Restoring historical documents – 1840 Land Grant signed by President Martin Van Buren

Why do we humans love story so much? Reaching into our past for a story is part of all our lives. The collective story of a country or culture gives insight on current events and helps us navigate our own times. Your family history—oral or documented—adds dimension to cultural traditions which otherwise might languish as dull repetitive motions.


Documents which place our ancestors firmly at a point in time create an almost impossible sense of being in the story. Documents such as United States Land Grants from the 19th century are a treasure trove of information on what your ancestors might have experienced in their daily life.

I don’t know how you experience this but when I read an original document or a description of an event I get a mental image of the place in history. The Battle of Hastings in 1066 brings an image of metal helmets starting to appear over a hill in the British country side, the battle just about to begin (I like turning points in history so I often imagine historical events as they are about to turn the history page). An 1840 Land Grant to the US Western Territory brings to life travel on rocky dirt, sometimes with a path, and miles and miles off into the horizon of land on the verge of showing growth—might become a farm, might become a ranch, there might be mountains or rivers if you just go a little farther. And yes I know it wasn’t the moon and it already had a history but the image in my mind is of a slice of history and has yet to have flora and fauna. It was an era I perceive as “everything is just about to change”.

Reading the details of this land grant brings to life the early settlers who went to the young state of Missouri, specifically Ignatious Noble who was granted land “according to the provisions of the Act of Congress of the 24th of April, 1820, entitled ‘An act making further provision for the sale of the Public Lands,’ for the West half of the North East quarter of Section six, in Township fifty three of Range fourteen, in the District of Lands subject to sale at Fayette, Missouri, containing one hundred acres and two hundredths of an acre…..

These words bring imagery of daily life to the historical time and place—now there are towns, specific land to be worked and these details, while they don’t state it in any way, allude to the conflicts settlers had with Native Americans. An original document brings a few facts to life and raises even more questions about what else was going on.

It is really something to be able to hold an original in your hand, the very paper handled by another living person who thought these actions were important enough to see done. How such documents even survive to the present day tells a compelling story, but one for another day. Today this is about preserving an heirloom for the future.

All works on paper from fine art photography to watercolor to historical documents require a a safe environment if they are to last for years. What we consider “Art” gets the first, most gentle and aesthetically pleasing treatment. Historical documents are often preserved for their legal life, however long they show ownership of property or some other practical element of daily life. Preserving a document often means keeping it close for when it is needed, the goal being the ability to hold up an agreement, revisit valuable research or any number of things which can not be reliably held in memory.

This land grant was folded and over time developed wrinkles, buckling and while the black printed text is in good readable condition the handwritten brown script is much more faint. It is in fact on the verge of illegible. This document had been framed and exposed to some amount of daylight for at least a few years so the owner decided the preferred solution was to make a digital copy and place the original into an archival enclosure to keep it from more light exposure. You can see the damage on the back as well.

First a digital image was taken and a master file was created in Photoshop.

Using a variety of selection and extraction tools the background was removed. The resulting stand alone text was overlaid with a new paper texture giving it a clean, new look.

Well almost clean, it is a bit more realistic to keep some of the original paper texture and printer ink spots.

The isolated text however can be multiplied to once again be readable.

The new print is ready for matting and framing.

The original is placed in a custom sized four flap enclosure with an archival support board for handling.

The resulting digital file can be printed and framed for other family members.

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5 thoughts on “Restoring historical documents – 1840 Land Grant signed by President Martin Van Buren”

  1. Hi Brian,
    The restorations I do are of course digital and items can be shipped to me for that sort of work.
    For conservation repair of originals I refer everyone to the
    The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC). Their web address is:
    There is a link on the site, top right, to “Find a Conservator”. Click there and you will find an interactive area for accredited conservators around the US, maybe internationally.
    The American Society of Appraisers is where I would start for local appraisers:
    You could also try historians and organizations regarding President Polk.


  2. I have several 1840s land grants from Benton County Alabama (now Calhoun County) I believe were signed by President James K. Polk and was wondering if there were any historical document appraisers in Alabama as well as people who could restore them.


  3. Richard Smigielski

    I have a 1837 Land Grant document signed by President Martin Van Buren. It has some of the issues that you stated. It is a Land Grant for land in Michigan. However, the seal is intact and the document is mostly very readable. On the opposite side it is written that it was registered on July 2nd, 1844, at 9 am at the Registry of Deeds. What is the value of this document?

    1. Ritchie,
      Thanks for your query.

      I do not do appraisals. However I have done some searches for values on this type of document as found in the online market place. I have seen a few for sale through online venues such as ebay. I have not seen one selling for more than $150.00 online. The value will depend on condition as well as the content of the document – i.e. how valuable it is to a collector. The condition of the document I repaired digitally was probably fair to good—good being better.

      If I have an item for sale such as this I always look up current information via a google search as a starting point. Something like “collecting antique documents”. Other options are to contact auction houses to ask if they deal in old documents or research the document through your local library. Most big cities will have one or two professional auction houses and all librarians are there to help you find information. There may be something in the history of your document that makes it more interesting and thus more valuable to a collector.

      If you need an appraisal for insurance purposes your local yellow pages online would have listings for “Appraisers”. If you are near a local historical society such an organization might have acredited appraisers in their membership or hire an appraiser in for a low cost fundraiser.

      To protect its condition and thus whatever value it has, keep it in a dry environment away from light and in some sort of enclosure, preferably using archival materials.


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