‘The Enormous Thefts of Texas Lands’ by Gustavus Myers from International Socialist Review. Vol. 12 No. 7. January, 1912.

‘The Enormous Thefts of Texas Lands: A Statement of Facts for the Large Number of Tenant Farmers in Texas’ by Gustavus Myers from International Socialist Review. Vol. 12 No. 7. January, 1912.

YOU tenant farmers of Texas tilling soil, not an inch of which you own, wonder how it is that vast stretches of land are owned by capitalist landlords, frequently absentee proprietors. To them the results of your labor flow.

They do nothing; you do everything; but they own the basis of your existence, and you own nothing worthy of mention. The work that you do is for their benefit. How has it come about that they have the power of compelling you to turn over the bulk of the fruits of your produce to them? They are a part of the system that has put you in bondage, not the whole part, however. Land is essential, but so are all of the varied tools of production, necessities and means of transportation and communication indispensable to modern life. But primarily you are yoked to the land.



Because the land proprietors hold paper titles to the land you cultivate. Backed by the law, the courts and, if necessary, by armed force, these paper titles are more powerful than iron chains. Yet so worthless at bottom are these paper titles that if they were to disappear the proprietary capitalists would have nothing to prove their ownership which they hold not by useful occupation, but purely by a fiction of law. How and when and where did they or their predecessors get those paper titles? This article will tell you.

The State of Texas contains 274,356 square miles, or 175,587,840 acres—an area exceeding that of the original thirteen states. Long before Texas became detached from Mexican rule, the gigantic thefts of its lands began. Starting in the year 1821, when Texas was still a province of Mexico, various promoters or colonization contractors (‘‘empressarios”) came forward with large plans of loot.

Ostensibly, they publicly professed to be moved by a noble desire to colonize the Texas wastes. But one quality could not be claimed by most of them. That was the quality of “patriotism.” Some of the contractors were Mexican, but the larger number were Americans, and a more predacious crew of capitalistic adventurers it was impossible to meet. The Mexican officials, lax, corrupt or secret accomplices, were more than accommodating. They grossly violated the Mexican laws, and fraudulently gave away great domains on mere promises of fulfilling certain conditions which were never carried out./

From 1821 to 1832 thirty-three of these colonization contracts were made covering tens of millions of acres of the finest lands in eastern, southern and middle Texas.

A number of the contractors were American politicians and capitalists who, after obtaining by fraud all of the land that they could get east of the Mississippi, had moved on to pillage Texas. Some of them were heads of great land syndicates grabbing areas in different places at the same time. Among the colonization contractors were Moses Austin, Stephen Burnet, Joseph Vehlein, Lorenzo D. Zavala, Benjamin R. Milam, John L. Woodbury, John Cameron, General Thomas J. Chambers, Hewitson, Powers and others. Considering what followed, it is well to keep some of these names in mind.

Each of these contractors or colonizing corporations was under contract to introduce so many specified families as settlers. According to the terms of these contracts or concessions, each bona-fide colonist was to get the ownership of a league and a labor of land (about 4,605 acres) and the “empressarios’ were to receive, as compensation for their colonization work, certain stated premium lands.

The moment these contracts were signed, fraud on an immense scale began. In the first place, many of the contractors at once sold their immense concessions to groups of New York, Boston and other Eastern capitalists.

Thus the Burnet, Zavala and Vehlein contracts became the property of a corporation calling itself the “Galveston Bay and Texas Land Company.” The huge frauds committed by this corporation, at the head of which was Michael B. Menard, are described at length in the “History of the Supreme Court of the United States.” The records reveal how it bribed land commissioners, stole vast areas of agricultural and timber lands and on one occasion boldly took 1,700 acres of water front property in Galveston.

The officers of the “Galveston Bay and Texas Land Company” were such New York politicians and capitalists as General John T. Mason, George Griswold, Stephen Whitney, Dudley Selden and others. Whitney “made” $7,000,000, largely in his land operations, and all of the others got rich. Griswold was at the time concerned in an enormous successful grab of a claim of 1,200,000 acres in Florida.

Another New York corporation formed to exploit fraudulent Mexican concessions was the “Colorado and Red River Land Company,” with offices at No. 8 Wall street, New York City. This company based its claims upon the colonization contracts made by the Mexican officials with J.C. Beale. It computed the area in its grants at twenty millions acres.

