“A Curse and Scourge Upon the Most Magnificent Portions of the American Empire”: Government Letters Concerning Fraud in California Land Claims, 1858-1860

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As has been noted here previously, the California Land Claims act, officially known as the “Act to Ascertain and Settle the Private Land Claims in the State of California,” passed on 3 March 1851 led to a drawn-out series of proceedings that, on the average, took a remarkable 17 years to adjudicate (William Workman and John Rowland only had to fight for 15 for their claim to Rancho La Puente, while F.P.F. Temple and Juan Matias Sánchez battled for 20—the combined are about the average) as owners of the land grants made under Spain and México had to navigate multiple layers of the American court system, pay lawyers to represent them, hire surveyors to draw up required maps, and survive the economic ups and downs of the 1850s and 1860s, including the decline of the Gold Rush, a national depression in the late Fifties and the dual disaster of deluge and drought in the first half of the following decade.

For the Spanish-speaking Californios, there was the additional and under-appreciated burden of trying to understand a different legal system in another language than the ones under which they were born and raised. The civil law system of México as derived from that of Spain was replaced the common law system of the United States as developed from that of Great Britain and, of course, they needed someone, usually attorneys, to translate for them.

Whatever examples also existed of lawyers taking advantage of clients and other ethical, legal and moral issues arose, this unfamiliarity posed additional challenges for a people whose culture was largely built around ranching, specifically the raising of cattle. The sudden and somewhat brief halcyon days of the Gold Rush and the wealth the beef trade brought was also a new phenomenon for a people largely used to a near-subsistence economy, but when the good times faded as the 1850s moved into its second half and then beyond, it proved to an extra level of difficulty for Californios generally not prepared for a backup plan, if one was possible, such as switching land use on ranchos to large-scale intensive agriculture.

The land claims process involved a hearing before a commission of three and, if a favorable ruling was received, the claimants found themselves moving to a federal district court because the United States government automatically appealed each successful decision. Even if claimants won at the district court level, there was recourse of the feds to the United States Supreme Court. Moreover, approved claims meant that there was a requirement for a survey to be submitted to the General Land Office before a patent would be issued. Small wonder it took so long, especially as the nation was engaged in the horrors of the Civil War a decade after the land claims process was initiated.

Tonight’s featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a Message of the President of the United States, titled “Expenditures on Account of Private Land Claims in California” and ordered to be printed on 22 May 1860, and which was issued to comply with a House of Representatives resolution for a statement on spending from appropriations passed by Congress in the previous sessions. President James Buchanan sent a brief message in reply to the 26 March resolution and noted that the spent funds totaled $114,000. The concern here isn’t the detailed explanation of the expenditures, but a couple of the interesting reports included with the message.

A major concern was the massive claim filed by Jose Yves Limantour, a French native with extensive trading experience in México and California and who submitted documents asserting an ownership in much of San Francisco and land in adjoining areas, as well as a large portion near Cahuenga Pass not far from Los Angeles. The land commission approved his claim in 1856, which, naturally, caused an uproar among many in the places that Limantour asserted were his. When accusations of fraud on his part were brought forward, an investigation found that the papers he presented were, in fact, fake. Limantour was arrested, posted bail and then headed for México, where he died nearly thirty years later, and his claim was deemed fraudulent in 1858.

Among the documents in this printed item was an order from Attorney General Jeremiah S. Black to Edwin M. Stanton, future Secretary of War under Abraham Lincoln and who received $25,000 to be a special counsel to investigate the Limantour matter. Stanton took his namesake son and President Buchanan’s namesake nephew with him to California, arriving in mid-March 1858 and remaining until just after the onset of the next year. He and his team assiduously reviewed official records, sent requests to México for others and determined the status of the Limantour claim through incontrovertible evidence.

Exhibit B in this publication was from Black to Speaker of the House R.M.T. Hunter of Virginia and dated 26 May 1858, in which the official expressed concern that $40,000 to be used “for expenses of defending the public property in California against the fraudulent claims set up to it” was removed from the House version of the appropriations bill and “the government,” he added, “is very deeply concerned.” Black added that title “to all the valuable buildings in San Francisco and Sacramento” including the fortifications at the Presidio in the former was in dispute.

Included was that “one person has demanded public property, the value of which is estimated at ten to twelve millions of dollars, and private property worth probably three times as much more”—this was undoubtedly the Limantour claim. Black added there were more that were “entitled to vigorous opposition” as he “devoutly believe them to be based upon forged papers and supported by the basest perjury.” To go after these, he went on, “will require labor, energy, and talents, which cannot be got without paying for them.”

