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Spanish Land Grants

Arkansas inherited a complex legacy of land grants from its time as part of Spanish Louisiana. Beginning in 1769, royal governor Alejandro O’Reilly established regulations concerning the size of permissible concessions and the conditions by which applicants could perfect titles to their land. Subsequent governors upheld and expanded similar regulations, but in practice, most grants made during Spanish rule were approved upon request only by the commandant of the nearest settlement. Formal surveys of the grants were rarely made, which further frustrated attempts to determine rightful ownership of granted land once Spanish Louisiana became part of the United States.

O’Reilly’s regulations prescribed a three-year probationary period during which claimants were expected to clear the frontage of their land, build ditches and levees, and keep adjacent roads in good condition. Grants were to be approved by the governor, and a government surveyor was to set its boundaries in the presence of witnesses and the local commandant.

In 1797, Manuel Gayoso de Lemos established additional rules concerning grants, aimed primarily at giving preference to farmers and skilled craftsmen with families. From 1798 onward, the power to regulate concessions was held by Juan Ventura Morales, intendant general at New Orleans. Morales reiterated the conditions set forth by O’Reilly and Gayoso, limited grant sizes to no more than 800 arpents (about 640 acres), and stipulated that titles would be delivered to a grantee only following receipt of an official survey by the intendant and the king’s attorney.

For all of these regulations, however, the Spanish government was notoriously lax in demanding compliance. According to terms set by the governors, no land grant made in colonial Arkansas fulfilled every condition of achieving a perfect title. Most settlers requesting grants were too poor to pay the fees required to perfect their titles but retained an unspoken right of occupancy, as far as the local authorities were concerned. A written petition endorsed by the local commandant was usually the only record of such an agreement, if one existed at all. In fact, in all of Spanish Louisiana, only about one out of four claims were held by a perfected title—the validity of most grants rested upon the oral or written testimony of an approving commandant.

Spanish officials (Juan Ventura Morales, in particular) further complicated matters by continuing to make grants throughout 1803—after Spanish Louisiana was ceded to the French—but before its formal annexation by the United States.

Afterward, the flurry of dubious claims submitted by opportunistic land speculators prompted the U.S. government to create a board of land commissioners to distinguish between settlers who had received legitimate grants from the Spanish and those trying to capitalize on the confusion. On the whole, the land commission and its successors were deferential to small, private landowners who could prove occupancy and authentic origins to their claim, even if their grant was approved only by a commandant. These claims amounted to a little over 8,000 acres in all of Arkansas, approved primarily due to settlement rights or continuous possession of the land for at least ten years. In contrast, contempt was shown toward speculators and opportunists submitting large claims that never came close to being legitimized by the original claimant.

In the cases of Arkansas Post commandants Don Joseph Valliere and Don Carlos de Villemont, grants were legitimately bestowed by the governor but were never occupied or properly surveyed. In 1793, Valliere was granted a total of 11,520 acres in what is now Washington County, near the headwaters of the White River. De Villemont received a grant for about 8,640 acres in 1795, “situated on the right descending bank of the Mississippi, twenty-five leagues below the mouth of the Arkansas River, at a place called Isle de Chicot.” Attempts to take possession of the land were not made until well after the deaths of the recipients, when the heirs of Valliere and de Villemont brought their respective lawsuits against the U.S. government in the 1840s. Both claims were defeated in 1847.

The most problematic of all Arkansas grants were given in 1797 to Elisha Winter and his sons, William and Gabriel, who received three massive tracts along the Arkansas River totaling 1,500,000 arpents (about 2,000 square miles), “to the end of forming a settlement in the post of Arkansas, for the cultivation of flax, wheat, and hemp.” The Winters asserted that they settled upon the lands within one year and had marked their boundaries with the placement of a large stone marker and by notching trees, but corroborating testimony in favor of the Winters was judged to be inadmissible, based on hearsay. Since the Winters failed to fully comply with the terms of the grant, their claims were rejected by the board of land commissioners in 1808, and twice more in 1811. In 1832, the issue was revived in the U.S. House of Representatives, via a bill aimed at giving legal title to the heirs of Elisha Winter, but the bill failed to pass. The courts finally settled the matter in 1848, when the ruling of Winter, et al. v. United States upheld the original judgments of the land commissions, deeming the grants to be null and void.

For additional information:
Arnold, Morris S. “The Significance of the Arkansas Colonial Experience.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 51 (Spring 1992): 69–82.

———. Unequal Laws unto a Savage Race: European Legal Traditions in Arkansas, 1686–1836. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1985.

Din, Gilbert C. “The First Spanish Instructions for Arkansas Post, November 15, 1769.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 53 (Autumn 1994): 312–319.

———. “Spain’s Immigration Policy in Louisiana and the American Penetration, 1792–1803.” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 76 (January 1973): 255–276.

Herndon, Dallas T. Annals of Arkansas. Little Rock: Historical Records Association, 1947.

Peel, Zillah Cross. “History of a Land Grant in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 2 (March 1943): 1–11.

Vaughan, Myra. “Genealogical Notes of the Valliere-Vaugine Family.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 15 (Winter 1956): 304–318.

Adam Miller
Austin, Texas

Last Updated 1/13/2017

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