“A Difficult, Delicate and Yet Most Responsible Duty”: A Report on Settling Land Claims in California, 31 August 1852

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the aftermath of the seizure of the Mexican department of Alta California in 1847 and the resulting clamor of the Gold Rush, one of the many pressing issues facing the United States Government was the question of the hundreds of land grants made under Mexico and Spain. Article X of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to formally end of the Mexican-American War provided for the honoring of all such grants in California and other territory wrested by the U.S. from Mexico. Nicholas Trist, the American negotiator, was not, however, given the authority to conclude such an agreement and the article was stricken from the treaty by a vote of 33-19 when it was ratified by the Senate in early 1848—though there are still those who are unaware of this fact.

The federal government’s policy was that Congress should decide what to do with Spanish and Mexican era land grants, but it took nearly three more years for an increasingly polarized Congress to decide what to do with a massive territory in Alta California that was both north and south when it came to the dividing line from the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that provided for the alternation of admitted states as slave and free. It was only after residents of Alta California, most new Gold Rush arrivals, voted for a constitution at the end of 1849 and then for representatives of a government the following spring, that Congress was spurred into action.

The result was the admission of California as the 31st state in the Union on 9 September 1850 and, six months later, the “Act to Ascertain and Settle the Private Land Claims in the State of California,” often known simply as the “California Land Claims Act,” was passed on 3 March 1851. Among the key provisions of the legislation was the creation of a three-person commission to hear claims for a period of three years; that a secretary fluent in English and Spanish was to be interpreter and record-keeper; that five clerks assist the commission; and that an agent represent the interests of the United States in the proceedings.


Claimants were to present documentation of their grant and have witnesses testify to the legitimacy of the claim, upon which the commissioners were to render their decision and forward the result to the federal district attorney within thirty days. Whatever the finding, the claimant or the federal government could petition for a review at the soonest term of the federal district court thereafter. Naturally, there was provision for a final appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Section eleven stipulated that the commissioners and the courts “shall be governed by the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the law of nations, the laws, usages and customs of the government from which the claim is derived, the principles of equity, and the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, so far as they are applicable.”

All claims rejected by the commission or ruled invalid by the courts and those lands subject to claims that were not presented to the commission were to become public lands. Those approved by the commission and upheld by the courts were to be certified with the issuance of a patent once a certificate from those proceedings and a map approved by the California Surveyor General was submitted to the General Land Office. There was, though, a provision allowing for competing claims to be heard before a patent was issued. There were other provisions (no town or city lots were involved, that the cut-off date for grants was 7 July 1846 when naval forces took Monterey, that the proceedings only applied to the federal government and the claimant, and that former mission lands held by Indians were subject to a forthcoming report).

The last section had to do with compensation for the commissioners, secretary (including fees for preparing certain documents), and clerks, but, once these personnel arrived in San Francisco and began their work, it was abundantly clear that the funds appropriated by Congress were woefully insufficient. This led to the creation of the report that is tonight’s featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection; a letter from the acting Secretary of the Treasury, William L. Hodge, to the House of Representatives “transmitting papers showing reasons for an increase of appropriation for salaries and incidental expenses” of the commission from $50,000 to $89,000, a nearly 70% increase, for the 1852-1853 fiscal year.


Hodge explained that, after receiving a communication from early February from one of the commissioners, Hiland Hall, a recommendation was made to increase the amount to $75,000, but a subsequent letter from Hall received in mid-May, adjusted that figure to $89,600. Notably, though the original act allowed for five clerks, the 1852-53 appropriation by Congress only permitted two, so this was an attempt to remedy the problems through the hiring of three more.

Included among the documents accompanying the report was a letter from Hall to Secretary of the Interior Alexander H.H. Stuart and dated 29 December 1851. In the missive, Hall reported that he arrived in San Francisco on the 2nd suffering from a common malady of travelers by sea who crossed the isthmus at Panama, a bad fever (perhaps malaria), and was still recovering.

Tragically, his namesake son, Hiland H. Hall, who was twenty-six and was to be the disbursing agent of funds for the commission, died a few days after arrival, almost certainly from the same fever. Sadly, his father added “if this calamity could have been anticipated, I would, of course, never have thought of coming here.” Still, “being here, I shall endeavor to perform the duties of my station in the best way I can” including being the disbursing agent himself.

