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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In his seminal report of 10 April 1850 on the status of land grants made under Spain and Mexico in Alta California, seized by the United States in 1846-47 during the Mexican American War, William Carey Jones, son-in-law of the powerful Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton and brother-in-law of the colorful “Pathfinder,” John C. Frémont, analyzed the laws existent during the pre-American period and laid out his findings, published by order of the Senate on 30 January 1851.

This second part of our post on the special agent’s report starts with the instruction given to him to determine the situation with respect to the missions, of which there were twenty-one established along the coastal region from San Diego to Sonoma between 1769 and 1823 (only Sonoma, the last, was founded in the Mexican period.)

Jones noted that “I took much pains, both in California and in Mexico [he conducted research with departmental archives at Monterey and also visited San Diego and Los Angeles before venturing to Mexico City to examine material in the national repository], to assure myself . . . of the former great establishments known as the missions of California.” He added that “it had been supposed that the lands they occupied were grants, held as the property of the church, or of the mission establishments as corporations.”

The agent continued, “such, however, was not the case” and found

all the missions in Upper California were established under the direction and mainly at the expense of the government, and the misionaries there had never any other right than to the occupation and use of the lands for the purpose of the missions, and at the pleasure of the government. This is shown by the history and principles of their foundation, by the laws in relation to them, by the constant practice of the government towards them; and, in fact, by the rules of the Franciscan order, which forbid its members to possess property.

Jones then reviewed in detail the establishment of the missions and observed that “there were no other occupants except the wild Indians, whose reduction [meaning, essentially, conquest] and conversion was the object of the establishments.” In these circumstances, the indigenous people “were trained to labor in the missions, and lived wither within its walls or in small villages near by, under the spiritual and temporal direction of the priests.” Yet, he went on, “the whole [was] under the political control of the governor of the province [technically, department], who decided contested questions of right or policy, whether between different missions, between missions and individuals, or concerning the Indians.”

The agent then noted that grants were made to individual residents “especially to retired soldiers,” who were enticed to serve in what has been denoted as “the Siberia of México” with the promise of land after their tenure was completed. These soldiers and their families “became the settlers and founders of the country they had reduced and protected.” Many of these, he continued, were brought in from the northern areas of Mexico, including Sinaloa and Sonora, closest to California “and the town of San José, at the head of the bay of San Francisco, and of Los Angeles, eight leagues from the port of San Pedro were early founded [1777 and 1781, respectively].”

Jones continued his review of the political situation concerning the missions and stated that, while it was generally understood “that the first act which looked to their secularization” was that passed by Mexico’s Congress on 17 August 1833, this was not true. Instead, he averred, the process began with foundational documents like a 17 August 1773 order by Spanish Viceroy of New Spain Antonia Maria de Bucareli that established the basis for the broad civil-legal, as opposed to operational, administration of the missions.

The agent reiterated that he saw nothing in the laws and acts of government under Spain and Mexico that could lead to any other conclusion than that the missions were, simply put, “government establishments.” He added that the goal of the mission project “was to aid in the settlement and pacification of the country, and to convert the natives to Christianity.” When this was accomplished “and the Indians domiciled in villages so as to be subject to the ordinary magistrates and the spiritual care of the ordinary clergy,” note the delineation of civil and religious spheres, “the missionary labor was considered fulfilled, and the establishments subject to be dissolved and removed.”

Jones noted the provisions of an September 1813 act by the Spanish Cortes Generales concerning the status of the missions in the Americas broadly and which ordered that those be quickly converted into “curacies” and “converted settlements” and observed that “a decree of the Mexican Congress of 20 November, 1833, [is] in part analogous to the decrees before quoted . . . directing their general secularization.” This 1833 act called for the immediate secularization of the missions in Alta and Baja California with their establishment of a parish at each embracing a church and cemetery and the use of existing mission buildings, deemed “most fitting,” be used by the priests “and the others appropriated for a municipal house and schools.” The agent also reported that an attempt by Alta California Governor José María de Echeandia in 1830 to secularize the missions under his authority was ended when Manuel Victoria took the office the following year.

