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The Public Land Commission
Digital History ID 572

Author:   Public Land Commission

Annotation: Following the discovery of gold in California in 1848, thousands of prospectors trespassed on Californio land--and demanded the land for themselves. To determine the validity of Spanish and Mexican land grants in California, Congress set up a Board of Land Commissioners. Unless grantees presented in two years evidence supporting their title, the property would automatically pass into the public domain. Although the Land Commission eventually confirmed 604 of 813 claims, the cost of litigation forced most Californios to lose their lands. Government attorneys appealed 417 claims (out of 813). It appealed some claims as many as six times. Appeals dragged out land cases for an average of seventeen years.

Because most Anglo-Americans lived in northern California and most Californios in southern California, there was talk of dividing the territory into two. But a land boom in the 1870s spurred by construction of a transcontinental railroad into southern California brought an influx of Anglo-Americans into the southern part of the state. By 1880, Anglo-Americans constituted a majority of southern California's population.

In 1869, Pablo de la Guerra, a Californio landholder who had signed the California Constitution, ran for district judge. His opponents challenged his right to office on the grounds that Congress had failed formally to grant citizenship to de la Guerra or other Californios. In the landmark case of People v. de la Guerra (1870), the California Supreme Court upheld de la Guerra's right to run for public office arguing that when California was admitted as a state former Mexican nationals had become citizens.

The Public Land Commission acknowledges here the injustices that Mexican American landowners suffered.

Document: In California, Congress, by the acts of March 3, 1851, June 14, 1860, July 1, 1864, and July 23, 1866, provided machinery for the ascertainment and settlement of these claims, which has resulted in their final confirmation or rejection and in their subsequent segregation from the adjacent public lands. Questions of title were settled by the Federal courts, and authority to segregate claims judicially confirmed was vested in the proper executive officers of the United States.

But in the remainder of the territory derived from Mexico a different mode for settling private land claims was prescribed. The basis of such settlement is the eighth section of the act of July 22, 1854, which made it the duty of the surveyor-general to "ascertain the origin, nature, character, and extent of all claims to lands under the laws, usages, and customs of Spain and Mexico," and to report his conclusions to Congress for its direct action upon the question of confirmation or rejection. The law was singularly defective in machinery for its administration, and it imposed no limitation of time in the presentation of claims, and no penalty for failure to present. Its operation has been a failure amounting to a denial of justice both to claimants and to the United States. After the lapse of nearly thirty years, more than one thousand claims have been filed with the surveyor-general, of which less than one hundred and fifty have been reported to Congress, and of the number reported Congress has finally acted upon only seventy-one. Under the law, only copies of the original title papers were submitted to Congress, and it is not presumed that its committees are so constituted as to make safe judicial findings upon the validity of titles emanating from foreign Governments, nor to measure the era of claims whose boundaries rest exclusively upon meager recital of natural objects in term of very general description. As a consequence the committees of Congress have naturally been reluctant to act with insufficient data upon questions which involved the functions of the judge rather than of the legislator, and as these claims have heretofore pertained to a semi-foreign population in a comparatively unsettled portion of our Territories, business of more importance to the general welfare of the nation has been permitted to exclude these local matters from regular consideration. In the limited number of cases finally confirmed, Congress has been compelled to confirm by terms of general description, which have usually proved to include much greater areas of land than Congress would knowingly have confirmed. The established rule of area under the Mexican colonization law was a maximum of eleven leagues to a claimant, being a little less than 50,000 acres; but as illustrations of the natural result of confirmation without proper judicial investigation, one confirmation by Congress to two claimants has proved to embrace 1,000,000 acres and another about 1,800,000 acres.

Source: U.S. Congress. Recommendation of the Public Land Commission for Legislation as to Private Land Claims, 46th Congress, 2nd Session, 1880, House Executive Document 46, pp. 1116-17.

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