California Land Claims in the Annual Message and Reports of President Franklin Pierce, December 1853

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

He was the son of a Revolutionary War hero and two-time governor of New Hampshire, so Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) was destined for a political career, though he studied law at Bowdoin College and began a practice before securing election at 24 to the state legislature and becoming speaker two years later.

A Democrat who was very loyal to Andrew Jackson, Pierce was elected to the House of Representatives at age 29, serving two terms before moving up to a single term in the Senate, concluding his service there in 1842.  Handsome and likable, Pierce was also a practical politician, urging extreme caution on slavery though he was from the Northeast. After his stint in the Senate, he returned to New Hampshire and to law.

Enlisting in the Army and serving as an officer during the Mexican-American War, he wielded influence among Democrats in New Hampshire without holding office, but that changed when his long-shot candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president in 1852 brought the dark-horse Pierce victory at the party’s national convention.  Divisiveness among the Whig Party and its candidate General Winfield Scott, a hero of the war, led to Pierce winning narrowly and becoming president.

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The images here are from sections of the annual message and report of President Franklin Pierce, published in December 1853 under the auspices of the House of Representatives and which is in the Homestead collection.  These deal with the land claims proceedings of grants made under Spain and Mexico, including, for example, Rancho La Puente, owned and claimed by John Rowland and William Workman.

His single term was undistinguished, though the Gadsden Purchase of land in Arizona and New Mexico, mainly for a proposed railroad line from the Southern states to southern California which did not materialize then, and the aggressive push to open Japan to American trade occurred during those four years.

Yet, his strong support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which ignited tensions and violence on slavery in those regions, especially “Bleeding Kansas,” was a black mark on the Pierce Administration.  He was bypassed for James Buchanan for the 1856 Democratic nomination and Buchanan defeated John C. Frémont, the first Republican candidate for president, and lumbered into worsening sectionalism that led to the Civil War.

Pierce’s first annual message to Congress at the end of 1853 included a published House of Representatives version, which the Homestead has in its collection.  While the president’s 18-page message is interesting, the focus of this post is on material related to the California land claims process the three-year old state.

Soon after California was seized by the United States during the Mexican-American War, the question of what to do with land grants made under Spanish and Mexican rule was addressed.  An article in the war-ending Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 2 February 1848 protecting these grants was stricken by a vote of the U.S. Senate and the matter left to Congress.

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Delays in the admission of California, having largely to do with the issue of slavery in new territories and states and California’s unique geographical position as both north and south, meant that an act to deal with land claims wasn’t passed until 3 March 1851.  The commission formed to hear claims, in which owners brought documents, including the original grants (expedientes) and maps (diseños) to the body for deliberation and decision, was given three years to do its work.

The commission mainly met in San Francisco, though a special session was held in Los Angeles in fall 1852 to allow ranchers in Southern California to have more convenient access to the entity.  The Workman and Temple families submitted claims for their ranchos of La Puente and La Merced as well as William Workman’s shared claim for the lands of the former Mission San Gabriel at that time.

In the late 1853 report, it was recommended that the act be amended to allow for continued work on the claims.  This is because it was noted that the commission heard 812 claims, but only 72 had been decided and confirmed to date.  450 cases included the provision of evidence, but were not closed, while another 279 had not yet heard any evidence.  Only another 9 claims were ended and ready for a hearing.  So, a great deal of work had yet to be done.

The report also touched upon a provision of the land claims act that corporate town or city grants made under Spain and Mexico had their own claims, eleven of which were filed to date, including one for “Los Angelos,” a spelling often used in official documents at the time.  It stated that the work conducted by the commission and others involved in adjudicating private land claims, as well as whatever public lands existed, was done with economy and dispatch.  Two federal land offices were established, with the northern one domiciled at Benicia and the southern one at “Los Angelos.”

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Perpetual problems with land squatters led Congress in 1841 to pass a preemption act that allowed settlers to acquire 160 acres of public land and, after a little more than a year of occupancy, purchase the property for as low as $1.25 an acre before the public land went to auction.  The practice of preemption declined after the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862 and the preemption law was repealed thirty years after that.

On a related note, legislation of 3 March 1853 which allowed for preemption in California for any unsurveyed lands, with exceptions and conditions relating to real or potential public use, and it was recommended that this model apply to other states and territories with substantial amounts of unsettled land.  It was added in prose not generally found elsewhere in the report:

Too much cannot be said of the energy and enterprise of this class of our people.  They are the pioneers of civilization and Christianity.  They have pressed forward from the Alleghanies to the Pacific, opening roads, bridging the streams, felling the forests and cultivating the prairies.  Before them the wild beasts of the forest have passed away, and, like a bulwark, they have stood in front of their less-daring and adventurous fellow-citizens, who have followed on and and peopled the countries thus opened up for them.

Paying a government price for public land, rather than fall prey to land speculators, was worth “the fruits of their own toil, hardships and privations.”

Meanwhile, a statement was made about the toil, hardships and privations of federal land agents, who coped with low salaries and inadequate living arrangements as well as “the crowded and uncomfortable condition of” their offices with inadequate light and other problems.

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A chart of the aforementioned states and territories with unsettled land included California, which was shown as having about 190,000 square miles and some 121 million acres.  None, however, was surveyed to federal standards, though about 6.7 million acres was set aside as so-called “school lands,” for public schools and universities, though much of that wound up being given out for railroads and other development under the guise of necessary and desirable economic development.  Another half-million acres was under the heading of “Grants for internal improvements.”

The land claims process dragged on for many more years.  The land commission did its work with efficiency and relative speed, eventually confirming about two-thirds of the over 800 claims it heard.  With an automatic appeal of the federal government, however, each successful claim went to federal district courts.

In the example of Rancho La Puente, there was an 1854 court verdict in their favor, which the government appealed and which was reheard at the district court in Los Angeles two years later.  Again, John Rowland and William Workman garnered a favorable ruling, but the feds considered an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Delays ensued, however, and the Civil War brought the matter to a grinding halt.

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After a lawyer was hired in Washington, the federal government finally dropped its opposition, based on its reading of the two grants in 1842 and 1845 and its preference for the former which was far smaller in acreage.  In 1867, fifteen years after the claim was filed, a patent was at last issued to the two aging rancheros.

The average time frame for, however, claims was a little longer than that, being seventeen years.   With death, financial misfortunes and foreclosure, sales, the end of the Gold Rush, floods and droughts in the first half of the 1860s and other issues, conditions greatly changed through that long period of battling.

Another interesting and important element of the 1853 executive message and reports had to do with the thorny and increasingly urgent matter of California’s native aboriginal population.  Tomorrow’s post takes up that aspect.

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