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How Rancho Owners Lost Their Land And Why That Matters Today

Ed. Note: When Laws that Shaped L.A. columnist Jeremy Rosenberg asked Rachel Surls, Sustainable Food Systems Advisor at University of California Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles County, for her nomination of a key law, Surls emailed the below essay in reply. Rosenberg's voice returns to this space next week.

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.

Law: An Act to Ascertain and Settle Private Land Claims in the State of California (a.k.a. the "The California Land Act.")
Year: 1851
Jurisdiction: Federal
Nominated by: Rachel Surls

During the Spanish and Mexican era in California, those governments gave land to reward individuals -- sometimes for service in the military, sometimes as inducements to settle in what was considered a remote, undesirable outpost. 

Many of these grants of land were enormous, including land granted in the area around the San Gabriel Mission and the Pueblo of Los Angeles. For example, Manuel Nieto, who was a member of the De Portola expedition (the first land expedition into Alta California), received a grant of almost 300,000 acres in the 1780s. 

The grant was cut almost in half when the padres at the mission complained that its size cut excessively into the mission's grazing land. Even once downsized, however, this massive tract contained much of the modern day Los Angeles County cities of Downey, Lakewood, Long Beach, Norwalk, Santa Fe Springs and Whittier, as well as significant portions of modern day Orange County. 

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This and several other massive grants of land were made during the Spanish era and many more were made after 1821 when Mexico became independent from Spain.

These vast acreages were ranchos, where cattle were raised - the Los Angeles area economy was based on the hide and tallow trade. However, boundaries of these tracts of land were established with simple drawings that showed general boundaries of the property.

Surveys were conducted, but were approximate, often using trees, streams or boulders as boundary markers. This worked out okay in the Spanish and Mexican areas because there was simply so much land and so few people. Exact boundaries were not so important.

However, after Alta California became a territory of the United States in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the US-Mexico War, things changed.
There was political pressure to open up lands in the West for settlers.

Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had assured that Mexican era land claims would be honored, Congress passed the California Land Act, which created a board that would review all land titles from the Spanish and Mexican eras to determine if they were valid.

Hearings were held in San Francisco and went on for five years. Rancho owners had to prove by U.S. legal standards that they owned their land. Given the system of sketches and informal surveys used in the past, this was sometimes very difficult.

Owners of ranchos incurred high legal fees to present their cases and in the case of Los Angeles area ranchos, costs associated with travel to San Francisco, which was a long and difficult journey in those days. Many cases were drawn out in appeals. Many rancheros lost their land during this era or sold portions of it to pay legal fees. Sometimes lawyers accepted payment in land.

This law led in large part to the breakup of rancho lands that dominated the Los Angeles area landscape. Newfound availability of this land drew settlers who wanted to obtain smaller acreages for farming and helped to fuel a massive Los Angeles land boom in the 1880s.

The law also sparked the transformation of Los Angeles from a rancho economy to the beginnings of a more complex economy as land became available for other purposes.

For the rancheros and their families, however, it was often a tragic story of land and fortunes lost to a new government that had promised to protect them.

For more KCET Departures coverage of ranchos and 19th century developers, visit this page and then follow the links at the end of the article there.

To view a KCET Departures video interview with Rachel Surls, visit this page.

Top Image: Photograph of a map of the old Spanish and Mexican ranchos of Los Angeles County, drawn by Phil Leonard from information furnished by the Title Insurance and Trust Company, in an article by E. Palmer Conner that appeared in the Los Angeles Times for 10 May 1931. Photo by Charles C. Pierce, photo and photo caption courtesy USC Digital Libraries.

To suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via: arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page.

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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Two other relevant factors in the breakup of the large land grants: politically motivated land-case litigation, as in the case of the New Almaden Quicksilver Mine south of San Jose, where two titans of the Civil War era later to come, Edwin Stanton ("helicoptered" in to represent the U.S. Government) and Henry Halleck (representing the mine owners), fought a long battle of litigation; and the 100-year-severity winter rainfalls and floods of 1861-2 that wiped out much of the livelihoods of many of the large-scale cattle ranchers in the southern half of California.