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The story of land ownership in modern California begins with the practice of Spanish land grants. Beginning in the 18th century, Spain allowed farming and ranching by private individuals in California. In the 19th century the Mexican government continued and expanded the program.
- 1 Land Laws in Spain
- 2 Spanish Land Law in the Americas
- 3 How Did Land Grants in Alta California Begin?
- 4 Alta California’s First Spanish Land Grant
- 5 Pueblos
- 6 Ranchos in Spanish California
- 7 Land Laws in Mexican California
- 8 Missions and Land Grants in Alta California
- 9 Women and Land Grants
- 10 Steps for Requesting a Land Grant
- 11 Land Grants and the Mexican-American War
- 12 The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
- 13 Ranchos in U.S. California
- 14 The California Land Act of 1851
- 15 What Was the Effect of the California Land Act of 1851?
- 16 Learn More about Land Grants in California
Land Laws in Spain
The laws and customs about who could own land and how it could be used in Alta California originated in medieval Spain. The most important medieval law code was called the Siete Partidas or “Seven Chapters,” by King Alfonso X of Castile (1221–1284). Alfonso was known as El Sabio or “The Wise,” because not only did he write laws, but he ordered the translation of works of Greek and Arabic learning so that people in Europe could read them.
Spanish Land Law in the Americas
As the Spanish built an empire in the Americas over three centuries, the laws it used to govern evolved. Perhaps the most important legal code for the Americas was the Recopilación de las leyes de los reynos de las Indias (1680), also known as the Laws of the Indies. The Laws of the Indies gathered together all the laws enacted to govern Spanish dominions in the Americas over 250 years. These laws regulated the relationships between Spanish and other peoples in the Americas (indigenous and African), including the use of land.
How Did Land Grants in Alta California Begin?
When Spain eventually sent soldiers to Alta California, it was not just to operate military bases or presidios. It also wished to create communities, especially farming communities that could feed those bases.
Many of the soldiers who came to Alta California were married, and their families soon joined them. The Spanish government wanted people to create farms that would help grow the Spanish population in the territory and provide food for the presidios.
In 1773 the Viceroy of New Spain authorized the commanders of the San Diego and Monterey presidios to distribute land to colonists and Indians, as long as they did not move away from the boundaries of the presidio or mission on which they were already living.
The viceroy’s authority came from a law passed in Madrid in 1754. Before that, only the king of Spain had the right to grant land to individuals in the Americas.
The Spanish government made about 30 grants of land. Almost all of these were to veterans of the Spanish army who had served in California and retired from military service.
Granting land to veterans was an old tradition dating back to the Roman Empire, by which soldiers who had served honorably for a period of time received land to cultivate as farmers.
Alta California’s First Spanish Land Grant
The first person to receive a land grant in Spanish Alta California was Manuel Butrón. Manuel was a soldier of the Monterey company who had been a member of the Portolá Expedition. Manuel, who was originally from Spain, married Margarita, an Indian neophyte from Mission San Carlos Borromeo. In 1775 Butrón requested a 140-vara parcel from commander Rivera. Rivera asked the opinion of Fr. Junípero Serra, who approved, and the commander made the grant.
Two years later, in 1777, a group of colonists founded the first official pueblo in Alta California. They named the town San José de Guadalupe, which later became the city of San José.
Pueblos were accorded four square leagues of land (a league is about 4,228 acres) for houses and small farm plots, as well as for cattle grazing. Soldiers or settlers could receive lots or solares just outside the pueblo, but these were very small. Land for livestock or farming was government property and under the control of the presidio commander.
Ranchos in Spanish California
The first series of large grants for land outside of presidios or pueblos took place in 1784. These were for farms or cattle raising, and could be for a space of several thousand acres. They were the first real ranchos. In order to receive a grant, petitioners had to promise that they would do no harm to anyone or encroach upon non-Christian Indian lands. In Spanish California, the grants were actually temporary licenses, more like cattle grazing permits from the king.
Land Laws in Mexican California
In 1821, Mexico became independent from Spain. Alta California therefore officially became part of Mexico and was no longer a Spanish territory. In 1824, the Mexican Congress established rules for the colonization of lands.
Learn about Mexican Independence.
These new laws greatly expanded the ability to own land. Contrary to Spanish policy, foreigners could now acquire land, but the law favored Mexican citizens.
The congress limited grants to 11 square leagues, (approximately 50,000 acres).
The law also stated that no one could transfer properties to the Catholic Church. Secondly, landowners or their representatives needed to reside on the land and keep it cultivated. Otherwise it could revert back to the government, who could grant it to someone else.
In 1828 the Mexican congress updated the laws. Territorial governors received authority to grant what were considered “vacant” lands. This policy ushered in the era of large ranchos in Alta California.
Learn more about ranchos in Alta California.
Missions and Land Grants in Alta California
Under Spain, most land in coastal California was under control of the missions. Missions were built on or near Native American lands, and they legally belonged to the Indians that lived there, though they were considered to be held in trust by the Spanish government.
After independence, the Mexican government also passed laws to break up the mission system (known as secularization). The new rules stated that a certain portion of the lands were to be given to the mission Indians for farming and creation of towns. Every head of family and all single men over 21 would receive a parcel of land of between 100 and 400 square varas (between 1.5-7 square acres).