It was also stated that a subsequent decree of 2 December called for colonization efforts and an immediate result was that project led by José María Hijar, whose 1834 colony to Los Angeles included such future luminaries in the Angel City as the Coronel family and Agustín Olvera. The Hijar-Padres Colony, however, was intended to include assumption of the governorship by Hijar and of mission lands, but a revolt in Mexico City and resistance in Alta California significantly altered the project. On 16 April 1834, Jones noted, another act was passed by the Mexican Congress ordering secularization of the missions “in the republic” and converting these into curacies within four months. In November 1835 another law ordered that until these curacies were in place, “the government should suspend the execution of the other articles” of the secularization law of 1833 “and maintain things in the condition they were before.”

Governor José Figueroa, in August 1834 just prior to the arrival of the Hijar-Padres Colony, began the implementation of secularization, including the allotment of land to individuals and access to common, or public, lands for pasturing cattle and distribution of farm tools, grain inventory, and livestock held within the mission. Other lands and property were to be overseen by majordomos or other government-appointed guardians and the priests to be provided for as noted in the aforementioned decrees. Further, “the emancipated Indians should unite in common labors for the cultivation of the vineyards, gardens, and field lands, which should remain undivided until the determination of the supreme government . . . [and] that rancherias [native villages] situated at a distance from the missions, and which exceeded twenty-five families, might form separate pubelos [pueblos], under the same rules.”

Figueroa’s decree was to apply, however, to ten of the missions and these were not specified, with the remaining to follow subsequently. On 3 November, the departmental assembly laid out terms for secularization following from the August 1833 law, including the order that the missionaries would continue as curates until “curates of the secular clergy should arrive.” What followed, Jones continued, was the appointment of the majordomos “and in some, but not all, partial distributions of the lands and movable property were made according to the tenor of the regulation.” Moreover, “all tracts of land pertinent to the mission, but not directly attached to the mission buildings, were granted, as any other lands in the territory, to the Mexican inhabitants, and to colonists, for stock farms and tillage.”

Further regulations in 1839-1840 under Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado provided more specificity regarding the administration of the missions, while also ordering the appointment of a mission inspector “to supervise the accounts of the administrators and their filfillment of their trusts.” Alvarado also banned non-natives from living on mission establishments ‘whilst the Indians should remain in community.” In the latter year, Alvarado removed the majordomos and replaced them with administrators “with new and more stringent rules for the management of the establishments,” though so much of the legal requirements were honored in the breach as oversight was lax.

In March 1843, Governor Manuel Micheltorena worked out an arrangement with the mission fathers and ordered that a dozen missions be returned to the control of priests “as tutors to the Indians, and in the same manner as they formerly held them.” These institutions included the three local missions of San Juan Capistrano, San Gabriel and San Fernando. It should be added that, when John Rowland secured a grant to a former San Gabriel rancho, La Puente, in early 1842, the priests at San Gabriel vigorously protested, though to no avail. In fact, Micheltorena stated “the missions should not reclaim any lands hitherto granted,” though they were permitted to “regather the dispersed Indians, except such as had been legally emancipated, or were at private service.” The priests were also empowered to make use of mission lands for the production of produce and goods, as before, though they were “to deliver to the public treasury one-eighth part of all the annual products of the establishments.” In return the government would protect the missions and the grants already made of lands to private citizens, while “promising not to make any new grants without consultation with the priests, unless where the lands were notoriously unoccupied or lacked cultivation, or in case of necessity.”

Jones observed that Micheltorena, sent by the central government in Mexico City, brought with him presidarios, or “criminals condemned to service” and “their presence and conduct gave such offence to the inhabitants, that they revolted and expelled him and the presidarios from the country.” The final conflict took place in February 1845 at Cahuenga Pass near today’s Hollywood and Studio City with assembly leader Pío Pico, assisted by William Workman as captain and John Rowland as lieutenant of an extranjero (foreigner) company, taking office as governor when Micheltorena capitulated and returned to México.

In June 1845, Pico issued a proclamation concerning the missions, some which were considered abandoned and which could be disposed of “for the good of the department” and others (such as San Juan Capistrano) operating as pueblos, but with any residual property to be sold at auction, with proceeds to be applied to existing debts and the rest “if any, to the benefit of divine worship.” As to the rest, like San Gabriel and San Fernando, they were to “be rented at the discretion of the governor, with the proviso that the neophytes [converted Indians] should be at liberty to employ themselves, at their option, on their own grounds, which the governor should designate for them, in the service of the rentee, or of any other person.” Rental proceeds were to be divided in thirds for the administrator, to the Indians and to the government.

