the central part of the state.

Perhaps because at the time when the

central government offered enlistment

bounties it held no western lands, the

continental congress had been less gen-

erous than Virginia: each enlistee, de-

pending on rank, was to receive a war-

rant redeemable for a hundred to eleven

hundred acres. Unlike the warrants for

land in the Virginia tract, those offered

by the continental congress were not.

until after 1788, assignable, and only

then under certain conditions. By this

date the states had ceded their western

lands in Ohio, and the federal govern-

ment was in a position to redeem the

somewhat empty promises made by the

continental congress.

As in the Virginia tract, the time limit

for claiming lands in the United States

Military Tract was extended from time to

time. until 1803, when the remaining

lands were assigned to the Chillicothe

and Zanesville federal land districts to be

sold as part of the lands known popularly

as "Congress Lands."

An early land patent in the Society's

manuscript collection signed by President

John Adams on June 23, 1800, is an ex-

ample of the type issued for lands in

the United States Military Tract. It reads

in part:


... in pursuance of the act of Congress

passed on the first day of June 1796,

entitled "An Act regulating the grants of

Land appropriated for Military services,

and for the society of the United Brethren

for propagating the gospel among the



All patents issued for lands in the

United States Military Tract contain this

phrase, which also serves to illustrate a

second type of land patent, that issued

as compensation for civilian losses in

the Revolutionary War. The reason for

granting lands to the United Brethren,

or Moravian Church, had its roots in

the period 1772-80, when its missionaries

settled Christianized Indians in the Mus-

kingum River Valley at Schoenbrunn,

Gnadenhutten, and Salem. In the fron-

tier conflicts between the British and

Americans and their Indian allies, the

Moravian Indians attempted to remain

neutral, but ended by being attacked by

both sides and driven from their homes.

In 1788, in an effort to get them to re-

turn to their villages, congress reserved

4,000 acres around each town to be

held by the church in trust "for the sole

use of the Christian Indians." For vari-

ous reasons the villages did not prosper,

and ultimately most of the land was re-

turned to the federal government.

That other casualties of the Revolu-

tion figured in the settlement of Ohio

lands is evidenced by another type of

land patent.  An example of this type

in the Society's manuscript collection,

signed by President Thomas Jefferson

and dated May 7, 1802, reads in part as



... in pursuance of the act of Congress

passed on the eighteenth day of Feb-

ruary, 1801, entitled "An Act regulating

the grants of Land appropriated for the

Refugees from the British Provinces of

Canada and Nova Scotia"....


The Refugee Tract, created by the act

referred to in the patent, set aside

103,000 acres for the relief of residents

of Canada and Nova Scotia who because

of their sympathy with the American

revolutionists were forced to flee their

homes. Since little more than half of


56                                        OHIO HISTORY

Patent for United States land originally bought from JOhn Cleves Symmes, signed by President


the land (which lay in a narrow strip

south of the United States Military

Tract) was claimed by the refugees or

their heirs in the time allowed, in 1812

congress acted to have the remainder

sold by public auction at the federal land

office in Chillicothe.

Civilian losses incurred during the

Revolution by inhabitants of Connecticut

whose property was burned by the raid-

ing British army, also were compensated

for by grants of land in Ohio. How-

ever, since these grants, in an area adja-

cent to Lake Erie known as the Fire

Lands, were administered under the laws

of Connecticut, which like Virginia

claimed western lands, no president-

signed patents were issued with their

sale. Nor were they issued for the tract

of about 3,800,000 acres in northeastern

Ohio known as the Connecticut Western

Reserve, which the state had reserved to

itself when it ceded its lands to the fed-

eral government in 1786. Similarly, in

the same period, the central government

sold by contract two large tracts of Ohio

land, which were resold to individual

settlers by the land companies that

bought them: 964,285 acres to the Ohio

Company and 248,540 acres to John

Cleves Symmes and his associates.

