Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Search for The Seal

In the early 1970's, when Donald Sharp was beginning to take interest in researching the original land grants along the Tchefuncte River (and at the lakefront which was later to become Mandeville), he came upon a rather perplexing mystery.

The Great Wax Seal of West Florida, the one the government used to vertify official documents, was an extremely difficult item to find. The seals were made of wax and paper and tended to flake and crumble over the years, especially if they are handled a lot. 

A partial Great West Florida Seal had been found in Covington at the St. Tammany Parish Court House Archives in the Clerk of Court's Office, but finding a more complete seal in better shape was a top priority. 

Sharp was just one of the many researchers looking for a surviving West Florida Seal. One should have been readily available, considering the hundreds of land grants and other legal papers issued by the territory. But it was not. He stepped up his efforts in looking for a complete seal in the mid-1970's when he started doing his research on the history of the town of Covington.  

His efforts took him to London, England, in the summer of 1979, but he was unable to track one down even in the official archives there. "I was very lucky to be invited by the Director of the Department of Seals on Portugal Street after meeting him at the Public records Office in Kew. He was supervising a gigantic display of Seals, some dating back a thousand years.

"I explained what I was looking for and he quickly invited me to extend my search at the six story building where all the seals are kept. I was allowed, with an employee, to search in a room where the East Florida Seals, attached to their land grants were kept. 

Why There Are So Few Seals

"The reason there was not an official place designated for the West Florida Seals is that the Claims Commission, after the American Revolution, did not recognize the claims of the Loyalists living in West Florida. It was not officially a part of the Revolutionary War and Land Grants with their Seals attached were not accepted by the Commission," Sharp explained.

Dr. Robert Rea , Professor of History at Auburn University, found out that the St. Tammany Parish archives, had, up to that time, the only known surviving seal, and he made a special trip from Alabama to St. Tammany Parish to examine the seal. While there, he gave a speech at the St. Tammany Historical Society quarterly meeting. 

Click on the image to make it larger. 

"We were not the first to go look for the West Florida seal in London," Sharp said of he and Dr. Rea. "Others had tried, without success, over the past seventy five years." The Seals that Sharp did collect on that trip were made into a nice display which is now part of the Donald J. Sharp Collection  at Southeastern Louisiana University

"My first contact with Dr. Rea was in the late 1970's when I read several of his articles on the British Period of West Florida. He had been doing research on the Deputed Great Seal of British West Florida and states that after extensive research in the British Archives in London, he also could not find a single one that were attached to the land grants of West Florida during the 1763-1783 period," Sharp said.

"It was only by luck and an early court case that St. Tammany had one - although in a deteriorating condition. They were made of wax and paper, and 200 years had taken their toll," he commented.

"I wrote to Dr. Rea telling him that a Great West Florida Seal was in the St. Tammany court archives if he wanted to examine it. The St. Tammany Historical Society had been established about ten years earlier and he was asked to speak at one of our meetings." 

In the summer of 1978, Dr. Rea had written an article about the Great Seal of West Florida in the Alabama Historical Quarterly, several  excerpts of which follow:

The Deputed Great Seal of British West Florida by Robert R. Rea

"The sovereign authority of the State is customarily displayed on official documents by the Great Seal of the issuing government or ruler. 

"In medieval England the king's seal was regularly used to validate orders, letters, charters, grants and other documents. Initially a simple signet ring, the royal seal gradually became more elaborate and its size increased to the point that, of necessity, it passed from the fingers of the monarch into the care and keeping of his Chancellor who, on state occasions, carried (and still has carried before him) the elaborately embroidered seal bag symbolic of his office. 

"By the eighteenth century the British government utilized a large number of especially designed seals, and among these were the deputed great seals, those created for the use of the governors of the several American royal colonies.

"Remarkably little is known about the official colonial seals, and relatively few impressions of them have survived into the late twentieth century. Normally pressed into red wax which was attached by ribbon to a document, examples of these souls have tended to dry out, crumble and disintegrate, so that they are today but fragments. 

"Most of the surviving pre-Revolutionary provincial seals have long since been detached from the documents to which they once gave authority, but detachment could also result in the loss of the seal. 

"This seems to have been the fate of the Great Seal of the colony of British West Florida. No example of that seal appears to exist among the many documents to which it was once attached and which are now to be found in the vast collections of the British Library and the Public Record Office in London.

"Happily, certain information regarding the creation of the West Florida seal, and a precise description of it, can be gleaned from the surviving records of those departments of government concerned with its production, the Royal Mint most particularly.

"The record does not show how the approved designs of the seals were selected, but it appears that more than one proposal for the West Florida seal was submitted to the Board of Trade."

The design of the seal was approved on December 21, 1763, and four drafts were engraved. The Chief Engraver of Seals, Christopher Seaton, submitted his bill for the design work on April 10, 1764, describing it as a double seal for the Province of West Florida. 

While the seal of British West Florida is of purely antiquarian interest today, Dr. Rea said in his article, "the mystery of its appearance, and disappearance, and the obvious value of a surviving example should inspire future searches and perhaps the discovery of a truly rare historical artifact."

And Such A Remarkable Discovery Came Along

Sharp explained that "around 1998,1 noticed in The Historical Collection of New Orleans' Bulletin that it had added to its collection by purchasing a Great West Florida Seal at an antique show in Charlestown, South Carolina," 

Sharp said, "I believe that this seal was part of the land grant that Alexander McCullough sold to Official Eli Bey Hall. After the Revolutionary War, Hall had settled in Charlestown,and his grant, with the seal, was passed down to his descendants.

The partial Great West Florida Seal in the St. Tammany Parish Court House Archives in Covington in the Clerk of Court's Office and the one purchased by The Historic Collection are the only ones in existence at this time that have known to survive.