Black reiterated the nature of “these stupendous frauds” and felt the removal of those monies would be tantamount to “just to give up public and private property to be plundered by a set of unprincipled adventurers.” He asked that his letter be entered into the public record “to show that I have made a faithful effort to perform the duty with which I am charged by existing laws and by the order of the President.” More notably, Black concluded:

I have been informed, and I do verily believe, that the California claimants referred to, have their agents, accomplices, and spies in this city and about the lobbies of Congress. I mention this, not as accounting for the action of the House [in reducing the expenditure], but to warn you of the deceptive arts which such persons know so well how to practice.

Another missive by Black, this time to James A. Bayard, Jr., senator from Delaware and chair of the Judiciary Committee, and dated 22 April 1858, and which began, “public property in California of very great value is claimed by various persons under alleged grants from Mexico, which are believed to be mere fabrications.” The property under claim included “not only large tracts of agricultural country, and some of the richest mines in the world, but the whole cities of San Francisco and Sacramento are included within them.”

In outlining the value of the public property, Black gave the amount of up to $12 million, while that of private tracts could have ranged as high as $30 million, while asserting that “the right of the United States and of their grantees to all this property . . . has been in extreme jeopardy and is yet in much peril.” Moreover, the attorney general added, “the pretended grants from Mexico have been forget with skill as well as boldness unequalled in the history of such frauds.”

That of Limantour was adjudged to be “the greatest in atrocity as well as in magnitude” and was, he noted, approved by the land commission and awaited a hearing with the federal district court. Black, having looked into the matter, proclaimed that “I am thoroughly satisfied that it is the most stupendous fraud ever perpetrated since the beginning of the world.” The success to date of the claim was because the federal government lacked “the means of resisting it with the rigor which ought to be employed.”

Stanton, then, was dispatched to look into the case “with the ability and fidelity which might be expected from his very high professional character.” This is why the $40,000 appropriation was sought and Black noted that the $30,000 approved by Congress in its 3 March 1856 update of the land claims act was already expended and “there is now no funds in the treasury” to defend the government’s positions on claims, including those of Limantour and other purported frauds. Rather than seek money from the general judicial funds, Black felt that the seriousness of the situation demanded “that Congress should give its express sanction to the expenditure” and that the funds were for expenses “not caused by any general law, but beyond all doubt absolutely necessary.”

The attorney general went on to note that federal interests on California land claims were handled by federal district attorneys, who did the best they could, “but one person cannot possibly perform the great labor required” beyond other office business, while there was no provision for the hiring of an assistant or a clerk. What was sought was legislation to allow these district attorneys to hire staff to help with the workload.

Black continued that “much delay has been encountered in bringing up appeals from the district court to the Supreme Court, caused by the difficulty of getting the records transcribed,” these being considered “very voluminous.” The federal district court clerk was not able to perform this task “nor find other persons willing to do it for the fees allowed by law.” He concluded that “to remedy this evil it will be necessary to authorize the district attorney to contract with the necessary number of clerks to do the works at a reasonable price,” perhaps $150 a month each, with three clerks working for five months deemed necessary to address the backlog.

A week prior to Christmas, Black wrote to John S. Phelps, the chair of the House Committee of Ways and Means, to report that a prior request for an additional $12,000 for land claims purposes was reduced to $10,000 and that the following year perhaps only half that was needed. He added that there were over fifty land claims cases on the Supreme Court docket and more were arriving by steamer from other parts of the state with all considered important, though he went on to note that “I am not able to give the number that are pending in the district courts.”

Concerning Stanton’s work, Black reported “that the amount appropriated for the last year will not meet the actual and necessary expenses incurred,” but noted that “there is not a more important branch of the public service, nor has the government ever expended a similar amount and received for it so large a return.” These monies were carefully used because they dealt with “the most atrocious frauds ever perpetrated upon any government [and] have been detected and exposed, to the great terror and just punishment of many evil-doers.”

The Limantour case, he reported, was doomed to failure and others were “on their way to the same result.” He felt that another $40,000 would suffice, though it might be possible to go to Congress for more money and he offered to meet with the committee and provide any details necessary. Finally, Black noted that he and his employees were not required to give bond for their financial accounting and he stated “this is neither comfortable to me, nor perfectly safe to the United States.”

The last document of note is a letter from Black to President Buchanan and dated 22 May 1860 and which accompanied the detailed accounting of expended funds, but which also provided “an explanation of the circumstances under which these appropriations were asked for, of the purposes to which they have been devoted, and the results accomplished.” First, he observed that there were 813 claims presented under the 1851 land claims act covering 19,148 square miles and “nearly all of them were confirmed either by the board or by the district courts to which they were appealed.”

