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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The third part of this post taking a deep look at the very important report, dated 11 April 1850, by special agent William Carey Jones concerning the land titles of properties granted under Spain and Mexico following a trip to California, including a visit to Los Angeles, during 1849, takes us from the missions to other aspects of Jones’ work.

Beyond “the supposed ecclesiastical grants” involving the missions, he was asked to look into so-called “large grants,” and Jones answered “I did not find in the archives of California any record of large grants in the sense I suppose the term to be here used.” There were grants made up to the maximum allowable under Mexican land law, this being eleven sitios, or square leagues (just over 4,400 acres each), though, he continued, “there are understood in the country, however, to be large claims, reputed to be founded on grants direct from the Mexican government.


Both were in northern California and were said to be owned by John Sutter at his enormous domain near what became Sacramento and that of Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, who had a princely estate in Sonoma. Jones, however, said that archival records showed Sutter’s grant to be the eleven square leagues maximum, while Vallejo’s Rancho Petaluma was ten square leagues. The latter had other properties and told a newspaper in 1847 that he was commissioned to found a settlement in Sonoma “with the object of arresting the progress of the Russian settlements of Bodega and [Fort] Ross” along the coast to the northwest.

Jones went into some detail about the order of Governor José Figueroa relative to Sonoma, but noted that it did not involve “any title to lands, beyond authority to grant . . . to actual colonizers.” Because the Petaluma grant was made to Vallejo in 1843, it was assumed that the colonization scheme had ended and there were grants made to individuals in the Sonoma area that were approved under laws governing such transactions. Jones demurred, though, by stating “I may be mistaken, and I desire to be distinctly understood as not intending to throw any doubt or discredit on the titles or claims of either of the gentlemen I have mentioned.”


The next area that Jones was called upon to investigate where “grants of islands, keys and promontories—points of importance to the public” and here he referred to a pair of grants, one being to the “Fort of San Joaquin, near the outlet of the Bay of San Francisco,” while the other was to “Alcatras (or Bird) island, commanding its [the Bay’s] entrance, the key to the Golden Gates.” With respect to Alcatraz, as it is famously known, it, the agent reported, “was granted in June, 1846, to Mr. Francis P. Temple, of Los Angeles,” though this was inaccurate. Governor Pío Pico, in the days before the American invasion, granted the island to William Workman, who shortly afterward conveyed it to his son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple.

In any case, Jones continued that

the indispensableness of this point to the government, both for the purpose of fortification and as a proper position for a lighthouse [both mentioned as requirements in Workman’s grant, by the way], induced Lieutenant Colonel Fremont, when governor of California, to contract for the purchase of it on behalf of the United States. The government, it is believed, has never confirmed the purchase or paid the consideration.

What Jones did not note is that Frémont, his brother-in-law, both being married to daughters of the powerful Thomas Hart Benton, United States senator from Missouri, was not authorized to buy the island from Temple and this act was one of several that formed the basis for Frémont’s court-martial shortly afterward. Not long after Jones’ report was filed, but before it was printed on the last day of January 1851, President Millard Fillmore, successor to Zachary Taylor, who died in office in spring 1850, declared Alcatraz to be a military possession of the federal government and it remains in the hands of the feds today. A long series of posts on this blog concerns the Workman and Temple families and Alcatraz.


After describing the island and emphasizing its strategic importance, Jones referred to the authority arrogated to the departmental government of Alta California, by a Mexican order from July 1838, to grant lands in “the desert islands adjacement to that department.” As to whether any such grants were either “inchoate or perfect,” the agent responded “the grants made in that department under the Mexican law, all, I believe, purport to be perfect, ecept in the respect of requiring ‘confirmation by the departmental assembly.'” Alcatraz was granted by Pico to Workman just prior to the arrival of American forces and the assembly did not confirm the grant. Moreover, Temple did not file a claim under the resulting land claims act of 1851, though efforts by Frémont, Temple and others to secure compensation for Alcatraz went on for decades to no avail.

As the Gold Rush was in full ferment by the time Jones stepped foot in California on 19 September 1849, he was asked, as part of his commission, “if there be any alleged grants of lands covering a portion of the gold mines” and whether any grants had provisions concerning rights to “a reservation of mines of gold and silver, and a similar reservation as to quicksilver and other minerals?” Jones reported that the only such grant embracing any section of the mining regions was the Las Mariposas, granted Governor Manuel Micheltorena in February 1844 to his predecessor, Juan Bautista Alvarado.

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The rancho was then “purchased from the grantee (Alvarado) in February 1847, by Thomas O. Larkin, esq. [and U.S. consul at Monterey], for Mr. Fremont, and is now owned by that gentleman. Notably, Frémont, when acting governor, gave Larkin $3,000 to buy him a ranch and was upset that it was located so far from any towns, was populated with natives obviously resistant to white incursions, and did not have much potential for farming or ranching, so he considered it worthless—that is, until gold was found nearby. He leased gold mines found on the rancho and lived on part of it until the end of the Fifties, selling the ranch while he was serving as a general in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Jones went on to note that a rare condition of grants was that owners had a year to “commence improvements”, though this not be doing did not mean the grant was void “but open to denouncement by other persons” and, moreover, it was not enshrined in Mexican law nor was it included in grants made by Micheltorena during his couple of years as governor. He added, however, that “it was more customary to occupy the land in anticipation of the grant” and that these “were generally for actual (immediate) occupation and use.” Such was certainly the case for La Puente as William Workman settled on it immediately after it was finalized in March 1842, while John Rowland returned to New Mexico to retrieve his family and came back to California at the end of the year.

