Gold, Guns and Growth Preview: The Land Claim for Rancho La Puente, 1852-1859

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In advance of tomorrow afternoon’s talk on the Workman and Temple families in 1850s Los Angeles, we look at one of the more important concerns that William and Nicolasa Workman had during the decade, which was the ongoing claim, along with John and Charlotte Rowland, for a federal patent to the Rancho La Puente. The issue arose because one of the major areas of discussion as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican-American War, was being negotiated was whether land grants made under Mexico and Spain were to be considered valid by the United States.

Nicholas Trist, the American negotiator, agreed in Article X to the Mexican government’s insistence that those grants were to be upheld, but the United States Senate and President James Polk’s administration were furious that Trist made the arrangement in direct contravention to his orders. Consequently, when it came time for the Senate to ratify the treaty, Article X was stricken from the document on 3 March 1848 by a vote of 33-19. Despite this, there have been and continue to be people who think the article was part of the finalized treaty.

Exactly three years after that vote, Congress approved the “Act to Ascertain and Settle the Private Land Claims in the State of California,” generally known as the California Land Claims Act and which required holders of grants made before 7 July 1846, the date American naval forces seized Monterey in northern California, to present evidence supporting the claim to a three-person commission. Built into the legislation was the right to appeal the decision of the commission to a federal district court and then, if desired, to the United States Supreme Court. It was the position of the federal government to automatically appeal any commission-approved claim to the courts and this, along with the costs of legal representation, required professional surveys and other expenses posed great challenges to grant holders, especially after the Gold Rush ended and economic problems mounted for rancheros who depended on the sale of cattle for their livelihoods.

The first page of the written opinion of 14 April 1854 by California land claims commissioner R. Augustus Thompson, on behalf of his colleagues Alpheus Felch and Thompson Campbell, confirming the claim of John Rowland and William Workman to the Rancho La Puente.

While the act was approved on 3 March 1851, it, naturally, took some time for the legislation to be carried out in terms of the appointments of commission members, apportionment of funds for them to do their work, sending them out to the far-flung west coast, and getting hearings started. Initially, the sole location for the proceedings of the commission was to be San Francisco, but it was recognized that those claimants in southern California were at a particular disadvantage logistically and financially, so, in fall 1852, the commission traveled south to Los Angeles and held hearings for a limited term. Among those filing their claims were the Workmans and Rowland for Rancho La Puente.

The commission performed its work with relative efficiency and overall fairness, with over 800 claims presented and about two-thirds of them decided in the favor of the claimant, though a December 1853 report in a message to Congress by President Franklin Pierce showed that, despite hearings moving fairly rapidly, only a few had been decided and were ready to move to the federal district courts. In 1854, however, the claim for La Puente did finally get approved by the commission, though there was a major issue for Rowland and Workman.

This had to do with the fact that there were two grants to the rancho. In spring 1842, Rowland went to Monterey and secured one, in his name only, from Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado for four square leagues, just under 18,000 acres with the remainder within the specified boundaries to remain with the departmental government of Alta California. A little over three years later, though, after Workman and Rowland were part of an armed force that helped legislative leader Pío Pico unseat the governor, Manuel Micheltorena, Pico issued a new grant, adding Workman to the document, for the area within those boundaries, though there was no mention of leagues. Notably, the legislature actually specified four square leagues, as in the first grant, whereas the area within the boundaries was eleven or just under 49,000 acres.

The eastern portion of Rancho La Puente from Henry Hancock’s 1857 survey, conducted as part of the land claim. Note the adjoining ranchos of Cajon de San Juan (in north and northeastern Orange County), Rincon de la Brea (in Brea Canyon in both Orange and Los Angeles counties), Los Nogales (the Diamond Bar and Walnut area) and San Jose (Pomona.) The area denoted as Public Land was set aside from adjoining ranchers to have surplus grazing land.

When land claims commissioner R. Augustus Thompson, on behalf of his colleagues Alpheus Felch and Thompson Campbell, issued his written ruling on 14 April 1854, he stated that it was clear that Pico intended to grant the entirety of La Puente, within the named bounds, to Rowland and Workman. despite the action of the legislature. Thompson, though, like Pico, did not state an amount of leagues or acres, in his ruling. The federal government seized upon this issue as the basis for its assertion that the decision of the legislature to approve Pico’s grant for four square leagues was official and that the grant could only be confirmed for that amount.

