On This Day: The California Land Claims Act of 3 March 1851

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Among the many major issues confronting authorities in the newly seized American possession of California was how to approach the thorny question of land grants made by officials under Mexico and Spain.  The stunning discovery of gold in early 1848, followed quickly by the massive rush the following year, also provided a sense of urgency in some minds about what to do with those grants, especially as many gold-seekers struck out in the mines and some squatted on ranchos that were in legal limbo.

In greater Los Angeles, the problem wasn’t necessarily as acute, though there were still issues when, for example, migrants from the southern states arrived in the San Gabriel Valley in the early 1850s and squatted on lands owned by William Workman, his son-in-law F.P.F. Temple and their fellow ranchero Juan Matias Sanchez.  The court battles and practical matter of evicting squatters when suits were won proved to be a significant problem for the trio of land barons.

Henry W. Halleck, an Amy officer who became secretary of state in early 1849 during the military administration of California, conducted a survey on the land grants for Governor Richard B. Mason and which was submitted on 1 March.  Halleck concluded that there was maby problems in the system, which usually involved a petition by a citizen including a diseño, or map (generally very rudimentary) of the land; an order from the governor to the local prefect requiring confirmation that the land was unoccupied and unclaimed; the affirmative response by the prefect that the land was available; and, finally, the permanent title issued by the governor, with approval of the departmental assembly or federal government in Mexico City, and the package of documents constituted an expediente.

The full text of the “Act to Ascertain and Settle the Private Land Claims of the State of California,” shown here and four other sections from the Daily Republic (Washington, D.C.), 11 March 1851.

To Halleck, because many grants did not receive legislative approval, or had vaguely defined boundaries or were issued by Pío Pico, the last governor in the Mexican era, and antedated before the conquest by the United States, he reported that there were a significant number that could not stand scrutiny under American law.

In September 1849, however, William Carey Jones arrived in California with a mandate to conduct his own research and to submit a report directly to Washington.  A son-in-law of powerful Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton (and brother-in-law of the controversial John C. Frémont), Jones, an attorney who’d represented Frémont in his court-martial after the California phase of the war ended, completed his study in April 1850.  President Millard Fillmore transmitted it to Congress in time for that body’s deliberations on the issue of what to do with the land grants once California was admitted to the Union in early September.

Jones had a decidedly contrary view to that of Halleck and he reported that fraudulent grants would be easy to discern, while expressing the view that most of the grants issued under Mexico and Spain were “mostly perfect titles.”

California’s first two senators after statehood were Jones’ brother-in-law, Frémont and William Gwin, with both offering bills concerning the question of dealing with the grants.  Gwin’s bill prevailed, though with amendments by Benton, and he specifically called for a commission or board to gather evidence before a court in California, with a final appeal in Washington.

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Gwin’s bill tended to lean more toward Halleck’s view of the validity and vagueness of grants and was heavily influenced by those who felt that California should be opened up to new settlers (mostly Americans, obviously), who would generally be hostile to the massive size of some of the ranchos granted under Mexico and Spain.  Naturally, Benton inclined toward the view of his son-in-law Jones and argued that owners of grants would unduly experience legal hardships under the provisions of Gwin’s bill.

On 3 March 1851, however, Congress voted for Gwin’s legislation, the “Act to Ascertain and Settle the Private Land Claims in the State of California.”  Notably, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 2 February 1848 (discussed here last month) had an article that specifically referred to the protection of land grants, but that article was stricken by Congress when it approved the treaty.

The Act called for the president to appoint a commission of three members, who were given three years to review all claims.  This was extended twice so that the commission met for five years.  A secretary who understood Spanish was to serve as a translator and keep all records.  There was also a retinue of clerks and a law agent to assist in the process.  The legislation ordered that

each and every person claiming lands in California by virtue of any right or title derived from the Spanish and Mexican government, shall present the same to said commissioners when sitting as a board, together with such documentary evidence and testimony of witnesses as the said claimant relies upon in support of such claims.

Hearings were held exclusive in San Francisco, except for a brief session in Los Angeles in fall 1852, which was recognition of the many grants held in the southern part of the state.  So, for the claim to Rancho La Puente by John Rowland and William Workman and to Rancho La Merced by F.P.F. Temple and Juan Matias Sanchez, these individuals hired their legal counsel, gathered their documents, and produced witnesses for the commission’s work in the area.

