“Mostly Perfect Titles”: The Report of William Carey Jones on Land Titles in California, 1849-1851, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

After the seizure of Mexican Alta California by the United States in 1846-47 during the Mexican-American War, among the questions raised in the subsequent negotiations that resulted in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which followed the end of the conflict, was the status of land grants made during the Mexican and Spanish eras. American negotiator Nicholas Trist agreed to an article, number ten, that would recognize the legitimacy of these transactions.

Trist, however, was not authorized to make such terms and incurred the ire of government officials in Washington, including President James K. Polk and Secretary of State (and future president) James Buchanan. So, when the treaty was ratified by the Senate, Article X was stricken by a vote of 34-19. For the next couple of years, Congress wrestled with what to do with California, as it is geographically so vertical that it did not meet the criteria of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 for alternating admission of free and slave states.

The Compromise of 1850, providing for California, the citizens of which already ratified a constitution late the previous year prohibiting slaveholding, to be admitted as a free state on 9 September, was then followed by legislation concerning those land titles. This resulted in “An Act to Ascertain and Settle the Private Land Claims in the State of California,” passed on 3 March 1851. Before that, however, a special agent was sent out to investigate the status of claims and the Mexican laws that governed them before the American takeover of California. This was William Carey Jones, whose report of 10 April 1850 was printed on order of the Senate on 30 January 1851.

Jones was born in Maine in 1816, but was two years old when his parents migrated west, as so many people did from the east coast, to Ohio. He lived in Chillicothe for much of his early years and became editor of a newspaper there and studied law. While he passed the bar, he did not practice law and he relocated to New Orleans where he ran a newspaper for several years. In spring 1847, he married Elizabeth Benton, a daughter of the powerful Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and became the brother-in-law of John C. Frémont, married to Jessie Benton.

Thanks to the influence of his father-in-law, Jones secured employment in the General Land Office, working with land cases, and was a secretary for the Mexican Land Commission, which was his entre into the California land titles question. Among those who gave Jones his instructions in summer 1849 for his role as special agent investigating the matter was the president of the Senate, Millard Fillmore, who won the presidential election of 1850.

Having received his commission on 12 July 1849, Jones wrote in his report that he left Washington two days later and traveled to New York, from which he embarked on a steamer on the 17th for California. The trip included a crossing of the Panamanian isthmus, though he was delayed a month waiting for a steamer to take up the Pacific coast, arriving at Monterey “where the Territorial archives were deposited” on 19 September. Jones hoped to travel overland from there to Los Angeles and then San Diego, but heavy rains forced him to take a steamer to San Diego in mid-November and “thence I went overland to Los Angeles” where he remained until 3 December and then returned to San Diego.

Completing his tour of Alta California, Jones took a steamer to Acapulco on Mexico’s west coast and traveled overland to Mexico City, where he arrived on Christmas Eve. He spent time investigating records there until 11 January 1850 and made his way to Veracruz, on the east coast (William Workman would do the same about a year later as he made his sole return trip to his native England) and departed there a week later for Mobile, Alabama. After a short sojourn, he continued his return trip and arrived in Washington on 1 February.

Jones hoped to submit his report much sooner than 10 April, but stated “I have been prevented from making my report until the present time by the unexpected detention of the papers and memoranda which I collected in California, and which I could not, without inconvenience and delay, and some hazard of their loss, bring with me through Mexico, and therefore procured to be brought by way of the isthmus of Panama.”

Among the instructions of his commission was to investigate of how land titles were created in the Mexican era and Jones observed that “the great majority of them were made subsequent to January, 1832, and consequently under the Mexican coloniazation law of 18th August 1824,and the government regulations adopted in pursuance to the law, dated 21st November, 1828.” It should be added that the ability of extranjeros, of foreigners, to obtain citizenship and, thus, be eligible to own land was settled during that time. William Workman and John Rowland, for instance, resided in New Mexico during the mid to late 1820s, but their naturalization paved the way for their eventual ownership of Rancho La Puente here in California.

Jones observed that the assumption of José Figueroa as governor of the department (the official term) of Alta California ended a decade “of civil commotion, and was at a time when Mexico was making vigorous efforts to reduce and populate her distant territories, and consequently granting lands on a liberal scale.” He added that the 1824 legislation concerning grants provided that a square league, about 4,428 acres, “is the smallest measurement of rural property”, while “eleven [leagues] (or nearly 50,000 acres) may be conceded in a grant to one individual.

It turned out that these ranges were not entirely true in application. For example, Rancho La Merced, granted by Governor Manuel MIcheltorena in 1844 to Casilda Soto de Lobo, who then lost the ranch on foreclosure by William Workman for a loan made to her, was 2,363 acres of about a half league. There were also ranchos larger than eleven square leagues, though La Puente, initially granted to Rowland at four square leagues (about 17,000 acres), was regranted, and with Workman officially added as a co-grantee, in July 1845 by Governor Pío Pico at that statutory limit. Colonization lands could, however, be larger in size, though no such grants were made in greater Los Angeles.

As to grants, ostensibly through the authority of the national government at Mexico City, Jones recorded “the directions were very simple.” Governors were given charge to make grants, conformable to the conditions of the November 1828 regulations, and subject to approval by the departmental legislature, though the governor could appeal a rejection by that body to the national government.

Jones also noted that a petition to the governor began the process, with the requestor generally giving the amount of land asked for, indicating its location and identifying the boundaries and giving his or her age, place of birth and profession. He continued that “sometimes, also, (generally at the commencement of this system,) a rude map or plan of the required grant, showing its shape and position with reference to other tracts, or to natural objects, was presented with the petition.”

