BENTON — Saline County Circuit Court Clerk Dennis Milligan was getting ink all over his hands in the service of history.
“We tried this several times the other day, and you have to really get the ink on it to get a clear impression,” he said, moving a disk from an ink pad to a sheet of paper.
Milligan was stamping the paper with a piece of county property that had been gone almost 150 years. The disc was the official seal of the Saline County Circuit Court, from the county’s founding in 1836 until the seal was lost in August 1863.
“It was found in 1996, but it was given to County Judge Lanny Fite a few weeks ago,” Milligan said. “The judge said it belonged to the circuit court and gave it to this office.”
The seal is about the same size as the modern seal that is used in the clerk’s office today to emboss official documents received by and issued from the office.
“The old seal has an eagle that looks just like the one used for the U.S. Postal Service,” Milligan said. “It could be based on the same design, but this has the eagle on a shield.”
He said court documents have found that the seal was ordered from Washington for $80. Around the eagle and shield are the words, “Saline County Circuit Court,” and “Arkansas” is also on the rim, under the design.
The current court seal has the center of the Seal of Arkansas, featuring the angel, eagle, sword and shield, under a depiction of Lady Liberty circled with stars and rays of light.
Like many stories in Southern history, the loss and recovery of the seal has to do with the Civil War.
After the fall of Little Rock to Union forces, army units moved out from the state capital and into neighboring areas, including Saline County.
A hand-written order, found in county records, takes up the tale.
On Aug. 31, 1863, a special meeting of the Saline County government was held.
“Whereas, this county, as well as the country generally,” the order states, “is in danger of being overturn by Federal Scouts, raid or armies; who (sic) common function is to cut up, mutilate, and destroy the Articles of States and the Records of County.”
The order goes on to authorize the clerk of the court to “remove from the Courthouse, to some private place to be selected by himself, the said records.”
To help Larkin Collins, the clerk of the court in 1863, remove the records and other objects, including the seal, Joseph Scotts, county judge, ordered Scripts (notes that could be used as money to be paid when returned to the county) issued for $500. The county treasury was also ordered to pay out $30.35. Who was to get the money was not mentioned in the 1863 order.
Nothing more was heard about the circuit court seal until 1996.
Once in a lifetime
Gary Smith, a welder and amateur treasure hunter, was searching in Grant County at a site east of Sheridan, where about 500 Union cavalry had supposedly camped just before the Battle of Jenkins Ferry, along the Saline River.
“I had gotten a really good metal detector that was programmable, and I had searched the area for two hours without any luck,” Smith said. “As I started back, the detector said a dollar was underground. I dug down about 6 inches and began to probe the spot.”
He found a round, dark metal object that turned out to be the seal.
At first, he said, it looked like a doorknob, round with a small stem on the back, but as he cleaned off the dirt packed around it for more than 130 years, an “A” was revealed. Then the impression of an eagle was discovered.
“Then I finally understood what it was and the importance of it,” Smith said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, finding that.”
He researched the history of the seal and found out about its manufacture in the nation’s capital. He also found land deeds and other documents that had been stamped with the seal.
The discovery of the seal created a lot of attention, including a nationally published story in Lost Treasures magazine, written by Smith. He said he took the seal to schools and civic groups to display it and talked about the local battles and how the seal might have gotten buried 35 miles from the Saline County Courthouse.
“I always figured it was buried, and the person who knew where it was never returned,” Smith said. “Or maybe it was captured by the cavalry and either buried there, lost or thrown away, and the trooper who left it was killed.”
Smith said he was offered a lot of money for the seal, but he kept it for several reasons.
“I knew this had belonged to Saline County,” he said. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law, but I knew I could not sell it.”
In addition, Smith thought that in the wrong hands, the seal could be used to forge deeds and other documents concerning Saline County land.
When the seal was lost, Saline County also included what is now Grant County, named for the commander of Union forces, Gen. U.S. Grant, during Reconstruction.
“I decided it belonged to Saline County and called the county judge,” Smith said.
Finally, back in the circuit court clerk’s office again, the old seal should be shared with the community, Milligan said.
“My office is working on finding a way to display this seal to visitors at the courthouse,” he said. “We will have a plaque with the history of the seal and a glass display case so people can view this piece of history.”