How the US decided to determine if new Mexican Americans actually owned the private land “ranchos” that they had been granted when Alta California had been controlled by Mexico.

Ranchos of California

Extracts from:Grants of land in California made by Spanish or Mexican authorities,
by Cris Perez
Boundary Determination Office
State Lands Commission
Boundary Investigation Unit
August 23, 1982

At the time of Spanish colonization in California, all land title was vested in the Spanish Empire by virtue of discovery. Private land claims in California emanated from the Spanish. and later Mexican, governments practice of granting sovereign lands to private individuals.

When the presidios and pueblos were being established, the commandants of the presidios and the Alcaldes of the pueblos were given the authority to grant lots of land within their jurisdiction. From these presidial and pueblo lots evolved the granting of lands outside of these jurisdictions. These grants of land are known as Rancho Grants, and were granted in order to encourage agriculture and industry, reward soldiers. and to provide for settlers who held no property. These land grants were limited to a maximum size of eleven square leagues, most were smaller and a few were larger. The Spanish government required the compliance of the following four steps for the granting of rancho lands.

  1. The first step was the submitting of a petition by an applicant, containing the name, religion, residence occupation, and the size of the family. Along with a land description and, at times, a map of the tract (diseno). The diseno (map) and land description were usually very vague, calling to sloughs, trees, hills, and other features which were not very permanent.
  2. The second step was the inquiries by officials into the availability of the land, the character of the applicant, and the posting of the petition in case another party had objections to the approval of the application.
  3. The third step was the ''Informe" which was usually a separate document or a note appended to the original application, stating the findings of the officials in Step Number 2. This third step usually entailed the actual grant of land or refusal of the grant of land
  4. The fourth and final step was the confirmation of the grant by the Viceroy. This final step made the title to the land perfect. The applicant or grantee was given possession by the Alcalde (local judge) who caused the grantee to pull up grass, throw stones, break twigs, and exclaim, "Viva el Presidente y la Nación Mexicana" (long live the President and the Mexican Nation). During the Mexican era, these four steps were also used with minor alterations.

Of the 800-plus rancho grants made, the Spanish government granted approximately 30. The remainder were granted by the Mexican Government.

The United States war with the Mexican Republic and eventual conquest of the southwest territories culminated in the year 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo. This treaty was the basis for establishing the rights of Mexicans to land title within the conquered territories. Within Article VIII of the treaty, the following is stated, "In the said territories, property of every kind, now belonging to Mexicans not established there, shall be inviolably respected. The present owners, the heirs and all Mexicans who may hereafter acquire said property by contract shall enjoy ample as if the same belonged to citizens of the United States."

In order to implement the confirmation of these land titles, the Congress of the United States on March 3, 1851, established the Board of Land Commissioners, by virtue of an Act entitled, "An Act to Ascertain and Settle Private Land Claims in the State of California, (U.S. Stats. at large, Volume 9, page 631).

The following enactments are contained within this Act:

SECTION 1. "That for the purpose of ascertaining and settling private land claims in the State of California, a commission shall be, and is hereby constituted, which shall consist of three Commissioners, to be appointed by the President of the United States, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, which commission shall continue for three years from the date of this Act, unless sooner discontinued by the President of the United States."

SECTION 8. "That each and every person claiming lands in California by virtue of any right or title derived from the Spanish or Mexican government, shall present the same to the said Commissioners when sitting as a Board, together with such documentary evidence and testimony of such witnesses as the said claimant relies upon in support of such claims: and it shall be the duty of the Commissioners, when the case is ready for hearings, to proceed promptly to examine the same upon such evidence, and upon the evidence produced in behalf of the United States, and to decide upon the validity of the said claim, and within thirty days after such decision is rendered, to certify the same, with the reasons on which it is founded, to the District Attorney of the United States, in and for the district in which such decision shall be rendered."

SECTION 14. "And be it further (1) that the provisions of this Act shall not extend to any town lot, farm lot, or pasture lot, held under a grant from any corporation or town to which lands may have been granted for the establishment of a town by the Spanish or Mexican government, or the lawful authorities thereof, nor to any city. or town, or village lot, which city, town, or village existed on the seventh day of July, eighteen hundred and forty-six; but the claim for the same shall be presented by the corporate authorities of the said town, or where the land on which the said city, town, or village was originally granted to an individual; (2) and the fact of the existence of the said city, town, or village on the said seventh of July, eighteen hundred and forty-six, being duly proved, shall be prima facie evidence of a grant to such corporation, or to the individual under whom the said lot holders claim; (3) and where any city, town, or village shall be in existence at the time of passing this Act. the claim for the land embraced within the limits of the same may be made by the corporate authority of the said city, town, or village."

