A Nice Piece Of Real Estate

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In this respect, however, as in many others, California was an exception to the American rule. California already had a sedentary population, a central government, and a law of property (albeit rather strange and loosely administered) before the westering Americans arrived. Both the Spanish and Mexican governments, which looked upon the arid coast of California as practically useless except for largescale cattle grazing, had authorized local administrators to grant up to 48,712 acres to anyone who was willing to colonize the province. The only important requirements were that the grantee be a Mexican citizen and that he actually take possession of the land.

Between 1784, when Governor Pedro Pages issued the first two land grants in the San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles, and 1846, when the American Army and Navy invaded the territory, the various governors of Alta California had portioned out some eight hundred grants, totalling close to fourteen million acres. Most of the ranchos were so large that they were described in square leagues rather than in acres, a square league being 4,439 acres. One Californian named Eulogio de Celis owned 116,858 acres in the San Fernando Valley. Another, Luis Peralta, ran cattle over a range that now embraces the cities of Oakland, Berkeley, and Alameda on the east side of San Francisco Bay. The Swissborn colonist John Sutler claimed 146,131 acres surrounding a fortress trading post on the Sacramento River; the Nieto family of southern California presided over three hundred thousand acres in Los Angeles and Orange counties. By these standards the Limantour claim was picayune. As the Virginia-born humorist Joseph Glover Baldwin expressed it, a typical claim to the land commission involved “some five or six degrees of latitude and longitude, to say nothing of a few outside counties and some cities.”

Most California land grants were not only huge but vague. To establish a claim the applicant had only to file a simple petition with the governor, stating his name, nationality, and occupation and describing the desired land in language of Biblical limpidity: so-and-so-many square leagues within such-and-such natural boundaries near this-or-that ex-isting rancho. Occasionally, the petition would be adorned with a painted map (diseno), but most disenos were as imaginative as they were beautiful.

As for landmarks, they were fragile and inconsequential. On an enormous grant in southern California a large oak tree served as the boundary point, and to distinguish it from dozens of other oaks the head and bones of a beef had been tucked among the branches. Surveys were made (if at all) by two men on horseback, carrying between them a lariat some fifty varas in length (approximately 1374 feet) with a long wooden stake tied to each end. Taking a creek or woodland as a starting point, the two horsemen would plant first one stake and then the other until they had completely measured off the boundaries of the rancho.

Before completing the grant the governor usually would refer the petition to someone in the neighborhood who could make a quick inspection and report whether the land was vacant. The results of this crude title search (called the informe) would be written onto the petition or attached to it, and the two papers would then be bound together with the governor’s signature in a packet called the espediente, which was filed among the records of the local province. Although the grant was supposedly subject to approval by the departmental assembly—or, in the case of foreigners, by the central government—hardly anyone bothered to obtain this official sanction. Nor was there a central office to maintain an official record of all grants. If a man had his land and a copy of the documents, what more did he need?

This crude system worked satisfactorily for a scattered, pastoral people. Whatever its defects, it had the force of law and tradition in Mexican California, and the United States was bound by international custom and a protocol to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) to uphold land titles that had been perfected under Span- ish and Mexican rule.

Foreseeing that disputes would be inevitable, the American authorities on the Pacific coast ordered two studies to be made of land records immediately after occupying California. The first, by Captain Henry W. Halleck, an opinionated young artillery officer who doubled as a civilian lawyer, cast considerable doubt on the quality of existing titles. The second, by William Carey Jones, a lawyer and linguist who was related by marriage to John Charles Frémont, took a contrary position, holding that most existing titles were perfect or would have been perfected had the territory not been disturbed by war.