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The Spanish, and later the Mexican, government encouraged settlement of Alta Californiamarker by the establishment of large land grants, many of which were later turned into ranchos, devoted to the raising of cattle and sheep. The owners of these ranchos patterned themselves after the landed gentry in Spain. Their workers included some Native Americans who had learned to speak Spanish and to ride horses. Of the 800-plus grants, Spain made about 30. The remainder were granted by Mexico. The ranchos established land-use patterns that are recognizable in the Californiamarker of today.

Spanish era

During Spanish rule (1769-1821), the ranchos were concessions from the Spanish crown, permitting settlement and granting grazing rights on specific tracts of land, while retaining title with the crown. The ranchos, that is, the settement by individuals of tracts of land outside Presidio and Pueblo boundaries, began in 1784, when Juan Jose Dominguez got permission from Spanish governor Pedro Fages to put his cattle on the Rancho San Pedromarker. The land concessions were usually measured in leagues. A league of land would encompass a square that is one Spanish league on each side - approximately .

List of Spanish era concessions

(Listed chronologically by date of concession)
Concession Date Grantor Grantee Size Location County
San Pedromarker 1784 Pedro Fages Juan Jose Dominguez San Pedro, Torrancemarker, Redondo Beachmarker, Hermosa Beachmarker, Manhattan Beachmarker, Lomitamarker, Gardenamarker, Harbor Citymarker, Wilmingtonmarker, Carsonmarker, Comptonmarker Los Angeles
Los Nietosmarker 1784 Pedro Fages Manuel Nieto Long Beachmarker, Lakewoodmarker, Downeymarker, Norwalkmarker, Santa Fe Springsmarker, Whittiermarker, Fullertonmarker, Huntington Beachmarker, Seal Beachmarker, Anaheimmarker, Buena Parkmarker, Garden Grovemarker, Artesiamarker, Cerritosmarker Orangemarker
San Rafaelmarker 1784 Pedro Fages José María Verdugo Atwater Villagemarker, Eagle Rockmarker, Glassell Parkmarker, Glendalemarker, Highland Parkmarker Los Angeles
Nuestra Señora del Refugiomarker 1794 José Francisco Ortega Refugio State Beach Santa Barbaramarker
Los Felizmarker 1795 Pedro Fages Jose Vicente Feliz Los Angelesmarker, Los Felizmarker Los Angeles
Simimarker 1795 Diego de Borica Patrico, Miguel, and Francisco Javier Pico Simi Valleymarker, Moorparkmarker Venturamarker
Buena Vistamarker 1795 Jose Maria Soberanes & Joaquin Castro Spreckelsmarker Montereymarker
Las Salinasmarker 1795 Antonio Aceves and Antonio Romero Montereymarker, Salinasmarker Montereymarker
Las Pulgasmarker 1795 Diego de Borica José Dario Argüello San Mateomarker, Belmontmarker, San Carlosmarker, Redwood Citymarker, Athertonmarker, Menlo Parkmarker San Mateomarker
Las Virgenesmarker 1802 José Joaquín de Arrillaga Miguel Ortega Agoura Hillsmarker, Oak Parkmarker, Westlake Villagemarker Los Angeles
El Conejomarker 1802 Ygnacio Rodriguez and Jose Polanco Newbury Parkmarker, Thousand Oaksmarker, Lake Sherwoodmarker, Westlake Villagemarker, Oak Parkmarker Venturamarker
Topanga Malibu Sequitmarker 1802 José Bartolomé Tapia Malibumarker Los Angeles
Las Animasmarker 1803 Feliz Berenguer Mariano Castro Gilroymarker Santa Claramarker
Los Palos Verdes 1809 José Dolores Sepúlveda Part of Rancho San Pedromarker Los Angeles
San Ysidromarker 1809 José Joaquín de Arrillaga Ygnacio Ortega Gilroymarker Santa Claramarker
San Antoniomarker 1810 Antonio María Lugo Bellmarker, Bell Gardensmarker, Commercemarker, Cudahymarker, East Los Angelesmarker, Lynwoodmarker, Montebellomarker, South Gatemarker, Vernonmarker Los Angeles
Santiago de Santa Anamarker 1810 José Antonio Yorba & Juan Pablo Peralta Santa Anamarker, El Modenamarker, Orangemarker, Irvinemarker, Costa Mesamarker, Tustinmarker, Olivemarker. Orangemarker
La Ballonamarker 1819 Machado and Talamantes families Culver Citymarker, Inglewoodmarker, Marina del Reymarker, Palmsmarker, Playa del Reymarker, Santa Monicamarker (Ocean Park Dist), Venicemarker Los Angeles
San Antoniomarker 1820 Pablo Vicente de Solá Luís María Peralta Albanymarker, Alamedamarker, Berkeleymarker, Emeryvillemarker, Oaklandmarker, Piedmontmarker, San Leandromarker Alameda
Rincon de los Bueyesmarker 1821 Pablo Vicente de Solá Bernardo Higuera and Cornelio Lopez Cheviot Hills, Rancho Parkmarker, Culver Citymarker, Baldwin Hillsmarker Los Angeles
Vega del Rio del Pajaromarker 1821 Pablo Vicente de Solá Antonio Maria Castro Montereymarker, Watsonvillemarker Montereymarker
Los Tularcitosmarker 1821 Pablo Vicente de Solá José Higuera Milpitasmarker Santa Claramarker
Sausal Redondomarker 1821 Antonio Ygnacio Avila Manhattan Beachmarker, Lawndale Beachmarker, Hermosa Beachmarker Los Angeles

