Land Schemes and Scoundrels

While researching Arkansas land purchases for Dangerous Deeds (the next in the Waterside Kennels mystery series), I came across some fascinating information. Although my initial intention was to simply research property deeds stretching back to the days of the Arkansas Territory, I soon became immersed in historical references to land surveys. As Robert Logan wrote in his article “Notes on the First Land Surveys of Arkansas” published in The Arkansas Historical Quarterly:

When the first settlements took place in the United States no one realized the vastness of the empire lying before the settlers nor saw reason for careful survey and description of wilderness land that was literally as free as air and seemingly as abundant. Out of this pioneer carelessness came descriptions that to this day puzzle and confuse alike surveyors and abstractors, lawyers and courts. Descriptions by “Metes and bounds”—that is by measures and courses or directions from a specified beginning point—start from “the forks of the branch,” or “from a stake set in the ice,” . . . . or “from the corners of a red barn.” . . . . Mrs. Jim Greer of the Greer Abstract Company, Fayetteville, remembers this description in an abstract that came through her hands: “Beginning at this rock on which I sit . . . .”  

The use of natural landmarks when creating land descriptions can be found in myriad old land surveys, deeds, and other property-related documents. One such example is the image at the top of this post, which shows part of an old survey in which the surveyor described “acres of Land” as being “situated near the River.” Imagine the confusion such language likely caused in the event of legal challenges and boundary disputes!

Decades after Logan’s work was published, professional surveyor T. Webb presented a historical overview of survey practices used in Arkansas through much of the 19th century and highlighted what he called “the wild and wooly land grabbing in territorial Arkansas.”

In the Arkansas Territory the singular interest of both the common citizen and the ruling elite was to shake the federal money tree and harvest the resulting shower of wealth that fell in the form of land warrants. A whole menagerie of frauds and schemes resulted. Land speculators hired straw men to file and witness bogus preemption certificates and questionable colonial land grants. . . .

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Fast-forward to present day, when you might reasonably conclude that modern methods used by credentialed surveyors put a stop to the illicit “land grabs” described in this post. Unfortunately, the criminally minded have found other ways to acquire property through fraudulent means. As one character in my own Dangerous Deeds explains:

Property fraud happens when somebody submits forged documents to the courthouse and claims they purchased the property. Here in Hogan County, the clerk would record the transfer of ownership, and it’s a done deal. Odds are the real owner won’t even know what’s happened until they try to sell the property themselves or there’s some other reason to check their land deeds.

While my own research focuses on Arkansas, it’s important to know that illegal acquisitions are not restricted to Arkansas. In fact, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, property fraud and mortgage fraud are among the fastest growing white-collar crimes in the United States.

From T. Webb’s description of Arkansas Territory land speculators to tales of present-day scoundrels, schemes to seize property by any means—fair or foul—leave a trail of corruption and greed. In Dangerous Deeds, that trail hits close to home and threatens to change the landscape of the Ozarks and the lives of all who live there.

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The images included in this post are from the Arkansas Commissioner of State Lands website (http://history.cosl.org) and have been used with express written permission.  

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Sources included in this post and available online in their entirety include:

Logan, R. R. (1960). Notes on the First Land Surveys in Arkansas. The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, 19(3), 260–270. https://doi.org/10.2307/40030646

Webb, T. (2020). History of 19th century surveys in Arkansas 1815-1883: A lively heritage.  https://www.missourisurveyor.org/images/1185/document/19th-century-surveys-in-arkansas_548.pdf

New Adventures

I’m back after a long hiatus, the result of my website having mysteriously disappeared while I was offline dealing with other matters. The site fell into a technological black hole and seemed lost. (And before you ask, the site and its contents are backed up regularly. The back-ups proved irretrievable. But that’s a story for another day.) Faced with the options of starting over or abandoning the site altogether, I decided to consider the experience a cue from the universe to focus my energies on other projects. Since then, I’ve been writing, teaching, and planning for change. And while I was busy with all that, my website decided to return from its interstellar walkabout. So, with fingers crossed that the site stays around for a while, I’ll do my best to “catch you up” as an English writing colleague likes to say.

I’ve lived in the Ozarks for 27 years, and every season still holds surprises. Fall dawdled its way through December and the early weeks of winter, teasing us with record high temps, bright sunshine, and gentle breezes. Green shoots appeared long after the garden should have gone dormant. People and dogs crowded the trails and parks through long sunny days reminiscent of early spring. Sasha added tracking (the “I’ll teach myself” version) to her hobby list and learned to sniff her way across the meadows in pursuit of the wildlife that left tantalizing scents through the grass and the woods.

Then came winter.

After spending hours in the yard each warm day (he’s not allowed to go beyond the fence), Buddy the Wonder Cat did not appreciate the wicked winds that brought us freezing temps, and sulked because he couldn’t go out and play. He spends his days watching the squirrels scurry in search of acorns or raiding the bird feeders that hang from the lower branches of the oaks in front of my home office. Most of the time, though, he naps while I write.

“Wake me when it’s spring!”

In contrast, Sasha is showing her Shetland Islands roots by wandering outside for long stretches of time, seemingly impervious to the bone-chilling temps. Convincing her to wear a warm coat is a struggle, but she gives in with a grumble of agreement when I tell her “Wear the coat or stay inside.”