Four months later, Pico ordered that five missions (none locally) were to be sold at auction, while the remaining structures aside for those used as churches, the priest’s residence, and for municipal and school purposes, at those that were pueblos (like San Juan Capistrano) were to be sold, as well. San Fernando was among a quartet of missions that were to be rented to the highest bidder for a nine-year term, with the arrangements to include all lands animals, tools, vineyards and gardens and other elements. The exception was “those small pieces of grounds which have always been occupied by some Indians of the missions” as well as the types of buildings left for the curacies as noted above. The native poeple were considered “free from their pupilage” and that any who owned land “should apply to the government for titles,” though they could not sell them and “they should [only] descend by inheritance.”

At the end of March 1846, the assembly authorized Pico “to operate as he should believe most expedient to prevent the total ruin of the missions of San Gabriel . . . and others found in like circumstances” as well as to satisfy debts by selling them “to private persons, [though] the sale should be by public auction.” Any proceeds, after satisfying the encumbrances, “should be distributed to the Indians of the respective establishments.” Because of expenses “of divine worship,” Pico was also empowered to, “according to his discretion, and by consultation with the respective priests,” sell “a portion with the whole property, whether of cultivable lands, houses, or of any other description.” These were, though, “subject to a perpetual interest of four per cent.” The last provision was that Pico was to “in six months, at farthest, give an account to the assembly of the results of its fulfillment.”

Jones noted that, in August 1844, the assembly, “in anticipation of a war breaking out,” authorized the governor, then Micheltorena, if a conflict was to happen “to sell, hypothecate [pledge for a specified reason], or rent the houses, landed property, and field lands of the missions, comprehended in the whole extent of the country from San Diego to Sonoma” save for Santa Barbara, being the headquarters of the bishop. It was just a few months after the March 1846 law that the American invasion of Alta California took place, so Pico did not apprise the legislature of any results of what he was given authority to do, though it was understood that the governor sold mission lands as the war approached ostensibly to raise funds for the defense of the department.

The agent observed that “a very considerable part . . . of the grants made since the act of secularization of 1833, (comprising the bulk of all the grants in the country,) are of lands previously recognized as appurtenances of the missions, and so used, as grazing farms, or for other purposes.” Such was the case with La Puente and many other ranchos east of San Gabriel to San Bernardino. Jones added that in some instances the priests were asked for their opinions on whether grants “could be made without prejudice to the mission,” but “in other cases, and geneally, this formality was not observed.” He continued that

This remark relates to the farms and grazing grounds (ranches) occupied by the missions, apart from the lands around the mission buildings. There are, however, some grants in the immediate precincts of the missions, and some titles to Indians . . . of record in the file of expedientes of grants before noticed.

A table of the missions noted their status, so that seven, in whole or part, were sold outright, including La Purisima, near present Lompoc in Santa Barbara County, purchased by Jonathan Temple on 6 December 1845, and San Gabriel, bought by “Julian” Workman and Hugo Reid on 18 June 1846, a few weeks before the later established cutoff date for legitimate grants, based on the 7 July seizure of Monterey by the United States Navy. San Fernando was rented on the nine-year term to the governor’s brother, Andrés, from December 1845 and sold to Juan Celis on 8 June 1846. San Juan Capistrano’s lands outside the pueblo were sold to John Forster (spelled as “Foster”) and James McKinley on 6 December 1845. A few others were rented or sold, two were listed as vacant, one as uncertain, four others as pueblos, and four as in charge of priests.

Jones’ suggestion for “an equitable disposition of such of the missions as remain the property of the government” was to allow church property, buildings, cemeteries, and land set aside as provided for under Mexican decree to be alienated to the parishes, with the rest for school, municipal or county uses. Santa Barbara, with its status as the home of the bishop, stood as an exception, but Jones opined that the churches should not be given more or less as recommended as it would “be less than equity nad justice, and less than the inhabitants have always considered and enjoyed as their right.”

We’ll continue with part three of this remarkable report tomorrow, so check back in then!

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