Such diseños could be very simple and not precise as an American survey would be, but Jones went on that “this practice, however, was gradually disused, and few of the grants made in late years have any other than a verbal description.” La Puente, however, not only had a diseño, but it was made by an American surveyor, Isaac Given, who came to California with Rowland and Workman in late 1841 and made the map within a few months.

What followed was the referral of the petition by the governor to the prefect of the district involved, or some other local official, “to know if it was vacant, and could be granted without injury to third persons or the public, and sometimes to know if the petitioner’s account of himself was true.” The informe, or answer, “was written upon or attached to the petition, and the whole returned to the governor.” If there were no issues, the governor then issued the grant in official form.

Jones, however, noted that “it was not unfrequent, of late years, to omit the formality of sending the petition to the local authorities; and it was never requisite, if the governor already possessed the necessary information concerning the land and the parties.” In such examples, the grant obviously was done immediately after the petition was received, if the governor was sure there were no problems involved in the grant. He did report that sometimes the informe “was not explicity, or third persons intervened, and the grant was thus for some time delayed.”

Once the grant was made and formalized, Jones wrote:

the originals of the petition and informe, and any other preliminary papers in the case, were filed by the secretary in the government archives, and with them a copy (the original being delivered to the grantee) of the grant—the whole attached together, so as to form one document, (entitled, collectively, the expediente.)

During the term of Figueroa and successors (José Castro, Nicolás Gutierrez and Mariano Chico) for the period of 1833-1836, grants were recorded in a book kept in the departmental archives, though “subsequent to that time there was no record, but a brief memorandum of the grant—the expediente, however, still [was] filed.” Occasionally, prefectural records in the districts would record grants “but the practice was not constant, nor the record generally in a permanent form.”

With the legislative approval of the grant, the forwarding of the grant to the assembly meant that “it was here referred to a committee, (sometimes called a committee on vacant lands, sometimes on agriculture,) who reported at a subsequent session.” It was rare for the legislature to reject a grant, “but there are many instances, it is believed, where the governor omitted to communicate the grant to the assembly, and it consequently remained unacted on.” Such a case occurred with Pico’s July 1845 regrant of La Puente to Rowland and Workman and this issue was raised in the land claim process.

Once the approval was secured, the assembly secretary was “to deliver to the grantee, on application, a certificate of the fact; but no other record or registration of it was kept than the written proceedings of the assembly.” Jones observed that certificates were often not requested and “as the journals of the assembly now remaining in the archives are very imperfect, it can hardly be doubted that many grants have received the approval of the assembly, and no record of it now exists.”

As internal dissension roiled the politics of Alta California in the first months of 1846, with Pico facing a threat from General José Castro, the former governor, from the north, upon which this was all put aside when it was realized the American invasion was immanent, “many grants were passed upon and approved by the assembly . . . as I discovered by loose memoranda apparently made by the clerk of the assembly for future entry, and referring to the grants by their numbers—sometimes a dozen or more on a single small piece of papers, but of which I could find no other record.”

Jones was charged with determining the nature of general surveys of entitled lands, but reported that no such “regular surveys” existed, as “there was no public or authorized surveyor in the country.” He noted that “grants usually contained a direction that the grantee should receive judicial possession of the land” from a local official, such as an alcalde (akin to a mayor), but this only happened “according to the verbal description contained in the grant.” A surveyor appointed by military governor Col. Richard B. Mason told Jones that were some surveys made later, but the agent noted “I did not see any official record of such surveys, or understand that there was any.” With this, a perfect title meant that the assembly’s approval was recorded.

Jones recorded that there were books located in the departmental archives at Monterey, including one for the registration of cattle brands, but which also had information about the some of the missions, or the pueblos of San José and Branciforte (later abandoned and Santa Cruz arose there), “and the records of about twenty grants made by various Spanish, Mexican, and local authorities at different times between 1784 and 1825, and two dated in 1829.” The aforementioned three year record of grants from 1833 to 1836 and Jones noted there was a list of expedientes numbered from 1 to 579, “but the numbers in the book do not correspond with the numbers of the same grants in the expedientes.”

Two books covered grants made between 1839 and 1843 and for 1844-1845, with brief entries by the departmental secretary of grants, with assigned numbers, dates, grantee names, quantity of land and other information. La Puente and La Merced would have been among the grants recorded in these books. Jones added, though, that his brother-in-law Frémont, who played a remarkable role during the seizure of Alta California, told him “that, according to the best of his recollection, a book for the year 1846, corresponding to those above noted . . . existed in the archives while he was governor of California, and was with them when he delivered them, in May 1847, to the officer appointed by General [Stephen Watts] Kearny to receive them from him at Monterey.”

Finally, there was a file of the expedientes containing “all the proceedings (except of the assembly) relating to the respective grants secured, those of each grant in a separate parcel, and marked and labelled with its number and name.” As noted above, they were numbered to 579 and ran from mid-May 1836 to July 1846 (the 7th was later determined to be the cut-off date for a legitimate grant because that was the day the U.S. Navy seized Monterey, though the capital, Los Angeles, was not taken until later).

Jones foud that “the numbers, however, bear little relation to the dates,” while some were missing and others duplicated. The files were often incomplete, with some grants refused by the assembly, while, with others, “it is wanting.” He did allow that “the collection, however, is evidently intended to represent estates which have been granted, and it is probable that in many or most instances the omission apparent in the archives is upplied by original documents in the hands of the parties, or by long permitted occupation.” This seems to be why, when the land claims process was established by the act of 3 March 1851, claimants were required to provide their records as well as witness testimony as to occupancy of the land.

We’ll pick up the story with part two tomorrow, so please check back for more of Jones’ fascinating and informative report.

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