The attorney general added that the grants, whether real or not, included “a very large portion of the best mineral and agricultural region in California, the ports, commercial points, sites for fortifications, lighthouses, and other national purposes.” He claimed that there wasn’t an island or locales for customs houses, forts, hospitals or post offices that “must be purchased upon his own terms from some private claimant, under a pretended title from [governors] Alvarado, Michel Torena [sic], or Pio Pico.” For Black, “it was incredible that such grants could have been made in good faith by any government,” yet there was plenty of testimony from Mexican officials and witnesses “as to render defence [sic] hopeless” without investigations “that would demonstrate the fraud.”

Black wrote that during the administration of Franklin Pierce, money was provided by Congress to investigate record in México City and the result was “that even the archives . . . had in some way become an instrument of sanctioning frauds against the United States.” This included purported proofs of Limantour’s fantastic claims, with documents containing signatures of officials and sworn to be genuine by one official who traveled to San Francisco to affirm the legitimacy of them and by letters from the Mexican president to California’s governor and to the board of land commissioners. Yet, the papers were found to be forgeries and Stanton was hired to defend the United States in the claim.

As to available documents, it was added that “a portion only of the archives of the Mexican government had been placed in the custody of the surveyor general. There has been no collation of translation of them, and many of the most important were scattered over the State, some in the custody of unauthorized officers, some in the possession of individuals, and others in boxes which nobody guarded, and which had never been opened.” Black noted that these were collected, organized and bound into folios with accurate printed translations and “photographic copies” made of correspondence and other documents.

The result, the attorney general noted was that:

The archives thus collected furnish irresistible proof that there had been an organized system of fabricating land titles carried on for a long time in California by Mexican officials; that forgery and perjury had been reduced to a regular occupation; that the making of false grants, with the subornation of false witnesses to prove them, had become a trade and a business.

Lands considered worthless for individual use, but valuable for government purposes were taken under these grants “with a view to extorting millions from the United States for sites necessary to defend that national possessions on the Pacific, and to light and guard to commerce of the coast. The Limantour claim was again referred to and, thanks to the work done through appropriations financing investigations and the improvement of archival records, “the government acquired the means of demonstrating these frauds” and determining legitimate grants while better defending the federal government’s interests in court.

In assembling records, Black continued, “the historical facts thus ascertained furnished the most decisive means of corroborating the assertions of those who claimed under honest titles, and have completely contradicted the false accounts given by fraudulent parties.” Moreover, “tolerably full biographies of nearly all the men who have been engaged in these schemes of imposture and fraud, from the governors down to the lowest of the suborned witnesses,” can now be furnished whenever necessary.”

He expressed that, with these documents, there was “almost absolute certainty” concerning any claim’s legitimacy or falsehood and “enabled me to dismiss the appeals whenever justice required it.” The “skillfully got up” frauds were such that some fooled the land commissioners and the federal district courts and “not one of them was given up without a most rigorous struggle.” Black adjudged that some $150 million of land were involved in such frauds, but more than two-thirds were not exposed or overturned, but, beyond the financial benefit,

the moral effect of it will prove to be still more beneficial. These frauds operated like curse and scourge upon the most magnificent portions of the American empire. Their confirmation would have retard its growth, blighted its prosperity, and extinguished in the midst of the people all respect for the Federal government. No people can be loyal whose rights of property are not secure, and it is vain to look for public morality under a government which fails to distinguish between honest titles and fraudulent claims.

The attorney general then listed, with detail, claims that were concluded in the government’s favor, including the Limantour one, but also one of John A. Sutter for Sacramento, one for the town of Petaluma, a claim for Andrés Pico from his brother, Governor Pío Pico, and many others. Black noted there were some thirty other fraudulent claims pending that required more funds to litigate and, with these, “the honor of the government is deeply concerned.” In many cases, lands were acquired and settled by citizens depending on the government for protection of their titles and “a failure to keep our faith so pledged would disgrace this nation in the eyes of the civilized world.”

With respect to a law passed by Congress on 18 May 1858 and which made it a three-year prison term for those convicted of presenting a false land claim in California, Black noted that “this law has not yet been enforced against any of the numerous persons who are obnoxious to its provisions” but he went on that “the time is coming when some of the guilty parties should be made to feel the majesty of justice.”

This remarkable artifact reflects the thinking of the attorney general of the United States regarding the purported prevalence of fraud in land claims presented for confirmation under the auspices of the act of 3 March 1851. It came as William Workman and others were seeking final approval of their claim for the lands of the Mission San Gabriel, though the successful decisions at the commission and district court levels were overturned by the federal Supreme Court in 1864. The grant was not considered fraudulent, but was determined by the high court to be outside the authority of Governor Pico in dealing with former mission lands. Still, the context here is notable.

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