The procedures within this Act placed the burden of proof on the individuals seeking confirmation of private land claims. While these procedures discouraged the filing of fraudulent claims, the valid claims were encumbered by the costly lawyers, the difficulty of finding absolute proof of ownership and the different laws, customs, and languages involved. Added to these difficulties was the time involved for the landowners to receive a final patent to their land. The average length of time for a final patent to be issued, after the filing of an original petition, was seventeen years, some took as long a, thirty-five to forty years. The cost of this litigation and confirming process was charged to the applicant.

The Board of Land Commissioners tenure was extended to five years and the Board adjourned on March 1, 1856. In these five years, 813 cases involving private land claims were heard by the Commission; 604 claims were confirmed; 190 rejected; and the rest were withdrawn. Of these 813 cases, only three were decided by the Board; the rest were appealed to the District Court and then a majority of these were finally decided by the Supreme Court.

The initial confirmation of a private land claim by the Commissioners was only a stall step towards the issuing of a final patent. After confirmation by the Commissioners, appeals to the District Court, and Supreme Court, were argued until the Commissioner's confirmation was upheld or reversed. Once confirmed by the courts, a survey of the land was performed. Sometimes, either because of objections by adjacent landowners or because of discrepancies within the survey, more than one survey was needed. The survey costs were at the expense of the claimant. When these survey costs were paid and the survey advertised in the newspaper, per the Act of Congress approved July 1. 1864, the applicant could then petition the General Land Office for a final patent. Because of the time and money involved, the original confirmee was sometimes forced to sell the property. Consequently, in some cases, the individual who eventually received the final patent was not the original petitioner, or confirmee. The process of land confirmation of private land claims by the United States was tenuous at best. Arguments against the process have been submitted by historians and scholars. The most persistent argument being the criticizing of the undue hardships that applicants endured in order to receive confirmation to land they already owned. In retrospect. the confirmation of the private grants could have been made easier and less expensive, for the landowners. However, one must realize that at the time of these confirmation hearings, the mood of the country was that of the conquering warriors. Mexico had just been defeated in a war and the United States was not about to give away land that it had just fought for. Consequently, the burden of proof was placed onto the Mexicans and naturalized citizens of conquered Mexico.

The California State Surveyor-General's Office, in his report for August 1, 1879 to August 1, 1880, included a listing of private land claims within California. This list was entitled, "Report of Spanish or Mexican Grants in California," prepared by James T. Stratton, late United States Surveyor-General, now Deputy State Surveyor-General. The grant name, confirmee, and condition of title was shown on this list, which included all the confirmed grants within California. Subsequent Surveyor-General's reports updated "the condition of title" portion of the Stratton report. The last Surveyor-General's report to contain an update was for the years 1888-1890. This report was still incomplete because, under "condition of title," final patent dates for some ranchos were still not entered.

The State Surveyor-General's Office was abolished on August 14, 1929. The successor to the abolished office is the California State Lands Commission.

The staff of State Lands Commission has compiled the following update to the listing of "Grants of Land in California made by Spanish or Mexican Authorities", as published in the "Report of the Surveyor-General of the State of California, from August 1, 1888 to August 1, 1890". One reason for this update is to enter the patent dates omitted in the 1890 report.

In some instances, ranchos were confirmed by the Land Commissioners and the courts and the necessary surveys were performed: but for unknown reasons, final patents were never issued or could not be found. These unpatented ranchos were included in the 1890 report.

The format for this new listing is alphabetically by county name, which differs from the Surveyor-Generals listing, which is alphabetically by rancho name. This list of confirmed and patented private land claims (ranchos) gives only the name of the final patentee. Public records have been researched to ascertain the correct dates of patent, acreage, and township, range and meridian. When there was a conflict of facts, the records of the Bureau of Land Management were used as the final authority. (The 1890 listing is included as an appendix.)