The Prince Of Swindlers
Janus Addison Reavis got rich—for a time, anyway—on his Peralta land fraud. But in the end he went to jail .
August 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 5
Not wishing to leave out anything of value, Reavis had to stretch the claim. The grant to Don Miguel de Peralta, given him by the king of Spain in 1748, allowed him 300 square leagues, but the league was a measurement which varied in different countries and at different periods. Reading the dead king of Spain’s mind, Reavis decided that what His Majesty had intended was a league of five miles. For a claim about the size of Delaware he thus substituted one which was nearly the size of New Jersey.
He placed his western border a little east of the junction of the Gila and the Salt. Running 49½, miles horn north to south, it bracketed the richest section ol’ both valleys, which were encompassed by lines stretching east for 149½ miles. Thev included millions of acres Reavis counted on making his own by a right of tenure, which would enable him to deal with the United States in the capacity of a sovereign power. For backing he could point to a provision of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, later echoed by the Gadsden Purchase agreement, which pledged Uncle Sam to honor all land grants made while the territory which Mexico was turning over to the United States was under Mexican or Spanish dominion.
The American diplomats who had conceded such a point had done so with the thought that only a lew square miles, scattered here and there, would be involved. They had not envisaged the generosity of the king of Spain, as conceived by Dr. Willing and enlarged by Reavis; but the principle woidd hold good il the validity of the title could be established.
Once that had been done, cities would have to pay fames Addison Reavis lor the right to continue on location. The pioneers who had fought the Indians and the wilderness in the course of developing their ranches would not be freeholders but tenants. The mining companies engaged in gouging gold and silver from the area would have to pay or go out of business.
As Reavis once admitted, the possible stakes were so enormous as to stagger even his imperial imagination. He readily saw that in order to have his claim honored he must know as much about land grants and all that pertained to them as the combined experts whom the United States would pit against him. He had to be an authority on international law. He had to be thoroughly at home in the Spanish of the Eighteenth Century. He had to have a !lawless knowledge of Spanish legal jargon and to know the ins and outs of Spanish colonial procedure. He had to inform himself as to just how Spanish and Mexican records were preserved.
In 1881 and again in 1883 he was in Guadalajara, Mexico, seeing to it that the proper documents in the cise of the Perulta land grant did exist. What is more, he obtained statements from Mexican notaries vouching lor the I’act that papers in his possession were accurate copies of state papers which they themselves had seen, filed just where Reavis said they were.
First, of course, it had been necessary lor him to identify the man whom a monarch had rewarded with an estate in Arizona, to show why the king of Spain had delighted to honor him and to trace the steps by which the grant had finally come into the hands of an American physician. The first tentative version demonstrating this sequence of lortunate events was a relatively simple matter.
In 1742 Don Miguel de Peralta de la Cordoba, a native of that city and a captain of dragoons, was scut to Mexico on a confidential mission by King Philip V. Skulduggery was a loo t in this distant province, and the King was not receiving his proper slice of the revenues. Looking around lor complete loyalty, unfailing courage, and a closed mouth, all in one package, Philip picked out Don Miguel. In spite of the hazards confronting him, the latter finally succeeded in straightening out the revenue tangle; and Ferdinand VI made him a grandee of Spain with the title of Damn of the Colorados.
That was in 1748, and somewhat later in the same year Ferdinand told the vice-regent of New Spain that he ought to Rx the new grandee up with a piece of property to be baron of. Another man might have had Don Miguel in Arizona by Christmas, but Reavis had observed the deliberation with which vice-regents of New Spain moved, even when carrying out a royal older. The Baron was therefore handed goo square leagues or 19,200,000,000 square varas of Pimcria Alta in 1757, with authority from the government of New Spain to occupy it as of January of the following year.
Although his main estate was in Arizona, Don Miguel preferred to live nearer to civilization. He had property in Hermosillo, Sonora, and he eventually married a lady of that city. For nineteen years there was no fruit of this union, but when the Baron was in his seventies Don Miguel de Peralta de la Cordoba y Sanrhez was born. It was this Second Baron, finding himself without an heir in his old age, who had deeded his Arizona estate over to his friend and physician, Dr. Willing.
So far so good; but there was then the problem of how the grant passed from the hands of Willing to those of Reavis. As far as the deed was concerned, it vas simple, lor the space left blank by the doctor had long been adorned with James Addison Reavis’ name. To make this post-mortem transfer credible was not so easy, however.
Reavis’ solution was to fuul a man called Florin Masol, a lormer business associate of Willing’s, whom he endowed witli power of attorney lor the doctor. 1-xercising his prerogative, Masol had turned the deed over to Reavis a couple of years before Willing died.