Long lost county seal displayed at Capitol

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published July 21, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated July 19, 2013 at 2:58 p.m.
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LITTLE ROCK — Visitors to the Arkansas State Capitol can see some Saline County history on display this month in the office of Arkansas Land Commissioner John Thurston, a Saline County resident.

The original Saline County seal, once shiny and golden, is now a dark charcoal color. It is a historic artifact, not only for its use by the county from 1836 until 1863, but also because it was lost for almost 150 years.

The seal is on loan to the commissioner because his office deals with land records and houses many of the state records.

“This seems like a good fit,” said Saline County Circuit Court Clerk Dennis Milligan, the official keeper of the county’s seal. “The seal was used for land records and court records.”

The loss and rediscovery of the seal is a story that begins after the fall of Little Rock to Union forces in 1863 during the Civil War.

Army units were spreading out from the capital into nearby areas, including Saline County. County officials, fearing that the seal would be taken by federal forces, took it and other important county documents from the courthouse by order of county officials.

A handwritten order dated Aug. 31, 1863, recorded the removal.

“Whereas, this county, as well as the country generally, is in danger of being overturned by Federal Scouts, raid or armies,” the order states, citing that the Union soldiers had a “common function to cut up, mutilate and destroy the Articles of States and the Records of the County.”

The old order authorized the clerk of the court, Larkin Collins, to “remove from the Courthouse, to some private place to be selected by himself, the said records.”

Milligan said if Union officials had gotten hold of the seal, important county documents, including land deeds, could have been altered or forged.

“As we look at it today,” he said, “it might seem irrelevant, but back then, it was extremely relevant and important that they get those things out of there.”

After the seal was taken by Collins, nothing more was heard about the county seal until 1996.

Gary Smith, a treasure hunter from Pine Bluff, was searching in Grant County at a site east of Sheridan where a unit of Union cavalry was supposed to have camped just before the Battle of Jenkins Ferry. Using a metal detector, he found what he first thought was a silver dollar, then he thought it might be a doorknob, because it has a small stem on the back.

As he cleaned it, he realized he had a piece of history in his hands. The finding was written about in Lost Treasures magazine soon after the discovery, and for 16 years Smith took it to school groups and civic meetings to display, as he talked about the war’s battles in the area and the story of how he found the seal.

In November, Smith gave the seal back to the county, handing it to County Judge Lanny Fite. The judge then returned the seal to the circuit court clerk, saying that is where it belonged.

State Capitol historian David Ware said the seal was probably made of bronze or brass. Milligan said it is about the same size as the current seal, used to emboss legal documents received and issued by the court.

“The old seal has an eagle that looks just like the one used for the U.S. Postal Service,” Milligan said. “Around the eagle and shield are the words Saline County Circuit Court and Arkansas.”

On Aug. 30, Thurston will return the seal to the county. Milligan said the seal will be placed in a permanent display in the clerk’s office on the 150th anniversary of the seal’s removal and disappearance.

The seal has been placed into a presentation plaque that includes a written account of its loss and rediscovery.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or at wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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