Land Patents

Collecting Land Patents

If one wants to collect signatures of America’s founding fathers, land patents are a great place to start! A land patent sounds complicated and technical, but it is simply the name for the transaction and resulting document of a land title when it is issued to the first purchaser of land from a sovereign entity. Usually the sovereign entity in question is the United States government, but in some instances, there are people who hold land in the U.S. that was originally granted by, for example, the king of England, as King George gifted land to a number of early settlers in return for services, just as the United States would later create military districts to gift land in exchange for service. When land was purchased, it was not formally patented, meaning made irrevocably the property of the owner, until it was paid for. (Land patents are sometimes referred to as land grants, which is technically incorrect almost all of the time. Land grant is typically seen used in association with institutions, such as the land grants that were given to form a number of early Midwestern universities.)

Thomas Jefferson signed land patent, document signed, partially printed on vellum, May 2, 1803, signed by Thomas Jefferson as President (1801 to 1809) and James Madison as Secretary of State (President, 1809 to 1817). (p4A item # D9713780)

Land was gifted in huge quantities, tens of thousands of acres, after the American Revolution when the new government was looking to alleviate war debts. Some Revolutionary War veterans took land in payment for military service while others would get land patents after purchasing land in the Northwest Territory from the government. The earliest land patents were handwritten and later partially printed documents were adopted, where the clerks could simply fill in the blanks with appropriate name, reason for the patent, and the description and location of the land. The final document was signed by the president of the United States and his secretary of state.

This means many early land patents bear the signatures of the founding fathers – Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, even Patrick Henry signed some as governor – so they can be highly collectible. Obviously the popularity of the signer weighs on the value (a Jefferson land patent, for instance, is worth more than a James Monroe), but the location can also be a factor, as a patent associated with what is now a highly populated area might have a larger pool of potential buyers than one for a more remote area. Occasionally the patentee can influence the value, if it’s someone who is also well-known, as can an interesting or unusual aspect of the patent. As always condition is important. Folds and fading are expected, but the quality and clarity of the actual signature are crucial. (Any documents, if displayed at all, are best framed with UV glass or acrylic and all acid-free materials – and hung out of direct sunlight.) Collectors should proceed with caution however, as some land patents were signed on behalf of the president by secretaries (particularly true during and after Andrew Jackson’s administration), and secretary-signed documents of any kind are worth a small fraction of those signed by presidents themselves.

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