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was to simply research property deeds stretching back to the days of the Arkansas Territory, I soon became immersed in historical references to land surveys.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. . . .
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.
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.
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