“The Value of the Spanish Archives” in the Report of the United States Surveyor-General for California, 23 July 1887

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The annual report from Richard P. Hammond, Jr., the federal surveyor-general in California for the year 1886-1887 does not, for the most part, make for fascinating reading. His statement noted the number of pieces of correspondence and applications for mining surveys and those for public lands, urged that he be permitted to survey lands for new settlers, discussed the reindexing of field notes for surveys, and discussed other items of business conducted by the office.

He did observe that “the great immigration into California during the past twelve months, and the prospect of a still greater number of people coming hither this year to make this State their home, would seem to be sufficient inducement for the department of order such surveys of the unsurveyed public lands as are surveyable.” In fact, in greater Los Angeles this period, during which William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, was mayor of the Angel City, this was the midst of the famed Boom of the Eighties, though, of course, the inevitable bust came by the end of the decade.

Los Angeles Herald, 20 May 1881.

Reports followed from members of Hammond’s staff, including the ranch clerk discussing private land claims, which work was “to a large extent dependent upon the archives for information relative to Mexican and Spanish land grants.” He noted that there were surveys of some of these grants, of which almost fifty, totaling just over 100,000 acres, involved situations in which “patents have not as yet been issued,” though most grants were adjudicated long before, as the California land claims process began in 1852 and the average time for completing these was seventeen years (For La Puente, John Rowland and Workman got their patent after fifteen, and they were still pending with the Department of the Interior, the General Land Office, the surveyor-general’s office or the courts.

It was added that “as these grants are rapidly becoming more valuable each year contests and conflicts of title between the owners of contiguous ranches, or settlers on public lands and ranch owners, are increasing.” In some cases, there were challenges to surveys, while, in others, there were claims that more property was involved that found in the confirmation decrees, especially with public land. He did report that patents were ready to be delivered to fourteen ranches, with just one handed over during the year.

Following reports by the swamp and overflowed land clerk, the chief draftsman, and the bookkeeper and contract clerk, is one of great interest to the student of California land grant history: the statement by the “keeper of archives,” generally known as the “Spanish Archives,” though it covered the Mexican era, as well. The report identified this official as “T.A. Forbes,” but anyone searching for such a person will find a dead end, because his name was actually James Alexander Forbes, Jr. (1838-1922), who came from a notable early California background and had something of an interesting career on his own.

San Francisco Chronicle, 15 April 1890.

Forbes’ father was born in Inverness, Scotland in 1805, though his mother was Spanish and he spent much of his younger years in Spain and Argentina. James, Sr. came to California in 1831 on a whaling ship and settled in Santa Clara next to San Jose, marrying Ana Galindo and raising a large family. The elder Forbes, who died in 1881, was something of a Jekyll and Hyde in that some sources questioned his integrity and ethics, while others credit him with some important historical developments in that area, including selling his home property to the Society of Jesuits for the creation of Santa Clara College, now the University of Santa Clara, where several Forbes sons went to school (as did several of the Temple family) and built a mill that was the beginnings of the city of Los Gatos. He ws also part-owner of the well-known New Almaden quicksilver mines south of San Jose and the Rancho Potrero de Santa Clara was sold to Commdore Robert F. Stockton in 1847 after the American conquest.

James, Jr., who attended Santa Clara, proved to be quite a scholar and was accounted a master of languages, so that, by this mid-Twenties, he secured a government position as a translator, including rendering the laws of the state into Spanish, though he was also considered fluent in French. William Heath Davis, in his Seventy-Five Years in California said “he had the reputation of being the most accurate translator and fluent interpreter in the state.” In 1875, he married Carmelita Vásquez, a native of the northern Mexican state of Sonora (and no known relation to the infamous bandido, Tiburcio Vásquez, who was hung earlier that year after being convicted of murder.)

A few years later, he moved into his position as the keeper of the “Spanish Archives,” a role he maintained for nearly fifteen years, until 1892. In his report, Forbes focused on four components: the value and preservation of the material; indexing and creating abstracts of the documents; identifying the “origin, validity, extent, and boundaries of Spanish and Mexican land grants in California,” and the work done during the prior year.

He continued that

Never more than at this time has the value of the Spanish archives been made evident, owing to the great activity that for the past year has been observed in real-estate circles in California, where extensive tracts that for one-quarter of a century were considered comparatively worthless are now being sold at fabulous prices.

Moreover, he noted that these conditions led to much litigation as “many persons who never owned one foot of land have by imagination or fancy been induced to believe that they have some neglected rights in many confirmed and patented Spanish or Mexican land grants.” In some instances, these claims involved grants, while some were about public land allegedly incorporated wrongly into grants and “others have even gone so far as to declare that all Mexican grants are fraudulent.”

