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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we move into this fourth and final part of this post concerning the vital April 1850 report of special agent William Carey Jones concerning the conditions of title to lands granted in California under Spain and Mexico, the next area of the document addressed by Jones concerned the establishment of pueblos which were, along with missions and presidios (forts), core elements of colonization.

He observed that “it is undoubtedly conformable to the Spanish colonial laws, that, when vilages were to be established, there should be liberal allotments to the first settlers, with commons for general use, and municipal lands (proprios) for the support and extension of the place—that is, to be rented, or otherwise transferred, subject to a tax.” Meanwhile, it was up to the alcalde (mayor) and the ayuntamiento (council) to handle “the disposal of those town liberties, under the restrictions of law, for the benefit of the place.”

With respect to disbursements of lands, “the allotments were always on a liberal scale, both for the individuals and the village,” and Jones quoted a Spanish law that stated “four leagues [about 17,700 acres] of limits and land, (de termino y territorio,) in square or prolonged, according to the nature of the tract,” was sufficient for thirty families and he added “I suppose this is as small a tract as has usually been set apart for village uses and liberties, under the Spanish or Mexican government in New Spain,” though he observed that larger parcels were likely granted.

It was the reglamentos of 1773 that “authorizes pueblos to be formed, without specifying their limits, which would of course bring them under the general law of four leagues and an additional decree eight years later “directs suitable municipal allotments to be made.” A letter of instruction in 1791 was quoted: “the extent of four common leagues, mesured from the centre of the presidio square, two leagues in each direction, as sufficient for the new pueblos to be formed, under the protection of the presidios.” Jones noted that there were no changes to these in the Mexican era and colonization law from 1828 reiterated existing decrees.

What did transpire in an act of August 1834 was that the ayuntamientos of pueblos were to “make application for common and municipal lands (ejedos y proprios) to be assigned them” and that this meant that “the town, I suppose, could only now claim what was then set apart for it. Jones then looked into the municipal arrangements for San Francisco, San José and Monterey before turning to Los Angeles, which he visited in late fall 1849.

He observed that “the city of Los Angeles is one of the earliest establishments of California, and its prosperity was, in the same manner as that of San José, an object of government interest and encouragement. An act of the Mexican Congress of 23d May, 1835, erected it into a city, and established it as the capital of the Territory.” Jones went on that “the limits which I understood are claimed as its town privileges are quite large, but probably no more than it has enjoyed for sixty years, or ever since its foundation.”

He continued,

the grants made by this corporation since the cessation of the former government have been, as far as I learned, quite in conformity with the Spanish law—in tracts such as were always granted for house lots in the village, and vineyards and gardens without, and in no greater number than the increase of population and the municipal wants required. The only provision that seems to be wanting for the pueblo of Los Angeles, is for the survey and definition of its boundaries according to its ancient recognized limits

While there was a survey made of Los Angeles under mandate of the military governor, completed by Army Lt. Edward O.C. Ord and paid for by a $3,000 loan from ayuntamiento member Jonathan Temple, with his being repaid from sales of lots laid out in the survey, this did not embrace the entirety of the four square leagues, mandated by Spanish law, nor of the claimed limits, which went far beyond. With all of the annexation that took place in Los Angeles from the late 19th century onward, the only remaining original boundary line from the pre-American pueblo period is the eastern one dividing Boyle Heights (city) from East Los Angeles (county.)

Jones was also asked by the federal land office to engage in “an inquiry into the nature of the Indian rights (in the soil) under the Spanish and Mexican governments.” He answered that “it is a principle constantly laid down in the Spanish colonial laws, that the Indians shall have a right to as much land as they need for their habiations, for tillage, and for the pasturage of their flocks.”

It was stated that, if the indigenous people “were already partially settled in communities, sufficient of the land which they occupied was secured them for those purposes.” If, however, “they were wild and scattered in the mountains and wildernesses, the policy . . . was to reduce them, establish them in villages, convert them to Christianity, and instruct them in useful employments. Thus, the establishment of the missions in California and, in August 1773, an official document stated that the natives were to “be civilized and led to a rational life; wjhich is impossible if they be left to live dispersed in the mountains.”

Jones continued that “the early laws were so tender of these rights of the Indians that they forbade the alootment of lands to the Spaniards, and especially the rearing of stock, where it might interefere with the tillage of the Indians.” To this end, “special directions were also given for the selection of lands for the Indian villages in places suitable for agriculture, and having the necessary wood and water.” Parcels could not be transferred or sold without consent of government officials, “whose duty it was to protect the natives as minors or pupils.”