That doesn’t last long, though. Despite straps, buckles, and buttons, Sasha–who seems to have Houdini genes–manages to wiggle her way out of the coat and leave it behind as she zooms around the park. Fortunately, she hadn’t been to the groomer recently, which left her with a super-thick double coat to block the wind.

Then came freezing rain and snow, with single-digit temps and wind chills falling below zero. The street became an impromptu skating rink for the neighborhood kids and our sloping drive looked like a bobsled run. Even the covered patio was layered in ice, causing Sasha to lose her footing and fall while trying to reach the snow-covered grass. We hauled out carpet remnants to give her safe passage.

Smartest command I ever taught Sasha: “Foot.” I tap the leg I’m drying, say “Foot” and she patiently leans against me and stands on three legs while I remove the ice and snow packed between her toes. And since she loves to plunge through the snow (including the drifts) there’s usually ice and snow on her belly and chest as well. So she gets her exercise running around the back yard and I get mine drying her off. After that, it’s treats for her and tea for me.
There are more wacky weather swings in the forecast. We’ll take advantage of the warmer days and set up “zoom” games in the yard before the next round of snow and/or freezing rain arrives. In the Ozarks, every day is an adventure!
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Happy Birthday!

In AKC time, Sasha is seven years old today! We chose July 4th for her “official” birthday in declaration of her independence from the old and in celebration of her new life. She’s now formally recognized by the AKC as Ozark Summer Highlands Sasha.

For those new to the story, here’s a quick recap of how her AKC name came to be:

We chose Ozark for our locale and Highlands for her heritage; we’re actually in the Ozark Highlands, so it’s a double play on that last word. We included Summer because she has a warm, sunny spirit. And I wanted her call name included because she came to us with that, so including Sasha gave us a bridge between her past and present.

This sweet pup wakes up happy, every single day. She’s become a big fan of the post-breakfast ritual, when she enjoys a scavenger hunt for treats before wandering out to the garden with her best friend, Buddy The Wonder Cat.

Between trips to the park (with a brief bark-fest along the way, of course) and herding me through my own exercise sessions, Sasha has proven herself a champion at napping while I’m working in the office. Following dinner it’s more treats (dental chews, actually, but don’t tell her that) and then it’s time for evening patrol of the yard. This past week, she’s discovered lightning bugs and has us laughing at her excitement as she leaps and jumps in pursuit.

Here’s to another year of laughter and love with our sweet Sheltie!

Dangerous Dogs: Fact and Fiction

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Who was it who said that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans? That’s certainly true for writers–at least, for some of us. I’m frankly awed by those who produce well-crafted novels every year (and sometimes more often than that) and I’m the first to agree I’m not in that league. Instead, I’m comfortable doing things my way in my own time. Since the major plot lines for the series are drawn from both life and legend, the research process for each book is proving to be an adventure all its own.

Dangerous Deeds, the second book in the Waterside Kennels mystery series, tackles two hot topics that are rumbling through the region: land fraud and dog ownership. Researching these real-life issues led me to courthouses, community meetings, newspaper archives, legal records (both on- and off-line) and animal shelters. Along the way I’ve interviewed county deputies, elected officials, and environmentalists as well as kennel owners, dog trainers, veterinarians, and community activists. Along the way I learned that people are prone to what scholars term confirmation bias–that is, they’re most likely to believe whatever evidence supports their personal beliefs. They’re vocal in expressing their opinions and quick to dismiss opposing perspectives.

Take the issue of “dangerous dogs” for example. You can find plenty of anecdotal information supporting the position that some specific breeds are inherently dangerous and should be banned. Look further and you’ll find scholarly studies disputing that. Based on these studies, it would appear that Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) is a flawed approach while Breed Neutral Legislation (BNL) takes a more responsible view. In summary:

The data, scientific studies, and risk rates all confirm that serious dog bite-related incidents are not a breed-specific issue. For canine regulation, it is important to understand the differences between the two major forms of regulation – breed-specific legislation (BSL) and breed-neutral legislation (BNL). BSL is a limited, single-factor, appearance-based approach while BNL is a comprehensive, multi-factorial, behavior-based approach. For public safety, BSL imposes regulations on a minority of dogs based only on their appearance or breed (regardless of a dog’s behavior or responsible ownership) while breed-neutral regulations address all potentially dangerous dogs, all irresponsible owners, and all unsafe dog-related situations – regardless of a dog’s appearance or breed. Consequently, multiple peer-reviewed studies have concluded that BSL is ineffective; furthermore, it is a discriminatory trend in decline evidenced by the vast majority (98%) of cities and towns that use breed-neutral regulations as their primary and only form of regulation because of the many advantages of breed-neutral regulations summarized on our breed legislation page. For public safety and to reduce dog bite incidents, the data and scientific studies both validate that the most effective solutions are breed-neutral and address the human end of the leash.

While there are some who may question the value of this source, the inclusion of scholarly studies, reports, and position statements from credible associations suggest it’s worth taking the time to review the information and links before making up your mind.

And despite the plethora of peer-reviewed studies and expert positions, there are many who prefer instead to support boycotts and breed bans.  I’ve drawn upon real-life incidents, actions, and attitudes reflecting both sides of the issue to create authentic conflict for my protagonist as she finds herself in legal jeopardy when an opponent is found murdered on her property. To save herself, Maggie must unravel the web of deceit and discover the truth before nefarious foes can succeed in their efforts to destroy all she holds close to her heart.

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