A side issue of note is that federal officials also exhibited some confusion about who “Don Julian Workman” was, as opposed to William Workman. When Workman was living in New Mexico and decided to become a Mexican citizen, he was obligated to convert to the Roman Catholic Church. In doing so, in early June 1828, his baptismal name had to be after one of the Catholic saints, so he chose Julián. Because he lived nearly two more decades in Mexican territory, coming to California in 1841, Workman was known to Latinos and Anglos alike as Don Julián. It may be that the feds were angling for any way they could to invalidate, if not hold up, the grant through petty technicalities like this!

On 1 March 1856, the claim was heard in the court of Judge Isaac Stockton Keith Ogier in the federal district court at Los Angeles and, after hearing the evidence and arguments, Judge Ogier agreed with the government and ruled that the La Puente grant should be confirmed for four square leagues. Obviously, Rowland and Workman were going to challenge the ruling as they stood to lose nearly two-thirds of the ranch, though they were more than happy, when it came time for property tax assessments and payments, to have the 18,000 acres as the official amount while the claim was in process!

The western portion of the plat of La Puente “recently confirmed to Julian Workman and John Roland [sic]” with the adjoining ranchos of La Habra (La Habra and La Habra Heights), San Bartolo (Whittier), and Potrero de Felipe Lugo (South El Monte.) Note San Jose Creek running from right to left and along which the two owners settled. The area above that at the right is Puente (or simply, P) Hill, while the Puente Hills are at the bottom of the ranch, with the boundary the solid line running from upper left to lower right and then a southward job at the bottom right.

Represented by William G. Dryden, whom Rowland and Workman knew from their days in New Mexico when Dryden nominated them as commissioners of the Republic of Texas in a scheme to have that country annex much of New Mexico and who was a new county judge, the two men requested a rehearing before Ogier. On 17 March 1857, just over a year after the first hearing, Ogier listened to Dryden argue the case and reversed himself, vacating his previous decree and ruling that the grant to La Puente be confirmed for the full eleven square leagues.

Having secured victory in the federal district court, Rowland and Workman moved on to the next step in the process, having an official plat of La Puente surveyed and drawn up in 1857 by surveyor Henry Hancock (his Rancho La Brea includes today’s tony Los Angeles neighborhood of Hancock Park, developed by his son, G. Allan.) Hancock, whose work included occasional conflicts, most notably with Henry Dalton, whose Rancho Azusa adjoined La Puente to the north, drew the southern boundary in such a way that there was a problem with the lines separating the ranch from the ranchos La Habra to the south and Los Nogales to the east. It took some legal maneuvering to get those questions worked out, but it was done satisfactorily for all concerned parties.

The next problem was that the federal General Land Office, which was supposed to review and certify the survey and then submit it for the issuing of the patent, moved with a glacial pace. James W. Mandeville, the federal surveyor general for California and who signed off on Hancock’s survey, then wrote on 4 November 1859 from his San Francisco office to Thomas A. Hendricks, commissioner of the GLO office in Washington, that, although the plat, notes and decrees for La Puente “were forwarded to Washington for Patent on the 4th Aug. 1859,” there was another matter, specifically

Recent investigations in the Archives, has disclosed the fact, that the Departmental Assembly, approved the concession made by the Govcernor, as of four square leagues only. The decree of [the] Court upon which the Survey was based, gave the extent confirmed, as to eleven square leagues, within the boundaries.

A traced copy of the approval of the Departmental Assembly, above referred to, is herewith forwarded for your consideration.

Mandeville’s raising of the discrepancy of the size of rancho with the GLO in the nation’s capital meant that the matter was delayed into the 1860s as the feds pondered what to do with this information. Moreover, an amendment in 1860 to the land claims legislation meant that any hearings having to do with surveys would go back to the federal district courts.

A letter about La Puente being approved for four square leagues, just under 18,000 acres, by the Mexican-era legislature of Alta California from James W. Mandeville, federal surveyor general in California, to Thomas A. Hendricks, commissioner of the General Land Office in Washington, D.C., 4 November 1859.

Because tomorrow’s talk covers the Fifties, we’ll end the discussion here, but pick it up again before the next chapter of the Workman and Temple family story, taking us through the Sixties, is told in the spring. So, be sure to check back later for the finale.

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