Mexican era

Sketch map or diseño of Rancho Providencia, 1840s.
It was not until the Mexican era (1821-1846) that the land was actually granted to individuals. In 1821, Mexico achieved its independence from Spain, and California came under control of the Mexican government. The 1824 Mexican Colony Law established rules for petitioning for a land grants in California; and by 1828, the rules for establishing land grants were codified in the Mexican Reglamento (Regulation). The Acts sought to break the monopoly of the missions and also paved the way for additional settlers to California by making land grants easier to obtain. The procedure included a 'diseno' - a hand drawn topological map. The Mexican Governors of Alta California gained the power to grant state lands, and many of the Spanish concessions were subsequently patented under Mexican law.

Through the Secularization Act of 1833, the Mexican government repossessed most of the lands that had been provided to the missions by the Spanish crown. Secularization was implemented between 1834 and 1836. The padres could only keep the church, priest's quarters and priest's garden. A commissioner would oversee the crops and herds, while the land was divided up as communal pasture, a town plot, and individual plots for each Indian family.

The number of Mexican land grants greatly increased after the secularization of the California missions in 1834. Although the original intent of the secularization legislation was to have the property divided among former mission Indians, most of the grants were made to influential Californios of Spanish background.

The Mexican grants were provisional. The boundaries had to be officially surveyed and marked. The grantee could not subdivide or rent out the land. The land had to be used and cultivated. A residential house had to be built within a year. Public roads crossing through the property could not be closed. If the provisional conditions were not met, the land grant could be 'denounced' by another party who could then claim the land.

American era

The United States declared war against Mexico on May 13, 1846. Action in California began with the Bear Flag Revoltmarker on June 15, 1846, and armed resistance ended in California with the Treaty of Cahuenga signed on January 13, 1847. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the war, was signed February 2, 1848 and California became a Territory of the United States. Between 1847-49, California was run by the U.S. military. A constitutional convention met in Montereymarker in September 1849, and set up a state government that operated for 10 months before California was admitted to the Union as the 31st State by Congress as part of the Compromise of 1850, enacted on September 9, 1850.

Gold rush

While the end of the 1840s saw the close of Mexican control over Alta California, this period also marked the beginning of the rancheros’ greatest prosperity. Cattle had been raised primarily for their hides and for the tallow, as there was no market for large quantities of beef. This dramatically changed with the onset of the Gold Rush as thousands of miners and other fortune seekers flooded into California. These newcomers had to be fed and cattle prices soared and the rancheros enjoyed the halcyon days of Hispanic California.

Land claims

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo provided that the Mexican land grants would be honored. In order to investigate and confirm titles in California, American officials acquired the provincial records of the Spanish and Mexican governments in Monterey.

