Land Grants After the Mexican War

The war between the United States and Mexico was formally ended when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed on February 2, 1848. Article X of this treaty stated, in part, “All grants of land made by the Mexican government or by the competent authorities, in territories previously appertaining to Mexico, and remaining for the future within the limits of the United States, shall be respected as valid, to the same extent that the same grants would be valid, if the said territories had remained within the limits of Mexico.” Simply stated, if one owned a land grant issued by the Mexican government before the war, and that grant was within the boundaries of the United States after the war, both nations agreed that the grant ownership would continue undisturbed.

By the time the treaty had been ratified by both governments, Article X was stricken from the treaty by the United States. Shortly thereafter, California Senator William M. Gwin introduced a bill in congress that eventually became law on March 3, 1851. Commonly referred to as the Land Act of 1851, it established the three-member Board of Land Commissioners to adjudicate land holdings in California. While the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had stated that “All grants…shall be respected as valid…”, The Land Act of 1851 stated that these lands were to be considered in possession of the U.S. Government until a patent was issued to the holder of the grant.

Each holder of a Mexican Land Grant was required to submit his title to the board for confirmation within two years. This preliminary confirmation was followed by an indefinite period within which the claim could be disputed as most claims were. When, and if, the board was satisfied that the claim was valid and all disputes had been resolved to its satisfaction, a final confirmation was issued. Even this “final confirmation” was often appealed to the U. S. District Court and, occasionally to the U. S. Supreme Court.

Once the final confirmation was received, the owner, at his own expense, had to have the property surveyed by a U. S. government surveyor. Under the Mexican government, surveys were done in an approximate manner by untrained personnel using natural landmarks such as creeks and mountains. U. S. government surveys were performed by trained surveyors using transits and chains and were quite accurate. Once completed, the survey had to be confirmed by the Board of Land Commissioners and submitted to the General Land Office in Washington, DC, who then issued a patent transferring ownership of the land from the U.S. Government to the recipient.

The entire process, from submitting the title to the Board of Land Commissioners to receiving a patent, took an average of 17 years. In the Cambria area, patents were issued for the Rancho Santa Rosa and the Rancho San Simeon in 1865 and for the Rancho Piedra Blanca in 1876. The owner needed to hire surveyors and lawyers and, since virtually none of the rancho owners spoke English, they also required translators. Claimants were required to appear in person before the Board which, with one exception, always met in San Francisco. The process, along with the advent of property taxes in the county in 1859 and a severe drought in the early 1860s, caused most rancho owners to have to sell all or part of their property to remain solvent.

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