In 1846 a war erupted between Mexico and the United States, prompted by land-hungry North Americans, who wanted to obtain trading ports on the Pacific coast and to spread the wings of the eagle from Atlantic to Pacific. This conflict, which lasted only two years, resulted in the extension of the United States to the western coast. With the signing of the treaty ending the war -- the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo -- in 1848, the United States had succeeded in increasing its territory. Then, it had to face the difficult problem of dealing with an important provision of the agreement -- the many land titles granted by the Mexicans.

Before Mexico became independent from Spain in 1821, the vast domain in the southwestern section of the United States had been part of the Spanish Empire. The Spanish established settlements along the West Coast called missions, as a base to convert the Indians to Catholicism. In and around several pueblos, or large towns, Spain made large land grants to selected individuals to raise cattle. These ranchos were encouraged by their government, especially in California, which was well suited for this type of an economy. Ranchos were usually not well defined, and many of them lacked clear title. This system, which was continued by the Mexican government, resulted in a haphazard pattern of land ownership. It worked because there was no pressure from an expanding population. With plenty of land and few settlers, the undefined boundaries of the ranchos seldom came under dispute.

As conditions worsened between Mexico and the United States, the last two Mexican governors of the southwest territory -- Pico and Michel Torena -- hastily made grants to many Mexicans, hoping the grants would be honored after the war. Over eight hundred grants were made, ceding over eight million acres. Fifty percent of these grants were made within nine years of the start of the war. These ranchos varied in size from twenty thousand to over one million acres. And, according to the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, all these grants by the Mexican government were to be honored by the victorious United States. Apparently, the owners of this land cared less for which nation they belonged to than their title to real estate! Thus began the trouble.

With the discovery of gold, the race was on, as untold thousands traveled across the continent, seeking their fortunes. Imbued with a spirit of adventure, settlers searched for gold wherever it might be found, even on the Mexican land grants. These squatters maintained that they had a right to the soil, but our government had agreed to respect Mexican ownership. Then the dam burst, as controversies broke out over land titles.

Were these claims valid? Although the Mexican government had rules on mapping, applications and surveying procedures, they had not been enforced, causing many grants to be questioned. To review this chaotic situation, a land commission was formed to investigate validity. Each claimant had to prove the validity of his title, a costly and difficult task. Because of the expense of litigation, many grants were forfeited And the land, instead of being occupied by settlers, fell into the hands of speculators.

It took decades to properly determine legal ownership. Many instances of fraud were uncovered. Six hundred thousand acres in the vicinity of present-day San Francisco were claimed by one Jose Limantour, who persuaded the United States government that he owned the area. His title was discovered to be fraudulent. Not only were Mexican land grants obtained illegally; ample evidence reveals stupendous land frauds in all the western and Pacific states, enabling speculators to obtain valuable mineral and timber lands. Collusion between speculators and U. S. government officials resulted in vast areas obtained by periury, fraudulent surveys and false entries.

Because of the confusion over the title of various lands in the Mexican Cession, hundreds of thousands of people delayed migration to the West. Many of these estates became concentrated in a few hands and led to the development of corporate farming in the 20th century. Today, vast blocks of land in California are owned by individuals or corporations.

Background Questions:

  1. Describe the several types of land grants made by the Spanish Empire in what would become the Southwestern section of the United States.
  2. Then describe the land grants made by the Mexican government after 1821.
  3. How did the discovery of gold complicate the question of land ownership?
  4. How did speculators gain control over some of the lands?
  5. Cite examples of fraud concerning legal owner ship of land.
  6. How have past patterns of ownership affected current land ownership in California?

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