Sponsored by California Senator William M. Gwin, the US Congress in 1851 passed "An Act to Ascertain and Settle Private Land Claims in the State of California". The Act required all holders of Spanish and Mexican land grants to present their title for confirmation before the Board of California Land Commissioners. Contrary to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, this Act placed the burden of proof of title on landholders. In many cases the land grants had been made without closely defining the exact boundaries. Even in cases where the boundaries were more specific, many markers had been destroyed before accurate surveys could be made. Aside from indefinite survey lines, the Land Commission had to determine whether or not the grantees had fulfilled the requirements of the Mexican colonization laws. While 604 of the 813 claims brought before the Land Commission were confirmed, most decisions were appealed to US District Court and some on to the Supreme Courtmarker. The confirmation process required lawyers, translators, and surveyors, and took an average of 17 years (with American Civil War (1861–1865)) to resolve. It proved expensive to defend the titles through the court system. In many cases, land was sold to pay for defense fees (or given to attorneys in lieu of payment).

Land from titles not confirmed became part of the public domain, and available for homesteaders, who could claim up to plots in accordance with federal homestead law. Rejected land claims resulted in claimants, squatters, and settlers pressing Congress to change the rules. Under the Pre-emption Act of 1841, owners were able to "pre-empt" their portions of the grant, and acquire title for $1.25 an acre up to a maximum of . Beginning with Rancho Suscolmarker in 1863, special acts of Congress were passed that allowed certain claimants to pre-empt their land - without regard to acreage. By 1866 this privilege was extended to all owners of rejected claims.


The rancheros were land rich and cash poor, and the burden of attempting to defend their claims was often financially overwhelming. Land passed from the grantees as a result of mortgage default, in payment of attorney fees or for other personal debts owed; and land was lost also as a result of fraud. Combined with a sharp decline cattle prices, the floods of 1861 - 1862, and droughts of 1863 - 1864, forced many of the over extended rancheros to sell their properties to Americans who often quickly sub divided the land and sold it to new settlers who came to California and began farming.

A further shift in economic dominance from cattle raising to grain farming was marked by the passage of the California "No-Fence Law" in 1874. This was actually the repeal of the Trespass Act of 1850, which had required farmers to protect their planted fields from free-ranging cattle. The repeal of the Act required that the rancher fence his stock in, rather than the farmer fence them out. The ranchers were faced with either the enormous expense of fencing large grazing tracts or selling their cattle at ruinous prices.


The ranchos established land use patterns that are still recognizable in the California of today.

List of Ranchos of California

See also

Notes and references

  1. California's Ranching History 1774-1848
  2. Cleland, Robert, 1975, The Cattle on a Thousand Hills: Southern California, 1850-1880, The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.
  3. Secularization Of The Missions
  4. Davis, William Heath. (1929) Seventy-five Years in San Francisco - Missions and their Wealth; Hacendados and Their Property
  5. The California Missions
  6. The California Cattle Boom, 1849-1862
  7. Beck, Warren A. and Ynez D. Haase, Historical Atlas of California, first edition, p. 24
  8. Spanish and Mexican Land Grant Maps, 1855-1875
  9. Paul W Gates, 1971,The California Land Act of 1851, California Historical Society, Vol. 50, No. 4 (Dec., 1971), pp. 395-430
  10. Ranchos of California: Extracts from Grants of land in California made by Spanish or Mexican authorities, by Cris Perez
  11. Report of the Surveyor General 1844 -1886
  12. Adjudication of Private Land Claims in California, circa 1852-1892
  13. Paul W Gates, 2002,Land and Law in California: Essays on Land Policies, Purdue University Press, ISBN 9781557532732
  14. Gordon Morris Bakken, 2000, Law in the western United States, University of Oklahoma Press, ISBN 9780806132150
  15. Leonard Pitt, Ramon A. Gutierrez, 1999,Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californias, 1846-1890, University of California Press,ISBN 978-0520219588
  16. Ludeke, John. "The No Fence Law of 1874: Victory for San Joaquin Valley Farmers." California History 59, no. 2 (1980): 98-115.
  17. Decimation of the Herds, 1870-1912

Further reading

  • Avina, Rose H. (1976). Spanish and Mexican Land Grants in California, Arno Press, New York.
  • Baker, Charles C. (1914). Mexican Land Grants in California, Historical Society of Southern California, Vol IX, pp. 236-243
  • Becker, Robert H. (1969). Designs on the land : disenos of California ranchos and their makers. San Francisco, Book Club of California.

External links

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