Naturally, these questions made it vital to preserve “in safety the only written evidence of the legality of such grants” to guard against fraud, as well as protecting the rights of property owners. He repeated that the increase in court filings and the associated requests made concerning the archives meant that “to foresee how any ranch owner can be secure in his rights, unless it be by presenting the unequivocal proofs of the validity of his grant, which evidence can be obtained only from these archives” was a paramount issue. Similarly, having the ability to have the archives available for investigations necessitating “great care and good judgment” applied to claims agains the government.

Forbes, however, pointed out that, after an initial act of Congress in 1858 and orders that followed established the archives, “many important documents relative to land titles are still in the hands of outside parties instead of being in your [federal, that is] custody.” He went to note that “whatever may be the intrinsic value of such papers they should form a part of these archives” and recommended consolidating this material under an existing order from the General Land Office’s commissioner.

With respect to indexing and abstracting, he noted that there were 300 bound volimes of documents which “contain valuable information for the historian and man of letters” with these embracing not far south of 200,000 pages. These included “royal decrees, orders, and official correspondence of the viceroys of New Spain [México], official correspondence of the governors and subordinate authorities, whether civil, military, political, or ecclesiastical, with other miscellaneous records.” Indexing was important and Forbes noted that “[Hubert Howe] Bancroft and [Theodore] Hittell, the historians, for insrance, have had a large force of men employed in the past years searching for information for their works,” and hundreds of attorney “have fumbled [through] them in search of evidence for their cases.

Forbes then reviewed some of the history of grants made under Spain and México, including early laws and orders for the establishment of presidios, pueblos and missions, but, when it came to granting land to individuals, that came with a regulation formulated in 1779 by the department of Alta California Governor Felipe de Neve and approved by royal decree two years later, just several weeks after the pueblo of Los Angeles was established.

He noted that “in it power was given to the governors to make certain grants; but it indicated no special system, and gave no power adequate to the settlement of the western provinces of New Spain.” Only small properties were to be granted within those presidios, pueblos and missions and “nowhere is any allusion made to the granting of extensive tracts for grazing or farming purposes.” So, “the only grants that were made under this authority were those given to the original settlers (Pabladores [Pobladores]) of the pueblos of San José de Guadalupe and Los Angeles at the date of their foundation,” though the former was established in 1777.

In the archives was a 20 November 1784 document from Acting Governor Pedro Fages, recording that “several persons have solicited concessions of large tracts for the raising of stock, and that he had made provisional concessions to them.” A table of fifteen grants during the Spanish era was provided, including Fages’ first concessions to Manuel Nieto for what is now much of southeast Los Angeles County and the Glendale area to José María Verdugo. Later grants included San Pedro to Juan José Dominguez, and the Santiago de Santa Ana to José Antonio Yorba and his father-in-law Juan Pablo Grijalva.

Forbes went on to report that a change in 1792 meant that “California was restored to the viceroyalty of Mexico, and [the power to make grants was] thus continued until the Spanish authority ceased” with Mexican independence. A sole grant was made by the viceroy, while two others were made by presidio commanders at Santa Barbara and San Diego; “and sixteen by the Mexican governors from the date of the independence of the promulgation or enforcement of the colonization laws.” In addition, he stated that “none of the grants made during the above period conveyed to the several grantees the full ownership in the land.”

With Mexican independence, “the governors of California, therefore, had the right to make grants of land in accordance with the former laws that were in force prior to the creation of the new nation. In addition, a decree from the Spanish Cortes from early 1813 was enaced “to reduce the common lands to private property . . . rewarding meritorious defenders of the country, and assisting poor citizens who as yet possessed no land.” Again, however, with the transition from Spanish to Mexican rule, “all grants in California were only incomplete and equitable titles” having “required the conformation of a superior confirming power.”

This led to the colonization laws of August 1824 and November 1828 “which completed the practical system under which all grants in California were made after the year 1833 [with the securization of the missions, freeing up immense tracts for private acquisition and settlement] and up to the cession of the territory to the United States” after the latter’s invasion and conquest during the Mexican-American War.

Another table showed the number of grants issued over the periods of administration of seven governors (Figueroa, Castro Gutierrez, Chico, Alvarado, Micheltorena and Pico.) There were 108 such concessions under the first four from 1833 to 1836, with 60% or so from Figueroa in the first two-and-a-half years. From 1837 to 1846, however, there was an explosion of grants, with Alvarado handing out 207 in five-and-a-half years (including La Puente to Rowland and Workman), Micheltorena distributing 192 in not long over two years, and Pico handing out 147 in seventeen months at the end of the Mexican era.

Then Forbes provided a table of grants made through special decrees or laws and which were done by the government, all but one by Pico with the sole exception by Micheltorena, and involving “a valuable stipulated consideration.” Micheltorena’s sale was of the Petaluma ranch to Mariano G. Vallejo, while the others were missions lands sold between December 1845 and June 1846. One of these was San Gabriel, sold to Workman and Hugo Reid.