Bearing this mind, the agent went on, “the Indians in California were always supposed to have a certain property or interest in the missions,” with the 1773 decree specifying that the departmental governor was “to make grants to the mission Indians of lands of the missions, either in community or individually.” Moreover, any laws governing the secularization of the missions “have contemplated, recognized and provided for this right” and a downfall of the Hijar-Padres colony plan of 1834 was that it did not make provision for the indigenous people on lands to be given to it.

Of course, there were the fiats of law and there was the “maladministration” that “destroyed its interest,” but Jones emphasized the point that there were clear provisions for natives “to have homes upon the mission grounds” and, he added, “the same, I think, may be said of the large ranchos—most or all of which were formerly mission ranchos—and of the Indian settlements of rancherias upon them.” He reiterated that natives occupying and using land on ranchos “have a right of occupancy in the land . . . and whenever a grant is made which includes such settlements, the grant is subject to such occupancy.”

Take the example of Rancho La Puente, which was formerly a rancho of the Mission San Gabriel, and of which four square leagues was granted, over the vociferous objections of the padres at the mission, to John Rowland early in 1842. The native village of Awig-na, said in sources to have been where La Puente High School is now or next to El Campo Santo Cemetery at the Homesead (likely both depending on flooding from San José Creek, which runs just a couple hundred yards south of the cemetery) was occupied for time immemorial before the grant (and before the mission’s establishment). A condition of the grant was that the natives had to provided for, though there was no specificity of how that would happen.

Jones noted that “this right of occupancy, however, at least when on private estates, is not transferable; but whenver the Indians abandon it, the title of the owner becomes perfect.” If indigenous settlements, though, were not on private land, he observed that “there is a process . . . by which the natives may alien[ate] their title.” With this, the discussion of the indigenous people and property rights under Spanish and Mexican law concluded, though he had more to say about the native people.

To this point, Jones mainly adhered to a sort of legal formalism, steering largely away from commentary on social or political elements, but, when it came to the situation with California’s Indians, he made something of an exception:

The continued observance of this law, and the exercise of the public authority to protect the Indians in their rights under it, cannot, I think, produce any great inconvenience, while a proper regard for long recognised rights and a proper sympathy for an unfortunate and unhappy class would seem to forbid that it should be abrogated unless for a better. The number of subjugated Indians is now too small, and the lands they occupy too insignificant in amount for their protection, to the extent of the law, to cause any considerable inconvenience. Besides, there are causes at work by which even their present small number is rapidly diminishing, so that any question concerning them can be but temporary.

What Jones was positing was a viewpoint held by many non-natives, namely that they were doomed to extinction. He cited mission records which “were kept with system and exactness” and which showed that, in 1834, as secularization began, there were 30,650 natives. Yet, within just eight years “after the restraining and compelling hand of the missionaries had been taken off,” only 4,450 natives were recorded, “and the process of reduction has been going on as rapidly since.” Notably, the Los Angeles County enumeration in the sole state-run census, which took place in summer 1852, two years after Jones’ report, counted some 3,800 natives, so it is clear that he relied only on mission records, while they were many indigenous people no longer or never having lived within that system. Jones then ended by reiterating that “in the wild or wandering tribes, the Spanish law does not recognize any title whatever to the soil.”

The agent then came to the end of his thirt-five page report and his summation observed that, while areas of California, which became a state five months after he submitted the document, that were embraced within private land grants were limited to coastal regions from Sonoma to San Diego, there were “the extensive valleys” on the Sacramento and San Joaquin “attached to the public domain,” along with “the gold region of unknown extent along the foot hills of the Sierra Nevada.”

Moreover, even those coastal regions, once surveyed, had “extensive and valuable tracts remaining” within that domain of public ownership, largely because the loose boudary description of grants means that a rancho would have “a considerably greater extent of land than the quantity expressed in the tile; but the grant usually provides that the overplus shall remain to the government.”

The 1842 Alvarado grant of La Puente to Rowland did just that–broadly defining the boundaries by neighboring ranchos, but specifying the allotment of four square leagues (under 18,000 acres), with the rest remaining government land. The Pico grant of three years later, which officially added Workman as co-owner, indicated that the two men were to have all the bounded land, but did not state the leagues—this becoming an issue for the federal government later in its assertion that a confirmed land claim should only have been for four square leagues. Fortunately, for the owners it was decreed that the eleven square leagues (almost 49,000 acres) within the boundaries was to be confirmed to them.