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As to reserving rights to minerals, Jones said “I cannot find in the Mexican laws of regulations . . . anything that looks to a reservation . . . and there is no any such thing expressed in any of the many grants the came under my inspection.” When he journeyed to Mexico City at the end of 1849 and into early 1850 to look at records there, he “could not learn that such reservations were the practice either in general, or in California in particular.”

Jones was also asked to determine whether surveys were done under Spain and Mexico for any grants of land and reiterated what he’d stated previously, that “as far as I am aware, there were never any surveys made in the country.” As to public pronouncements of occupancy of grants, he stated “I did not learn that there had been any delay in giving publicity [notice] to them.” The Commissioner of Public Lands also requested Jones to look into “more detailed and particular” matters, which he stated was not possible given his limited time in California “even had it been accessible in systematic archives and records,” which was hardly the situation he found.

In fact, he continued that

such minute and exact information . . . is not attainable at all, and that the only mode of approcimating it must be through such measures as will produce a general registration of written titles—verbal proof of possession when written titles are wanting, followed or accompanies by a general survey. By such means only can an approximation be made to the minute information sought, of the character, extent, position, and date, particularly of the old grants in California.

Addressing some aspects of these specified questions, Jones noted that grants were made by the governor and military commander “and the principal recipients of grants, [were] officers and soldiers as they retired from service,” most of these being close to the presidios [forts] and pueblos [towns]. Other grants were made to settlers coming mostly from northern Mexico, with some occupying settlements, such as Los Angeles, founded in September 1781, four years after San José was established as the first of the three pueblos (the other, Branciforte, was created in 1797 but foundered and Santa Cruz was later set up there.)


While Spanish and Mexican law governed granting procedure, Jones stated that “in the rude and uncultivated state of the country that then existed, and lands possessing so little value, these formalities were no doubt to a great extent disregarded . . . [or] the evidence of their observance in many cases now lost.” Precise measurements and boundaries were usually not established, “the sole description often being by a name descriptive, in fact or by repute, of the place granted.” Jones added that it was “the law of custom, with the acquiesence of the highest authorities” which superseded the published law.

Importantly, Jones acknowledged that the archives were often deprived of much original material pertaining to grants, though “originals no doubt exist in the possession of the descendants of the grantees” that were not located in official records. Moreover, there were “other cases, no doubt [in which] the titles rested originally only on verbal permits.” The agent continued that this practice, “have been respected during the twenty-six of seven years of Mexican and local government . . . [and] they constitute as meritorious and just claims as property is held by in any portion of the globe.” He went on to bserve that such grants were “meagre rewards of expatriation, and arudous and hazardous public service in a remove and savage country: they are now the inheritance of the descendants of the first settlers of the country, and who redeemed it from (almost the lowest stage of) barbarism. Abstractly considered, there can be no higher title to the soil.”

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The agent reported that many grantees “have taken the precuation to have them renewed, with a designation of boundary and quantity, under the forms of the Mexican law; and of these the proper record exists in the archives,” though to what extent could not be determined. What was challenging in noting what was private lands throuh grants and what was in the public domain “is in the loose designation of their limits and extent.” The remedy was ‘to be in receiving verbal testimony of occpation and of commonly reputed boundaries, and thereby, with due consideration of the laws and principles on which the grants were made, governing the surveys.”

The second Land Office instruction concerned “the authority of the granting officers, and their powers for alienating the national domain,” meaning the disposition of land through the grant process and Jones reiterated that the point was made earlier in his report. Namely, such authority was given to local officials from the federal government and the laws passed by it and Jones noted “there is little room for discrimination ‘between such as are perfect titles and such as are inceptive and inchoate.'” Provided the grant was not larger than eleven square leagues, it was valid and perfect once the assembly gave its approval, though the rareness with which such grants were legislatively rejected “would seem to render that provision of the law of those grants nugatory [futile] as a test of their merits.”

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A third question was about those “grants made about the time of the revolutionary movements in California—say in the months of June and July, 1846” tied back to Jones’ previous statements about Fort Joaquin and Alcatraz, but the agent noted another example, this being “the large island of San Clemente, [which] I undertood, was granted about that time—say in May, 1846.” Granted by Governor Pico to his brother and to William Workman, San Clemente, off the coast of today’s southern Orange and northern San Diego counties was one of those, in which Jones “found nothing in the archives concerning it.” He added that “I do not think there were other grants to attract particular attention,” save one other.

A branch to this last query concerned “grants made subsequent to the war” but the agent observed that “there are, of course, no Mexican grants, or grants by the Mexican authorities, which purport to have been issued” after the war reached California, though there were, he noted, “simulated grants by persons formerly in authority there.” He added that he found “some papers purporting to be grants, which have been issued since the cessation of the Mexican government, by persons who formerly, at different times, had the faculty of making grants in the country.” Jones went on to state that a list of these could not be made “with the particulars enumerated in the instructions; for if there by any such, they would, of course, not be submitted for public inspection, or in any way seek the light.” He felt it was easy to discern such “simulated grants”, though any “test . . . would necessarily have to be applied to each case as it rose” and “no general rule, I believe, can be laid down.”

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Jones did address a decree by Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny granting land along the bay to the town of San Francisco with the proviso that the property be sold at auction and the money used for municipal purposes. Whether this was allowable, the agent argued it would be too injurious to current owners and to the town to try to reverse the order and he recommended that Congress pass an act to officially relinquish all interest of the government in those lands.

Part four will take up the thread of the tale dealing with grants of pueblo lands, including that of Los Angeles, so check back for the continuation of this remarkable report!

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