Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali

Start watching
SoCal Update

SoCal Update

Start watching
a large damn with graffiti of a woman with a hammer on it, mountains in the background

Earth Focus Presents

Start watching
Southland Sessions

Southland Sessions

Start watching
Professor T

Professor T (Belgium)

Start watching
Artbound

Artbound

Start watching
Emma

Emma

Start watching
Guilt

Guilt

Start watching
Line of Separation Key Art.

Line of Separation

Start watching
Us

Us

Start watching
The Latino Experience

The Latino Experience

Start watching
Key Art of "Summer of Rockets" featuring Keeley Hawes and Toby Stephens.

Summer of Rockets

Start watching
Death in Paradise Series 10

Death in Paradise

Start watching
millionaire still

KCET Must See Movies

Start watching
Independent Lens

Independent Lens

Start watching
MJ250sC-show-poster2x3-Bflky7i.png

Tending Nature

Start watching
Earth Focus

Earth Focus

Start watching
City Rising

City Rising

Start watching
Lost LA

Lost LA

Start watching
Member
Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Learn about the many ways to support KCET.
Support Icon
Contact our Leadership, Advancement, Membership and Special Events teams.

How Rancho Owners Lost Their Land And Why That Matters Today

Support Provided By
spanishrancho_top.jpg

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. 

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.

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.

Support Provided By
Read More
Chiqui Diaz at work advocating to end social isolation | Courtesy of Chiqui Diaz

Youth Leaders Making a Difference Honored by The California Endowment

The Youth Awards was created in 2018 to recognize the impact youth voices have in creating change throughout California. Learn more about the positive work they're accomplishing throughout the state.
A 2011 crime scene in Tulare County, where one of Jose Martinez's victims was found. | Courtesy of Marion County Sherff’s Office via FOIA/Buzzfeed

California's Unincorporated Places Can Be Poor, Powerless — and the Perfect Place to Commit Murder

It's time to do better by communities that don’t even have local police to call, let alone defund.
Protesters confront police outside the 3rd Police Precinct on May 27, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota after the George Floyd killing | Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

In California, A History of Young, Powerful Voices in Journalism Emerge

In the Golden State, the youth have a long history of storytelling that uncovers little-heard narratives.