Learn more about mission secularization.
Whatever lands were considered to be not necessary for that purpose were declared vacant. They could be granted to people who showed the government that they would put the land to good use. Governors could not make grants for land within ten leagues (about 26 miles) from the seacoast or within twenty leagues (52 miles) of the borders of any foreign power.
Women and Land Grants
In Spanish and Mexican California, women had the right to acquire property. Women could also administer, protect and invest their property. Married women who appointed an attorney needed their spouses’ permission. Unmarried women had the right to transact business, but they often selected male relatives or trusted men to represent them in the legal system. This was especially the case if they were not able to read and write.
Of the over 500 land grants made in Mexican California, approximately 27 were made to women.
The requirement to develop and use ranchos was more difficult for women, especially aged widows unable to perform rancho chores themselves and without money to hire workers.
Nevertheless, some women, like Juana Briones de Miranda, operated ranchos of several thousand acres.
Steps for Requesting a Land Grant
The process for receiving a land grant had several steps.
Petition the governor. Petitioners stated their name, age, country and profession. They also indicated the amount of land and described the location of the land.
The petition included a diseño. A diseño is a map that marked out the boundaries of land grants made during the Spanish and Mexican periods. Diseños usually included sketches of important landmarks such as streams and rivers, thickets and the locations of Native American villages (called rancherías). Because they were usually hand drawn and without the benefit of specialized surveying tools, they were often rough, approximate sketches.
The informe. The next step was for the governor to direct an official to examine and report whether the land was vacant and whether there were any reasons not to make the grant. The official’s reply, called the informe, was written upon, or attached to, the petition and everything was sent back to the governor. The governor then issued the formal grant.
Final approval or appeal. The governor communicated the news to the Territorial Assembly, who made laws for the territory. If the assembly did not approve, the governor was required to appeal to the supreme government in Mexico City.
The expediente. The original petition and informe, together with a copy of the grant, were filed in the archives of the secretary of the government. The petitioner received the original. The filed papers were all included together in one document called the expediente.
Land Grants and the Mexican-American War
The end to the land grant era began with the U.S.-Mexico War. With roots in the secession of Texas from Mexico in the 1830s, the war officially started in 1846. It ended with the with U.S. victory and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Most rancho owners supported defending Mexican California from the American invasion. Some, such as General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, were ambivalent or even supported California becoming part of the U.S.
Learn more about the Mexican-American War.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
At the end of the U.S.-Mexico War, the governments of the United States and Mexico signed a treaty. It decided the terms of what would become of the territories that the U.S. acquired as well as the people living in them. The document was called the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The conditions the two governments agreed upon included the following:
Mexican citizens who lived in the former Mexican territories would be able to choose whether to stay in the U.S. or move to Mexico. If they chose to remain in the U.S., they had the right to either remain citizens of Mexico or to become U.S. citizens. In either case, they would retain rights to all all their property, including land (articles VIII and IX).
Ranchos in U.S. California
Although the treaty guaranteed rancho owners’ rights, it was very difficult for rancho owner to maintain their land. Many U.S. immigrants saw the ranchos simply as vacant land where they could build a home and start a farm. The immigrants vastly outnumbered the rancho owners, who protested that the newcomers had overrun their lands.
The California Land Act of 1851
In order to decide who owned land in California, the U.S. Congress passed the California Land Act (also known as the Gwin Bill) in March of 1851. The bill created commission of three members appointed by the president. The law required land owners to appear before the commission and show proof of ownership.
If the commission didn’t confirm the claim, then the owner could appeal to the U.S. District Court and as far as the Supreme Court. If the commission or the court confirmed the claim, then the land would be surveyed, and they would issue a patent proving ownership.
The commission and the courts ultimately confirmed most claims — over 600. But most rancho owners wound up losing their lands anyway. Even when the commission approved their claims, government attorneys would often appeal the decision. Many Mexican Californians had difficulties getting approval of their land surveys.
What Was the Effect of the California Land Act of 1851?
The average time rancho owners had to wait after filing a petition was 17 years. In order to pay all the legal fees involved in this long process, most wound up selling land. By the 1870s, Mexican rancho owners had lost most of their lands, and the rancho era in California became a memory.
Learn More about Land Grants in California
Land in California by W.W. Robinson. One of the classic texts about the saga of California’s land struggles, from mission times to the 20th century.
Let There Be Towns: Spanish Municipal Origins in the American Southwest, 1610-1810 by Gilbert R. Cruz. A great introduction to the evolution of the pueblo in the pre-independence period.
José Luis Punzo Díaz says
Muy interesante el trabajo
Damian Bacich says
Gracias, José Luis.
Carla Hernandez says
Seven Part-Code Zuniga Manuscript is a book of Laws,Viceroy Don Gaspar de Zuniga is in my family line,Whittier Daily News wrote a few article on my family Carlos S. Hartnell was my grandpa and Leonora ( Nora ) M. Zuniga Poyorena Hartnell born in the late 1800’s I still remember her,was my Great-grandma
Damian Bacich says
Thank you, Carla. I would love to know more about your family history. Please feel free to email me directly.
Silvia Cuesy says
I found this article very interesting. The way land has been changing from hands to hands and to countries and countries trough centuries and years. Congratulations!
Damian Bacich says
Thank you, Silvia!