These absentee capitalists had, of course, to make a show of introducing some settlers. A number of the capitalists were owners of packet lines bringing over immigrants from Europe. Numbers of immigrants were dumped into Texas, but instead of their getting the land each was entitled to, the settlers were usually compelled to sign a contract giving back one-half of their land to the contractors.

Lorenzo de Zavala.

The number of settlers brought in, however, was insignificant compared to the immense number of fictitious awards made in the names of settlers that never existed or in the names of dummy settlers.

When the colonization contracts were made, commissioners were appointed by the Mexican authorities to determine and award lands to the settlers and premium lands to the contractors. The notorious Samuel M. Williams, forger or abettor of forgery, adventurer and swindler, was the commissioner for the Austin colony; the almost equally notorious George A. Nixon acted in the same capacity for the Burnet, Zavala and Vehlein grants: the likewise corrupt William H. Steele for the Nashville Company’s colony; the commissioner for Martin DeLeon’s colony was DeLeon’s brother. Other corrupt commissioners acted for other colonization grants.

The frauds committed at this time by these men, as was later proved by a legislative committee, were enormous. They were, in fact, so gigantic that the grabbers saw that the only way to retain the tens of millions of acres that they were stealing was to overthrow Mexican rule. Not a single one of their contracts or concessions was legal; forgery and theft had been committed on a vast scale. The fear that the central Mexican Government would sooner or later declare their fraudulent operations null and void, made the capitalists concerned nervous. They began to plot for the separation of Texas.

General John T. Mason.

These were the men who were behind the movement for Texas independence. It was they who engineered the agitation, and it was they who supplied the chief incentive.

The records show that the Mason-Whitney-Williams combination advanced much of the money to Texas for carrying on the war for independence. This money was part of the proceeds of their land thefts. They were richly repaid for their “patriotism”; they received from Texas 1,329,000 acres of its finest lands for their money advances. But this was far from being all of their “returns” for their glowing patriotism. Some of them made contracts to supply soldiers and ammunition. They never did so, but that omission did not prevent them from getting more land for these alleged services.

Their fears that if Texas remained under Mexican rule their huge thefts of land would be annulled, were only too well grounded. General Santa Anna, president of Mexico, did, in fact, issue two sweeping decrees in 1853-1854 denouncing the vast concessions of land hitherto made as fraudulent. He declared them null and void, and ordered their restoration to the Mexican Republic. But by that time Texas as well as California and other territory had been wrested from Mexican rule.

When the Texas Republic was established what happened? Many of the foremost land grabbers, or their associates, men such as Burnet and Milam, became the head officials of the Texas Republic. It was a land grabbers’ government.

If the frauds had been small, doubtless the Texas constitutional convention of 1836 would have said nothing. But so stupendous were the frauds, and so many millions of acres had been stolen by absentee capitalists, that the convention tried to confiscate the plunder. Section D of the constitution prohibited any but citizens of Texas from holding land except by direct title from the republic. Section I was designed to annul an immense grant fraudulently given by the legislature of Coahuila and Texas to General John T. Mason. Under this spurious grant, “the enormous amount of eleven hundred leagues of land [nearly five million acres] had been claimed by sun- dry individuals, some of whom reside in foreign countries, and are not citizens of the republic.” These grants, it was declared, were contrary to the laws of Mexico and were pronounced null and void.

But the grants were never voided. Why? Because the Supreme Court of the United States held in a certain case that before a constitutional clause could become effective a specific legislative enactment was necessary to carry it into force. The grabbers, being themselves members of the Texas congress, took good care that no such legislative act was passed.

By 1838 not less than 20,000,000 acres of land had been patented under colonization contracts and various other grants. The report of a Texas congressional investigating committee disclosed the details of the stupendous frauds consummated. Of these details a few examples will be given here.

Samuel M. Williams and two associates had made a claim for, and received, four hundred leagues of land (1,771,200 acres) in Nacogdoches, Red River and Harrison counties. For what? They agreed to supply a thousand men to fight the Indians. But John P. Borden, commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, testified that Williams and his associates had supplied only forty-one men. This being so, how was it that title papers to four hundred leagues were given? Borden was forced to admit two facts. One was that the title papers were forged; the other fact was that Borden had received a present from Williams of ten leagues of land, and each of Borden’s two brothers had been the recipient of a gift of a league of land.