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Once the commission made a decision about the claim, the statute required that, within a month, a certification of the rendering was to be made to the federal district attorney for that region.  Initially, the law allowed for either party (the claimant or the federal government) to appeal the commission’s decision to the local federal district court and then to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Later, however, this was made mandatory, a strong indicator that the goal of the feds was to push the process as far as possible toward forcing the land into the public domain for sale.

For those claims determined valid, the owners (it is important to note that, while a claim might be prosecuted in the name of the original grantees, later owners assumed the rights under the claim) were to submit a certificate of confirmation along with a new survey map, authenticated by the state surveyor general in order to receive a patent signed by the president.

The commission’s work began in early 1852 with the original trio replaced by a new set after President Franklin Pierce took office the following year.  After a resignation and replacement, the second cohort continued its work until March 1856 when it was dissolved.  One of the law agents was Volney E. Howard, a prominent attorney in Mississippi and Texas before coming to Gold Rush California.  Howard later represented Workman and Temple in land claims matters and was a partner with Workman in a claim to the lands of the ex-Mission San Gabriel.  A resident of that town and then Los Angeles, Howard was a long-time Superior Court judge for Los Angeles County.

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As for Halleck and Jones, they were members of San Francisco law firms that did a large business in land claims representation.  For Halleck, this was after he resigned his Army commission in 1854, but, when the Civil War erupted, he returned to military service as the fourth highest ranking general for the Union Army and rose to be General-in-Chief.  He was an excellent organizer, but less successful in the field and was replaced by U.S. Grant and made a chief of staff, where his skills in equipping, feeding and reinforcing troops suited his abilities.  As we’ll see in a future post, Halleck was consulted, just after the war ended, by John Rowland about how to secure a patent to the La Puente claim.

One source indicated that there were over 800 claims presented to the commission and, despite the intentions of Gwin and others, nearly 75% of these were approved.  In his excellent chapter on the land claims process in his excellent work, Land in California, title company executive and historian W. W. Robinson characterized the commission as “hard-working and fair-minded.”  Additionally, he wrote that it and the district courts hearing appeals “took a liberal attitude” in terms of the paperwork provided or adherence to Spanish and Mexican law by claimants.  Robinson concluded that both entities “were interested largely in proof of possession and use of land.”

Yet, the average claim took 17 years to carry to conclusion, with delays caused by a difficulty in getting surveys done, through the appeals process, and other reasons.  While many rancheros, Spanish-speaking Californios and Americans and Europeans alike, were riding the high tide of prosperity during the Gold Rush when the process began in 1852, the rush receded within a few years.  A national depression in 1857, the dual disaster of deluge (1861-62) and drought (1862-1864) and the resulting financial uncertainties taxed owners of grants when it came to paying fees for attorneys and surveyors.

La Merced diseno
The diseño or map done for the 1844 grant of Rancho La Merced to Casilda Soto de Lobo (women could own their own real property in Spanish and Mexican California) and reprinted in W.W. Robinson’s Land in California (University of California Press, 1948).  William Workman foreclosed on a loan made to Señora Lobo and took possession of La Merced in 1850, giving half to his Rancho La Puente foreman, Juan Matias Sanchez, who occupied Lobo’s adobe at the center.  The other half was given to F.P.F. Temple, Workman’s son-in-law.  When the land claim was made for La Merced in autumn 1852, it was by Sanchez and Temple, even though the deed from Workman wasn’t filed until 1875 (because of the Temple and Workman bank suspension.)  The patent was not issued for 20 years, finally being presented in 1872.

So, by the time most grant claims were finally adjudicated by about 1870, the situation was entirely different and, for the Californios especially, given their dramatic decline in economic and political power, the era of the land claims was a dire one.  By the time greater Los Angeles entered its first sustained period of growth, from the late 1860s through mid-1870s, most ranchos had been lost to foreclosure, sold or carved up among heirs and subdivided for smaller farms or townsites.  The so-called “Rancho Era” was over by 1870 for a variety of complex reasons, including the taxing rigors of the land claims process.

Even John Rowland and William Workman found getting their Rancho La Puente claim settled and their patent issued to be a 15-year effort, not resolved until 1867 when they were in the late sixties to mid seventies.  For Juan Matias Sanchez and F.P.F. Temple, their effort for La Merced took a full 20 years.   Future posts here will examine their claims, their resolutions and the aftermath.



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