Mexican Land Grants in California

After the Mexican revolution and subsequent secularization of the missions, more than 800 land grants were issued by the Mexican governors of California to prominent citizens. These grants of property were entirely free to the grantees but a certain process was required for the grant to become finalized.

The first step in the process was the submission of a letter to the governor requesting the grant together with a diseño or sketch map of the property in question. These maps were often rather impressionistic giving only a general idea of the boundaries and geographic details of the proposed grant.

If the application was approved, the governor responded with a grant which contained a list of conditions with which the grantee had to comply. Generally, one of the conditions was that the grantee must plant fruit trees on the property and another was that he must build a residence there. There was, however, no requirement that anyone actually live in the residence so many of these houses were occupied only part of the time or, in some cases, not at all.

Another requirement was that the grant be surveyed by the local alcalde who was comparable to a mayor. In the early 1840s, when three major grants in the Cambria area were made, the alcalde of San Luis Obispo, which included the entire county, was Jose Mariano Bonilla.

The method of surveying involved several men on horseback including the alcalde and the grantee and utilized a fifty-vara (138 foot) rope with a long, pointed stick at each end. The survey began at a well-defined corner of the property and one of the riders placed one of the sticks in the ground there. A second rider took the second stick and carried it along the boundary as far as the rope would permit and stuck it in the ground. Then the first rider removed his stick and rode in the same direction, passing the second rider, and continuing until the rope was taught. The number of lengths of rope required to measure one side of the rancho was recorded and the process was repeated on all sides until the surveyors returned to the point of origin.

On completion of the survey, the Acts of Possession were performed. Here is Bonilla’s (translated) description of the Acts of Possession for the Rancho Piedra Blanca performed on September 25, 1842:

“Having concluded the measurement and marked out the limits and boundaries without having appeared any party opposing in the presence of all the concerning parties I took Don Juan de Jesus Pico by his hand and clearly told him in the name of the Mexican Nation I do give you possession of the tract of land which was adjudicated to you and has been measured; and he answering that he took it. I directed that in some way he should display the domain and ownership he had to the said tract and he, as absolute owner in demonstration of the direct domain he had, and of his being the landlord of that land, pulled some herbs and threw some stones – wherewith the act was concluded; which I noted as a record.”

The fact that Pico “pulled some herbs and threw some stones” proved his ownership of the rancho because it was assumed that no Mexican gentleman would ever harm property belonging to someone else. Therefore, if Pico harmed the property, it must belong to him.

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