Hall noted that he’d visited a four-story brick building rented for the commission’s use, but the intended first meeting, scheduled for the 31st, was postponed because of Hall’s illness. At that confab, scheduled for 8 January 1852, rules and procedures for the presentation and docketing of claims were to be hashed out.


He went on to observe that rent was $800 per month, considered reasonable given inflated prices in Gold Rush San Francisco, but that the commission still needed desks, a bookcase, heating fuel and other necessities, including the printing of the 3 March 1851 act and public notices of commission hearings. Overall, when it came to expenses “I find they are likely to be altogether larger than I had anticipated before coming here.”

Given Hall’s missive, Stuart wrote to George S. Houston, the House Committee of Ways and Means chair, forwarding that letter and stating that “in view of the facts therein stated,” the $50,000 appropriated by Congress “will not be sufficient to meet the expenses of the commission for the next fiscal year” and that “I therefore recommend that the appropriation . . . be increased to $75,000.”

The 17 April 1853 (the document has 1850 in error) letter from Hall to Stuart provides more detail on expenses, including the rental of the building, deemed fire-proof, and others, though he pointed out that the 1851 law had no “express provision” for traveling expenses. Another issue was that “with the expenses of living in California, the salaries of the officers of the commission will be considered as extremely low, much lower than they nature and character of the services required of them ought to command.”

So, any expenses in traveling elsewhere to hold hearing, such as at Los Angeles, scheduled for October, should not come from that inadequate pay. As for the clerks, this would “almost wholly deprive them of any compensation.” Consequently, Hall estimated that traveling expenses would amount to $3,000, at twenty cents per mile, for the ten persons involved. As for copying records from Mexican archives, it was one thing if the California Surveyor General would do so on authorization without charge, but, otherwise, that would come to some $20,000.


A listing of expenses for the fiscal year included nearly $30,000 in salaries for the three commissioners, the secretary and five clerks; the law agent’s salary of $6,000; $14,400 for rent of the San Francisco building; $3,000 for rent of structures at Los Angeles “and other places;” $3,000 for witness fees; and smaller sums for fees; books and stationery; fuel, lights, and water; printed notices, blanks and other documents; and more. This came to the $89,600 mentioned earlier.

On 10 May 1852, Stuart forwarded to the chairs of the committees on public lands in both the House (William P. Hall) and Senate (Alpheus Felch, who, upon completing his term, was appointed a land claims commissioner when a new slate was sent to California) letters from law agent George W. Cooley and to Cooley from Halleck, Peachy and Billings [there’s a great name for a lawyer], a San Francisco law firm doing a great deal of representation for claimants and from 45 lawyers in that city. Henry W. Halleck was military secretary of state in 1849 and had a major role in writing the California constitution of that year and was also author of one of the best-known reports on the validity of California claims. Later, he was a Civil War general in chief and chief of staff.

The gist of the problem with these missives was that, given only a small percentage of presumed claims had been presented to date and that the life of the commission was already half way gone, a recommendation was made to allow for the appointment of sub-commissioners to take witness testimony, because so many of these persons were at a distance and could not attend sessions, and for the creation of assistant agents to help Cooley by being present at testimony heard by the sub-commissioners.


Cooley’s letter of 31 March 1852 contains some very interesting material, including his expectation that there were likely to be up to 2,000 claims filed, based on representations from Halleck that so-called “rancho claims” would number up to 1,200, while smaller claims might equal that number, though Cooley had a slightly lower overall estimate. Cooley added that there were about six hundred expedientes, or grant packets, “and which are more or less perfect” in terms of validity. There were, though, another thousand “in a very imperfect state” while it appeared that documents were removed from the archives and held by grantees, while others “were destroyed by Mexican soldiers, and others, during revolutionary movements.”

This meant that Cooley’s job was made that much more difficult, given that verification of the proper status of documents, not to mention challenges with legibility, presented at claims added to his work. This was on top of the mounting complexities of witness testimony and all that was entailed with that, while “he must prepare and present proper arguments on the law and facts in cases where reasonable grounds of objection exist.”

Cooley continued that some grants were not properly approved by the dictates of Mexican land law, while some owners of grants were given possession of more than “was expressly conceded to them.” Another example, which applied to the original grant of Rancho La Puente to John Rowland in early 1842, was “in most grants there was a condition that the residue beyond” the confines of the rancho “should result to the nation, and usually there was an excess over the grant within the specified limits.” In the La Puente example, a second grant by Pío Pico in July 1845, included all of the land within its bounds, though government officials tried to claim that the original grant was the one that applied to the confirmation process.