Forbes turned to problems incurred in the grants as revealed in archival materials, including frauds, duplicate grants, those concessions with questionable validity, and other issues. Michael White, an Englishman who was in California from 1829 and then went to New Mexico, returning to the coast with Rowland and Workman in 1841, received a grant to Muscupiabe, near present San Bernardino, but the 30,000-plus acres included more than 20,000 from public lands “wrongfully included in the survey.”

He also noted “patented ranchos in which irregular proceedings have been had, and an immense quantity of public land has wrongfully been embraced within the patented lines,” one being the Lomas de Santiago in modern Orange County, which, like La Puente was granted at 4 square leagues, under 18,000 acres, but confirmed for 11 square leagues, the maximum permissible under law, and over 47,000 acres. Presumably, Forbes, knowing the documents as thoroughly as he did, did not feel La Puente was “irregular”!

In ending his report, Forbes stated that past years mainly involved the copying and translating of archive documents, but recent efforts pertained to “making lengthly [sic] reports upon land titles” as well as record searches for court cases. He noted that “the work of transcribing and translation of the Spanish records of land claims is contained in 26 large volumes of 14,674 pagges, or 56,788 folios of written matter in Spanish and English.”

He provided statistics on the types of records so processed, including 580 complete expedientes (grant files), and 369 that were missing elements; over 1,900 documents in 813 land commission cases; grant registers; a marks and brands register; records of possession; and two volumes of the tracing of the diseños (maps) from those 813 cases. There were also 21 volumes of provincial papers with 13,000 pages; 9 volumes of departmental papers wit 4,500 pages; the “Los Angeles series” of 15 volumes comprising nearly 11,000 pages; and 7 volumes with 5,600 pages of prefect and court records.

After reiterating that much of his time over the past year was spent at court with archival documents, Forbes ended by observing, “the work being done at present will be of great value, and I therefore would respectfully suggest that an appropriation be asked from the government for at least $5,000, to be used exclusively for the work on indexing, and abstracts of the archives.

In his follow-up through a supplement, Hammond added,

I must say a word relative to Mexican grants, which are shown by my annual report to have been in many instances secured by fraud, and a title acquired by the same means through the famous land committee of 1854. While I state positively that I can prove the existence of these frauds, and that titles to thousands of our most productive acres have been so obtained, yet the fact remains that a title has been obtained, and the prosperity of our State demands that the validity of these titles be for once and all determined by Congress . . . that all grants now patended should be for once and all declared valid and proof against attack at leasr, as to genuiness of title. This I advocate in behalf of innocent purchasers, though should I be instructed to asist in the setting aside of an patented grant of this State I will be honestly earnest and truly energetic in my endeavors irrespective of my personal opinions.

As to Forbes, he continued in his work as “keeper of the Spanish Archives” for five more years, during which he incurred the enmity of people in Los Angeles when he demanded that Spanish and Mexican records be handed over to him for keeping in San Francisco, with one paper claiming this would bring $3,000 in fees, for use of documents, to his office.

Los Angeles Express, 20 November 1891.

Yet, there were personal issues in his life, as well. In 1890, he vanished for about ten days, not telling his wife where he was going, while purportedly letting a colleague know he’d be absent. It was reported that there was a domestic dispute with Carmelita about their proeprty in Alameda, next to Oakland, where the couple long resided and that Forbes claimed he went to southern Arizona to work on an issue with a friend and legal issues with his ranch.

In late 1892, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Forbes to be United States Consul at the Pacific Coast city of Guaymas in México and he left his wife and an adopted daughter in California for the next couple of years. After the mid-Nineties, he was back in northern California, working as a translator and interpreter and attempting to develop quicksilver, gold and silver mines near New Almaden and in México.

The record of Forbes’ death in Guadalajara, Jalisco, México in April 1922.

His success in getting Spanish and Mexican records transferred to the surveyor general’s office in San Francisco proved to be a huge loss when the April 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed everything but the land records, later transferred on permanent deposit to the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. After Carmelita died in 1912, Forbes spent his time in Orange County, living at San Juan Capistrano for a time, Los Angeles, where he lived in Lincoln Heights when the 1920 census was taken, in San Diego County, and in México. He died in Guadalajara in April 1922, at age 84, and the death record stated that “durng the last six months of his life, American residents of this city maintained Mr. Forbes, who was suffering from disease and feebleness. These American residents were also called upon to pay the funeral expenses.” He was buried in the American section of the city cemetery.

Forbes’ report is a very intersting and informative historical accounting of the “Spanish Archives” prior to the destruction of most of it and provides some fascinating descriptions of the grant process in the department of Alta California under Spain and Mexico.

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