Jones continued that proper surveys, delineating what was granted to petitioners and what remained as surplus, meant that “justice would generally be done by that mode to all the interests concerned—the holders of the grants, the government, and the wants of the population crowding thither.” With the Gold Rush, of course, there were plenty of migrants “crowding thither.” To stave off injustice, he went on and to satisfy the demands of owners of “long occupation or peculiar circumstances,” while recognizing the status of lands above what was specified in grants and in the public domain, the agent argued “it might be proper to authorize any one who should feel himself aggrieved by this operation of the survey to bring a suit for the remainder.”

Jones opined that

the grants in California, I am bound to say, are mostly perfect titles; that is, the holders possess their property by titles that, under the law which created them, are equivalent to patents from our government; and those which are not perfect—that is, which lack some formality on some evidence of completenes—have the same equity as those which are perfect, and were and would have been equally respected under the government which has passed away.

He added that the condition of titles was such that determining public lands from private ones could be done “with little difficulty.” He warned, moreover, that “any measure calculated to discredit, or cause to be distrusted, the general character of the titles” would lead tp “alarm and anxiety . . . among the ancient [that is, Californio and other pre-American residents] population” and this would further “retard the substantial improvement of the country.”

Any title that was open to question would not be fatal, but would lead to a lack of investment in labor and improvements, while sales would be problematic and purchasers of “discredited” lands would be “willing only to make inconsiderable investments.” Yet, he averred, “titles not called in question” meant that “the pressure of population, and the force of circumstances, will soon operate to break up the existing large tracts into farms adapted to the nature of the country and the wants of the community.” With assurance as to proper title, he concluded, there would ensue “substantial improvements that the thrift and prosperity of the country in other respects invite.”

For Jones, the key was “an authorized survey” which would clearly show amounts of lands as expressed in legitimate grants and the “overplus” remanding to the government, while grants that were invalid or in serious question as to validity would invite “the government (or a proper officer of it)” to “direct a suit to be instituted for its annulment.” Otherwise, such an orderly procedure would mean that “the rights of the government will be fully secured, and the interests and permanent prosperity of all classes . . . best consulted. After thanking officials at Monterey, San Francisco and Mexico City for their assistance in providing archival materials, Jones ended his very important and influential report.

Included with the original filing were copies of thirty-three documents from the Spanish and Mexican eras, many of which were cited in the reported, from the 1773 instructions for establishing settlements to a departmental assemly act of 4 April 1846. The last was a list of all private grants, as found in the archives at Monterey, including La Puente (referred to as “Puente de San Gabriel) to “Julian Workman and J. Roland,” though that same number of 544 is also under “Roldan, Juan, y Julian Workman,” neither having a grant date, specified size or other information. For grant 270, however, it was to “Juan Roldan” and was known simply as “Puente” and granted to Pico on 22 July 1845 as 6 sitios in extent, rather than the four specified in the 1842 grant (presumably number 544, though why would that be a much later number?) and than the eleven the two men claimed and eventually secured in their patented claim.

At the end of the report are descriptions of the missions and for San Gabriel, it was noted that “it extends to the southeast some twenty leagues, within which are the tracts La Puente, some 4 leagues; Santa Anna, about 10 leagues; another, at the distance of 15 leagues, called Torupet (this might have been Rancho Cucamonga), and San Bernardino, about 20 leagues, all belonging to the mission.” Also noted was that “it has watered lands in Puente and Santa Anna, also San Bernardino, all from ditches made in the mission and its tracts,” which seems to indicate irrigation or, perhaps, creeks, as there is mention of the mission lands containing “the rivers San Gabriel and Santa Anna.” Stated, as well was “the mountain ridge of the Sierra San Gabriel [also known as the “Sierra Madre”], which had water courses that fed the mission lands, including those “which benefit by their irrigation” while pine and live oak timber was harvested.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of Jones’ work in establishing, through a careful and detailed analysis of Spanish and Mexican laws and decrees and searches in archival material in California and Mexico City, a thorough explanation of the state of land titles granted between 1769 and 1846. Given the significant challenges encountered in the first years of the American possession of California, the profound transformations embodied in the Gold Rush, and the evolution of competing interests for land in what became a state shortly after the report was presented, Jones’ influence (he died in 1867) on the resulting act of 3 March 1851 that established a land claims procedure was enormous.

2 thoughts

  1. Hi Ion, thanks for the kind words about the post and thanks for your continued support of the blog.

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