Naturally, lands purchased by settlers

in these tracts were deeded by the re-

spective companies, and no president-

signed patents exist for these trans-

actions. However, because of a mis-

understanding as to the boundaries of

Symmes's purchase, he sold lands to

which the federal government held title,

and to protect these purchasers congress

granted them preemption rights. As a

result, some land patents, of which one

held by the Society signed by President

James Madison and dated February 7,

1817, is an example, contain this phrase:

... sold under the direction of the Reg-

ister of the Land Office at Cincinnati, by

virtue of the right of Pre-emption granted

by law to certain persons who have con-

tracted with John Cleves Symmes, or his

Associates ....


COLLECTIONS AND EXHIBITS                             57

All the lands touched upon above were

special grants and reserves. The remain-

ing lands settled in Ohio prior to 1833

were sold by the federal government.

These were the Congress Lands, which

took their name from the acts of congress

regulating their sale.

The land act of 1796, which estab-

lished the federal office of surveyor gen-

eral, directed that Ohio lands offered for

sale under the act were to be advertised

in at least one newspaper in each of the

states and territories two months prior

to the sale. The lands were to be sold

at public auction at Cincinnati and Pitts-

burgh. The smallest amount of land

which could be purchased was 640 acres,

a minimum price of $2.00 per acre was

set, and the purchaser was allowed a

year to complete payment. When the

United States Treasury received the pur-

chaser's final installment, it certified pay-

ment in full to the secretary of state, who

in turn issued the land patent to the

settler. Depending on the size of the

acreage bought, the purchaser paid, in

addition to the purchase price, fees of

entry ranging from six to twenty dollars,

and an equal amount for his patent.

By 1800 it was apparent that the act

of 1796 was not successful in getting land

into the hands of settlers. Less than fifty

thousand acres had been sold, only a por-

tion of which was Ohio land, and most

of it had been purchased by land specu-

lators. The Harrison land act (May 10,

1800), named for William Henry Harri-

son, the first delegate to congress from

the Northwest Territory and chairman

of the house committee on public lands,

extended the terms of credit to four

years, and allowed for the purchase of

320 acres in a unit. Federal land offices

were established at Marietta, Chillicothe,

Cincinnati, and Steubenville under the

direction of registers appointed by the

president. Public auctions were to be

held for three weeks in the spring of

1801 at each office, after which time the

remaining unentered lands might be sold

at private sales.

No significant changes were made in

the laws regulating land sales in Ohio

for the next twenty years, except for the

establishment in 1812 of the United

States General Land Office under the de-

partment of the treasury. After this time,

land patents issued for Congress Lands

were no longer co-signed by the secretary

of state but by the commissioner of the

general land office.

The last major change prior to 1833

in land laws bearing on the issuance of

president-signed land patents was the

land act passed by congress in 1820.

Under the Harrison land act large num-

bers of Ohio settlers had found it im-

possible to make the deferred payments

on their lands. Other hard-working farm-

ers, seeing that the federal government

was taking no action to repossess the

lands of those who had failed to make

their payments, let their own installments

lapse. Finally congress in the land act

of 1820, moving to stem the growing

number of arrears, abolished the credit

system for land purchases, set the mini-

mum price at $1.25 per acre, and made

it possible to buy parcels of as little as

eighty acres.

With smaller units of land being of-

fered for sale after 1820, the number

of land patents issued increased sub-

stantially, and many of those held today

by descendants of Ohio's pioneer settlers

have their origin in the provisions of this

act. They would read in part as does

that in the Society's collection signed by

President James Monroe on October 8,


Whereas Matthias Bruen of the State

of New Jersey has deposited in the Gen-

eral Land Office of the United States, a

certificate of the Register of the Land

Office at Delaware in Ohio whereby it ap-

pears that full payment has been made by

the said Matthias Bruen according to the

provisions of the Act of Congress of the

24th of April 1820, entitled "An act mak-

ing further provision for the sale of the

Public Lands"....

This is a brief account of the public

land policy in Ohio up till 1833, when,

at Jackson's request, congress acted to re-

lieve the president of the time-consuming

task of signing land patents. From this

time on, with a mere handful of excep-

tions, patents were signed in the presi-

dent's name by a clerk whose signature

appears below the name of the president.

