by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was on this day 170 years ago that Commodore John D. Sloat of the United States Navy seized Monterey as part of a campaign to pacify the broader San Francisco Bay area in the American invasion and seizure of Mexican Alta California. Sloat was appointed military governor by President James K. Polk, but only served in that capacity for a month before turning over the office to fellow commodore Robert Stockton.
In addition to being one of the key dates of the highly controversial seizure by the U.S. of California, July 7, 1846 became a benchmark in ensuing legislation concerning the fate of the land grants made in California under Spanish and Mexican rule.
In fact, California’s status was in question because the Missouri Compromise enacted by Congress in 1820 dealt with the admission of future states by area, with a new southern state to be a “slave state” and a new northern one to be a “free state.” This posed few problems until California’s conquest, because, geographically, the very vertical new possession was both north and south.
Consequently, Congress dithered and dallied over California’s status for over three years from early 1847, when hostilities ended at Los Angeles, to late 1850.
During this period, the Gold Rush brought teeming hordes of gold seekers and settlers from all over the world to a place which lacked a functional government. Military rule remained in effect, but when gold was found, many soldiers went AWOL, creating a shambles when it came to authority in the possession.
Frustrated, citizens of California, most of whom were new arrivals, formed their own constitution at the end of 1849, held elections the following spring, and began to govern themselves. This finally stirred Congress to action and, belatedly, statehood was granted in September 1850.
There was, however, another thorny issue about the status of those Spanish and Mexican-era land grants, of which some 800 were made. Most of these came in the dozen or so years after the “secularization” of the 21 missions in the early to mid 1830s. One such former mission holding was Rancho La Puente, granted to John Rowland in 1842 and regranted to Rowland and William Workman three years later.
When Congress passed the California land claims act in March 1851, it set a dateline of July 7, 1846 as the benchmark for when grants were considered legitimate. In other words, grants made before that date were more likely to be determined valid, while those bearing a date after July 7 were deemed faulty. Two-third of the claims put before a commission that met over five years were approved by that body.
However, a federal government policy to automatically appeal all successful claims to the federal courts as far as the U.S. Supreme Court extended the average time to work through these claims to an astounding 17 years.
With the process starting in 1852 when the Gold Rush was in full steam, but then moving through the decline of that period, a national depression in 1857, and devastating floods and droughts in the first half of the 1860s, a great many ranches were sold, lost to foreclosure, divided among heirs and more.
Rowland and Workman spent 15 years fighting for the patent to La Puente, finally securing it in 1867. They were among the few local ranchers to maintain most of their ranch intact by the 1870s, a quarter century or so since John Sloat’s seizure of Monterey.