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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Land Laws: Land Grants vs. Homesteads

During the centuries it belonged to Spain, and the few decades it was a province of Mexico, California had no homestead laws that gave ordinary citizens the right to acquire ownership of public domain lands. Instead, Spain bestowed a small number of land grants to “deserving” individuals as a reward for services rendered. Mexico continued this tradition, but with new laws that greatly enhanced and expanded the opportunities for private land ownership.

In 1769, empire-building Spain sent a group of Franciscan friars, then living in the part of New Spain called Mexico, to colonize its claimed possession farther north known as Alta California. As everyone knew, just getting there was a dangerous journey. Therefore, the priests were escorted by soldiers to aid and protect them. The soldiers, in turn, had orders to erect presidios (forts) along the Pacific coastline. Relocating to far-away California was seen as a more or less permanent commitment; the married soldiers brought their wives and children with them.

As the soldiers retired, Spain rewarded its veterans with land grants. The first was to Manuel Butrón, who received a small parcel in 1775. Two years later, a group of families founded the first official town, or pueblo, in California, naming it San Jose. The government accorded the pueblos four square leagues of land for homes and small farm plots. A Spanish league is about 4,228 acres; however, land for cattle grazing required several thousand acres. The first series of large grants for this purpose took place in 1784. Under Spanish rule, these grants were non-transferable and ended with the recipient’s death.

Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, acquired California by treaty, and established rules for the on-going settlement of its new holdings. Vacant land could be granted to Mexican citizens, limited to 11 square leagues—approximately 50,000 acres—per grant, legislation which effectively ushered in the fabled California rancho era. And, contrary to Spanish policy, foreigners could now acquire land, although free land was only granted to Mexican citizens, either by birth or naturalization.

To acquire a grant, the applicant submitted appropriate papers and a hand-drawn map, called a diseño. Surveys weren’t considered necessary, and in truth this kind of technical expertise was not readily available to California residents in the early nineteenth century. Instead, the hand-drawn, imprecise diseño indicated desired boundaries by using clearly visible natural features such as watercourses, isolated hills, or lone oak trees towering above flat expanses of wild oats.

Attitudes were relaxed; provincial California contained millions of acres, and land was of little value. Further, everyone was related through blood or marriage, and no one gave much thought to where one family’s land ownership ended and another began, even when boundaries were quite vague. Women had the right to acquire property; approximately 27 Mexican land grants were made to women.

Some of these land grants were enormous, others smaller; most were intended as acreage for free-range cattle grazing. In all, they eventually encompassed more than 8,850,000 acres. Then…America acquired California at the end of the Mexican War. The diseño maps, heretofore proofs of ownership respected and relied upon for 80 years, were called into question by the 1851 Land Commission of the United States—a panel of judges that received 813 claims asking them to honor prior grants. Of that number 605 were eventually confirmed, 190 rejected, and 19 withdrawn.

Times and circumstances had changed. The 1848 gold discovery had brought thousands of new settlers swarming into the realm, and California had become a State of the Union in 1850. The Land Act of 1851 placed the burden on landholders to prove their title, resulting in protracted litigation and high costs. Many grantees under the Spanish and Mexican regimes were forced to sell portions of their properties to pay for legal services; land titles that were rejected by the courts entered the public domain. The decades-long, open-range cattle grazing era finally came to a close.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the first Homestead Act on May 20, 1862, which gave American citizens in all states up to 160 acres of public land provided they lived on it, improved it, and paid a small registration fee.

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