In the Society's extensive collection of

patents there is only one dated after 1832

which is signed by a president: a grant

of land made to an Indian under special

treaty provisions.

What is the historical and monetary

value of president-signed patents?  In-

dividually or collectively, patents have

little intrinsic value as sources for his-

torical research. Any serious study of

land policy would be made from state

and county archives and the records of

the United States General Land Office in

the National Archives, not from the col-

lections of land patents held by every

research library in the country. There is

no record of any of these collections of

patents having been consulted in the

preparation of any major work dealing

with land, and patents continue to occupy

shelf space in every collection of manu-

scripts, usually because most institutions

lack the authority to dispose of them.

If a patent was issued to a man of im-

portance, or if the land which it was is-

sued for has historical significance, it

should be retained as a possible exhibit

piece, but the bulk of the run-of-the-mill

patents could more profitably be sold to

autograph dealers, who in turn sell them

to private collectors of president-signed


As to monetary value, the price which

an autograph dealer might be willing to

offer for a land patent depends on many

factors, one of the principal ones being

the condition of the document. Patents

issued prior to 1833 were printed on

parchment, which may have become yel-

low and brittle with age, or having been

folded and refolded many times, badly

creased. Excessive handling may have

soiled the document, and the ink may

have faded. All these factors would de-

tract from its monetary value. Unlike

some historical artifacts, which increase

in value with the natural patina of age.

documents which are clear, bright, and

fresh command the highest prices.

Below is a rough guide to what a

dealer might offer for president-signed

land patents in good to fine condition:

(It should be stressed that these prices

are only approximations, and would vary

from dealer to dealer depending on their

stock of similar documents. The only

realistic way of determining the value

of an individual document is to send

it to a dealer and ask for his offer.)

George Washington: $75-$100. Wash-

ington-signed grants for Ohio lands

would be fairly rare, and one signed

also by Jefferson as secretary of state

might be worth approximately double

one signed by Washington alone.

John Adams: $40-$50. If instead of

being signed also by Timothy Pickering

as secretary of state, the patent is signed

by John Marshall, who held that office

briefly under Adams, the offer would

probably be close to $75.

Thomas Jefferson: $25-$35. A great

many of the patents signed by Jefferson

during his two terms bear the signature

of James Madison as secretary of state,

bringing their value to approximately

$35 to $50. It is, however, quite possible

that if the patent is in poor condition, a

dealer's offer may be as low as $10 for

a patent signed by both men.

James Madison: $7.50-$10.00. Many

Madison-signed patents are co-signed by

Ohioans Josiah Meigs or Edward Tiffin

as commissioner of the general land

office, but the signatures of neither of

these men raise the value of the docu-

ments. However, those Madison-signed

patents which are also signed by James

Monroe as secretary of state would prob-

ably elicit offers of approximately $15 to


James Monroe: $5-$10. Commonly co-

signed by Josiah Meigs as commissioner

of the general land office, those bearing

instead John Quincy Adams' signature as

secretary of state might be sold at $10

to $20.

John Quincy Adams: $5.00-$7.50.

These are very common and not much

in demand by dealers.


60                                        OHIO HISTORY

Andrew Jackson: $10-$25. This value

applies only to those patents signed prior

to 1833, after which time the authority

was delegated to clerks, who signed in

the president's name.

Obviously, the proceeds from the sale

of a president-signed land patent cannot

be used to pay off the mortgage or send

anyone through college, as so many per-

sons hope. They are nonetheless inter-

esting documents, and can be justly con-

sidered as treasured heirlooms by de-

cendants of Ohio pioneer settlers. And

while the patent itself rarely has more

than a limited historical value, quite fre-

quently the trunk in which it has been

stored over the years might yield letters,

diaries, journals, account books, and

other manuscripts which would have

great historical value. The Ohio Histori-

cal Society is always interested in learn-

ing of such manuscripts and in examining

them for their historical content.



THE AUTHOR: Kenneth W. Duckett is the

curator of manuscripts of the Ohio Historical