The Texas Land Grant System

In the early days of the Texas Republic (1835-1845), Texas was a vast, untamed wilderness. Abundant wild game and fertile soil created a land of opportunity. However, it also challenged settlers with difficulties such as changeable weather and unfriendly Indians. The infant Texas government was eager to attract homesteaders and build a civilization. In order to hasten settlement, the government granted large tracts of land, or headrights, to immigrants. This not only encouraged settlement of the empty land, but also established a tax base to provide revenue for the fledgling government. In order to facilitate the transfer of property into private hands, the government recognized the need to create a system to record and verify private land titles. Therefore, in 1837 The Republic of Texas created the General Land Office (GLO) to administer and record the land grant process. The government of Texas granted headrights to eligible heads of families and to single men who could prove residency and show themselves to be good citizens.

Basic Land Provisions

Before a land grant, or patent, was issued to a settler, surveyors measured and recorded the borders of the grant. The basic unit of measurement for land was the vara, a Spanish term of measurement which equaled thirty-three and one-third inches. Thirty-six varas equaled one-hundred feet. Land surveyors frequently used this term in their descriptions of distances and borders. Other units of measurement for land included leagues and labors. A league was 4,428.4 acres, and a labor was 177.1 acres. A usual headright for the earliest settlers in Texas was a league and a labor or about 4,600 acres.

Early surveyors did a remarkably accurate job of surveying and defining these parcels of land, especially taking into consideration that they were often surveying uncharted streams and unknown forests. A survey had to be made and approved before the grant could be issued. It was not unusual for a survey to use landmarks such as “a stake in the prairie” or descriptions of trees of a particular kind or diameter. The early price for this land was quite cheap. An eight-league grant could be bought for as little as $1000.i

The Republic of Texas set some strict guidelines to determine who was eligible to receive land grants. This list of requirements gives historians a framework for understanding the history of each grant and a profile of the person who received it. Researchers can glean information about a grantee by examining the type of grant received. Land grant records provide information such as the settler’s approximate time of arrival in Texas, their place of residence, and marital status.

Four Classes of Grants

The Texas GLO grouped land grants or headrights into four main classes. First class grants were given to settlers who had arrived in Texas prior to the signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence on March 2, 1836, but who had not yet received a land grant. Heads of families received one league and one labor of land while single men could receive one-third of a league or 1,476.1 acres. These grants were unconditional, allowing the grant to be transferred or sold even before the Certificate was issued.

Second class land grants were given to settlers who had arrived in Texas after March 2, 1836, but before October 1, 1837. Heads of families could receive 1,280 acres while single men were eligible for six-hundred forty acres. Initially, the government issued a Conditional Certificate that required three years of responsible citizenship. During the period of the Conditional Certificate, the grantee could not sell the property. After at least three years of residency in Texas, the grantee received an Unconditional Certificate which could lead to a Patent. The grantee was not required to live on his land grant; he was only required to live in Texas. The issuance of Conditional Certificates and qualifying citizenship requirements discouraged speculators from profiting by buying and selling cheap land. It also curtailed tendencies toward forging documents.

Third class land grants were given to settlers who arrived in Texas between October 1, 1837 and January 1, 1840. Heads of families were eligible for six-hundred forty acres while single men received three-hundred twenty acres. Third class grants required similar conditions to second class grants, including a Conditional Certificate followed by three years of responsible citizenship before the Unconditional Certificate was issued.

Fourth class grants were issued to immigrants who arrived in Texas between January 1, 1840 and January 1, 1842. The amount of land granted was the same as the third class grant. The conditions for ownership were also similar to the second and third class grants, with the additional requirement that at least ten acres be cultivated.

The type of land grant received indicates a settler’s approximate date of arrival. Earlier arrivals received more land than later arrivals, and heads of households received more land than single men. A man who had a wife or dependents qualified as a head of the household and could receive the full grant of land, but only if his dependents were living in Texas with him. If he came alone, then he only qualified for the land grant for single men. If his family arrived later, he could apply for an augmentation.ii

In all, Texas issued 17,382 First Class land grants, 6,056 Second Class land grants, and 37,670 Third Class grants. Though this seems like an enormous number of grants issued in the early years, it makes up only twenty-one percent of the 290,597 patents given by the state of Texas as of 1986.iii

The Grants for Pecan Springs

In the case of the Pecan Springs Ranch, two primary grants comprise the land holding. A section on the northwestern edge of the property was originally deeded to Lewis B. De Spain or D’Spain. He received a second class grant, so it can be deduced that he arrived in Texas before October 1, 1837. He applied for the grant on January 18, 1839 and received a Conditional Certificate for 640 acres. This indicates that he was either single or his family did not reside in Texas since 640 acres was the amount given to a single man for a second class grant. His application was submitted in San Augustine County. On September 21, 1841, Texas issued him an Unconditional Certificate after he met his residency requirements.iv De Spain continued to live in San Augustine County, and there are no records of him residing on or improving the property. After his death, his estate sold the land to John Dabney Sims on January 17, 1857.v The property remained in the Sims family for over 150 years.

A land grant given to Charles Merlin forms the larger portion of the Pecan Springs land. Merlin was born circa 1800 in France. He immigrated to Texas sometime before 1839 because he received a third class Conditional land grant from the state of Texas on March 11, The Texas government issued the Unconditional Certificate on October 7, 1844. The Merlin headright is unique and of historical significance because it was signed by Sam Houston, then President of the Republic of Texas. While it is not unusual to see a land grant signed by Houston, the majority of land grants were signed by Anson Jones, the last President of Texas.vii Mr. Jones was president during a majority of the years when the early grants were issued.