The commissioner for giving titles at Nacogdoches was one Aldrete. Although it was proved that he was an impostor and had no real authority, yet in 1833-1834 Aldrete had issued titles to 1504 leagues of land (666,414 acres) in Liberty, Houston and Red River counties to alleged colonists. And who as commissioner had issued titles to John T. Mason? None other than the notorious Colonel James Bowie, of Arkansas land fraud fame, and on pretended authority, at that in the year 1835 alone, Bowie had presented Mason with titles to ninety-five leagues of land (410,660 acres) in Harrison and Nacogdoches counties.


General T.J. Chambers made a claim for “judicial services.” He succeeded in get- ting sixteen leagues of land on one occasion, and twenty-three leagues on another (altogether 171,692 acres), near Waco and in other sections. Titles were issued to Chambers, although the former Governor Viecsa testified that he had never authorized the concessions.

David G. Burnet.

George A. Nixon, commissioner for issuing titles, granted titles in 1834-35 to eight hundred and seventy-one leagues of land (nearly four million acres) in Libby, Jefferson, Jasper, Sabine, Nacogdoches, San Augustine, Houston and Montgomery counties to the “Galveston Bay and Texas Land Company” on the Burnet-Vehlein-Zavala contracts. Nixon himself received a gift of eleven leagues of land by order of Steele, title commissioner for the Nashville Company.

E.L.R. Wheelock, a surveyor, testified that in 1835 he accused Steele of acting without authority in giving titles, and that thereupon Steele became greatly agitated and refused to show the documents upon which he pretended to base his authority. Steele invited Wheelock “to join them in a combination to let no man who came have land, unless it was poor or refuse land, unless they would let one of the company clear it out on shares.” Wheelock swore that Steele tried to bribe him with an offer of seven leagues of land to turn over to Steele all of his field notes in blank.

A typical example of how land was granted to bogus colonists was that of the commissioner for the DeLeon Colony, who gave his own son, Francisco DeLeon, a grant of a quarter of a league of land, and made an affidavit that Francisco possessed all of the requisite qualifications, although, as a matter of fact, Francisco was only a boy of ten years of age, and was attending school in Louisiana at the time.

Borden, commissioner of the General Land Office of Texas, gave the investigating committee an itemized list of a huge number of forged and antedated titles in the Nashville, Vehlein, Burnet, Zavala, Cameron and other grants. Not less than 22,492,507 acres of the very best lands in eastern, southern and middle Texas were permanently alienated into the private ownership of a few capitalists by means of the fraudulent methods which have been here given. The original papers in the cases of these fraudulent titles were carried off or destroyed, so there later was no eventual way of proving the forgeries.

Stephen Austin.

In 1842 more colonization contracts were made with Castro, Mercer and Peter. Not one of them carried out their contracts; the alleged settlers that they introduced were, as Governor Pease reported, bogus settlers; a large majority of the affidavits were made out in the names of boys of fifteen, sixteen and seventeen years old. Nevertheless, bills were lobbied through the Texas legislature in 1850 and 1852 by which the Castro, Mercer and Peter companies received a total of 4,496,806 acres.

Immense numbers of fraudulent land certificates were issued under the act of 1837 giving bounties and donations to soldiers of the Texas war for independence. Few of the soldiers ever got any land, but millions of acres were grabbed by combinations of capitalists and politicians, including judges and other United States officials. When, in 1855, a move was under way to expose these colossal frauds, the Adjutant General’s office at Austin, where many of the land archives were stored, was set on fire one night and burnt down. Thus the evidences of the frauds were destroyed.

These are but the merest glimpses of the crushing array of facts described at great length in the author’s “History of the Supreme Court of the United States.” In that work the details are given in full, with the references from the legislative and court records. By the year 1858 fully 68,000,000 acres of Texas lands had been patented to individuals, mostly absentee capitalists. It was during the years in question that the lands in the older settled parts of Texas were stolen. But the thefts have continued elsewhere in Texas to this very day. Among many other facts dealing with more recent times, the “History of the Supreme Court of the United States” describes how those multimillionaires, the Farwells, of Chicago, got away with 3,000,000 acres of Texas land for the contract for erecting the state capitol at Austin, which was built largely with convict labor.

Capitalism is theft. Its property represents theft. If you seek to abolish theft, abolish the cause. This cause is the capitalist system. And will you ever consent to pay the holders to recover what they or their predecessors obtained by forgery, perjury, force, fraud and theft?

The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v12n07-jan-1912-ISR-riaz-ocr.pdf

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