The agent also noted that, when it came to defining boundaries, “often only two lines were measured with a cord of determined length, and frequently the lines thus measured were of such length that the lines being completed . . . would not give the true quantity granted.” With La Puente, Rowland and Workman had a professional surveyor, Isaac Given, who came with them from New Mexico, conduct the measurements of the boundaries, but he complained that local laborers employed to help him did not follow his directions well and he felt that the survey was off significantly.

Beyond that, Cooley went on, conditions laid out in grants were often not met by the claimant. He was also concerned about how many competing claims there might be; that conditions in California did not match those of other parts of Mexico, so that “the usages and customs were in general, of course, peculiar;” and that just to get to 150 claims presented took considerable time. These, however, “are of vast importance, as they are among the most valuable ranchos in California.”

The agent reported “my labors have been very arduous” and he hesitated to make suggestions before, but the time had come to question whether a single agent could handle the workload. So, to improve efficiency, he recommended that he be allowed “to appoint assistants to the number the board may approve, with such limitations as Congress may impose.” He also wondered if more should be done to locate records that were sent to Mexico, as required by laws passed in that nation’s Congress in 1828. As to “what regularity this report was forwarded, it is of course impossible to tell,” however. In a postscript, Cooley also expressed concern about the “vast amount of labor and research” for claims regarding missions and towns, though the 1851 act only referred to the former in regard to indigenous use of lands and the latter was not part of that law.


The 1 April 1852 letter to Cooley from Halleck, Peachy and Billings reiterated the idea that some 2,000 claims could be expected, adding that “many of the tracts of land thus granted have been divided up, and several different individuals now hold under the same grant.” The imperfect state of records and “the peculiar character of Spanish and Mexican grants” required much in terms of evidence to be presented to the commission, while the fact that documents were in Spanish meant “it will be impossible to bring these matters to a conclusion within the next two or three years” while delay would be tantamount “to the confiscation of the property of the claimants.”

That was why the need for sub-commissioners and assistants to the law agent was no necessary and a model for that was found in the operations of the federal district courts. As noted above, witnesses might be found, not only at great distances within California, but in other states and countries, or be aged and sick and not able to travel to commission sessions. The firm paid tribute to Cooley’s “ability and untiring industry in defending the rights of the United States,” but concluded that “you absolutely require assistance” and the 1851 law had to be amended for that purpose.

The 30 March missive from the nearly four dozen San Francisco lawyers echoed the same essential points: Cooley could not do the work required on his own and they “are exceedingly hindered and delayed in the prosecution” of their clients’ claims “because every case must be conducted under your personal supervision” and “little progress is made” despite his best efforts. Hence the need for subordinates for Cooley and for the commissioners to expedite claims, so that he and they could “be occupied upon final argument and hearing of cases” while the assistants took testimony.


There were amendments made to the law and, as noted above, the commissioners were replaced. The length of existence commission was extended two more years to 1856 and there were changes made in the processing of surveys and to the proceedings of the courts. Still, the average claim (there were just over 800, rather than up to 2,000) took seventeen years, meaning that most were not completed until 1870. Of course, worsening sectionalism in national politics and the coming of the Civil War made matters even more problematic.

For Spanish-speaking Californios unfamiliar with American common law, as opposed to Mexican civil law in a frontier variation, there were added hurdles and obstacles. Moreover, the Gold Rush boom went bust and floods and droughts in the first half of the 1860s meant immeasurable and irremediable financial harm to many ranchers. Those that survived these enormous challenges might die during those seventeen years and leave their grants to a large number of children, weakening the value of the land and making the prosecuting of land claims harder.

For Rowland and Workman, they were fortunate in that they retained La Puente fully intact during the fifteen long years of their claim, but went to additional expense and trouble to hire a Washington, D.C. lawyer to help secure their patent. This was after Rowland wrote Halleck for advice and was merely told by the general still in the field just after the war ended, to “hire a lawyer and give him plenty of money.” The simple counsel worked: the patent was issued in April 1867, allowing the aging rancheros to survey the land for a partition among them so they could provide for their heirs (Rowland did leave his half to his family, but Workman’s failed bank precluded his leaving most of his share to his descendants.)


This government document is an excellent source of information about the early period of the land commission’s existence and work and provides an important context for the presentation of claims by members of the Temple and Workman families, as well as their contemporaries.

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