The surveyors described the Merlin grant in the fashion of most land grants of that time, delineating the borders by naming landmarks. The Merlin survey was described as:

Six hundred and forty acres (being his headright) of land situated and described as follows in Robertson County – on the waters of Chambers Creek a branch of the Trinity River. Beginning at the West corner of a survey of 640 acres made for W R Horne a stake in prarie (sic). Thence North 30 degrees West nineteen hundred varas with the South

West line of a survey of 640 acres made for John Levi to his West corner a stake in the prarie (sic). Thence South 60 degrees West nineteen hundred varas to a stake from which a Spanish Oak 14 inches in diameter bears North 53 degrees West 3 varas. And an Over Cup Oak 24 inches in diameter bears North 75 degrees east 24 varas. Thence South 30 degrees East nineteen hundred varas to the West corner of a survey of 640 acres made for Ann H. Stokes, a stake in the prarie (sic). Thence North 60 degrees East nineteen hundred varas with the North West line of said Ann H. Stokes survey to the place of Beginning.viii

Both the De Spain and Merlin grants are recorded as being located in Robertson County since Ellis County had not yet been formed at that time.

Good Land Awaiting Use

In spite of having prime black soil prairie land, neither De Spain nor Merlin seemed to take a personal interest in the land. They neither performed any improvements on the land nor planted any crops. It is unclear whether they even personally saw the land. Merlin filed for the land grant from the city of Houston in Harris County, and he resided there the rest of his life. According to 1840 tax records, Merlin owned a town lot in Houston.ix Merlin’s family consisted of his French-born wife Eliza Baiz (1815-1850) and their two daughters. Merlin died on October 13, 1854 from an apparent overdose. A report issued by the Houston Telegraph reads:

“Found Dead: Mr. Charles Merlin, an old resident of this city, and formerly keeper of the Alabama House, was found dead in his bed on yesterday morning. He had been on a spree several days before, and had a phial of black drops, from which he had taken a few drops to quiet his nerves on Thursday night. It was found that he had taken during the night the entire contents, which occasioned his death.”x

Merlin’s death left behind two young daughters: Celestine, age thirteen, and Julia, age eleven. Merlin’s rather sizeable holdings went to his daughters. In addition to the land that he owned in Ellis County, he also owned three hundred twenty acres in Erath County, thirteen and a half lots and a house in Houston, and thirteen hundred and ninety-eight acres of land in Harris County.xi The Merlin estate sold the land in Ellis County to Alfred Whitaker in 1863 for $1,280.xii By this time Celestine and Julia were both married and still residing in Houston. The terms of Merlin’s will divided the Ellis County land and the profits from its sale between the two sisters.xiii

Alfred Whitaker experienced some financial difficulties shortly after purchasing the Merlin land, and as part of bankruptcy proceedings sold several properties to Alfred Gee in 1867.xiv These properties included the Merlin grant. Fortunately for Whitaker, he was able to recoup some of his expenditures since Gee purchased the Merlin land for approximately $1,485, about $200 more than Whitaker paid for it. Gee then sold the 640 acre Merlin grant to Nicholas P. Sims in 1869.xv Nicholas demonstrated shrewd business sense because he was able to buy the land for $1,000 in gold. In 1878, he then sold the land to his nephew, Wilson Dabney Sims, for $4,500, earning a profit of $3,500.

i1 A.R. Stout, “Pioneer Country: Its Origin, Early Land Grants,” History of Ellis County, Texas (Waco: Texian Press, 1972), 13.

ii 2Gifford White, 1840 Citizens of Texas, Volume 1: Land Grants, Austin, Texas (St. Louis: Ingmire Publications, 1983), vii-xiii.

iii3 Gary Mauro, The Land Commissioners of Texas, 150 Years of the General Land Office, Austin, General Land Office of Texas, 1986 quoted in Charles E. Gilliland, David Carciere, and Zachry Davis, “Texas Title Trail.” Land Markets. Publication 1760 ( January 2006).

iv4 Ibid., 66.

v5 Ellis County Clerk, Land Grant Records, Vol. C, page 86.

vi6 White, Land Grants, Austin, Texas, 173.

vii7 A.R. Stout, “Pioneer Country: Its Origin, Early Land Grants,” History of Ellis County, Texas (Waco: Texian Press, 1972), 11.

viii8 Ellis County Clerk, Land Grant Records, Vol. E, page 163.

ix9 Gifford White, 1840 Citizens of Texas, Volume 2: Tax Rolls, Austin, Texas (St. Louis, Ingmire Publications, 1984). 67.

x10 John S. Ford, The Texas State Times (Austin, Tex,), Vol. 1, No. 46, Ed.1 Saturday, October 14, 1854. Austin, Texas: Ford, Walker & Davidson. The Portal to Texas History.… (accessed February 28, 2015).

xi11 Texas, Land Title Abstracts, 1700-2008 [database on-line]. (Provo, UT, USA: Operations inc., 2000).

xii12 Ellis County Clerk, Land Grant Records, Vol. F, page 192.

xiii13 Ellis County Clerk, Land Grant Records, Vo. E, page 163.

xiv14 Ellis County Clerk, Land Grant Records, Vol. F, page 663.

xv15 Ellis County Clerk, Land Grant Records, Vol. I, page 414.