‘The Grabbing of California Lands’ by Gustavus Myers from International Socialist Review. Vol. 12 No. 11. May, 1912.

‘The Grabbing of California Lands’ by Gustavus Myers from International Socialist Review. Vol. 12 No. 11. May, 1912.

A Statement of Facts for the Tenant Farmers In California

THIS article is especially addressed to you tenant farmers of California, although the information it contains is of value to the whole of the working class of which you are a part. You, like the industrial workers of the towns and cities, have been dispossessed from the land, which is to say you have to pay heavy tribute for the privilege of occupying it. True, you till the soil and make it yield the harvests, but the bulk of your labor and produce goes to the proprietors. This, however, is not a strange condition, for under the existing capitalist system those who do the work of the world get nothing but a precarious existence, while they who hold the paper titles to railroads, industries, utilities and land reap the extravagant rewards and profits. The one class becomes paupers, the other millionaires and billionaires.

Have no illusions as to what the ownership of the capitalists is based upon. It is not founded upon labor or service. You ought to know that fact. It is not based upon any principle of equity or justice. It is based purely and wholly upon certain paper titles which the Law, the great institution of Law, recognizes as valid. How these paper titles were obtained—whether by perjury, forgery, fraud, force or theft—is of no concern in the majestic eye of Law. The sufficient thing is that they are legal titles. Over and over again, the Supreme Court of the United States has declared this in plain language. In a noted decision, the late Justice Brewer declared that it was immaterial how an owner got his property. “He may have made his fortune by dealing in slaves, as a lobbyist, or in any other way obnoxious to public condemnation, but if he has acquired the legal title to his property, he is protected in its possession, and cannot be disturbed until the receipt of the actual cash value.”

The frankness of this declaration was refreshing. There was no pretense that any ethical considerations were a mission of Law, or a part of Law. The laws were arranged to protect fraud and force—when committed in the name of property. Naturally. All capitalist property is the product of fraud and force, and obviously the courts, which represent capitalist institutions, must weave their decisions and precedents to justify those thefts.

So it is that paper titles to property are your shackles. Back of the courts are police, sheriff’s deputies, militia and army all in readiness to use clubs, bayonets and machine guns to execute the court’s decrees. It is this array of massed force that gives the paper titles the power that they have; otherwise they would be no more than waste paper. Holding these paper titles in the form of stocks, bonds and deeds, even suckling infantile heirs of capitalists can and do own vast possessions, and have armies of profit producers working for them. This is no jest but a stern reality. In gilded nurseries today there squat multi-millionaire infants for whose benefit tens of thousands of men, women and children are drudging and killing themselves in factories and mines and on farms and railroads.

How did those who own the land you cultivate get their paper titles? You will learn some of the original and hitherto unrelated facts in this article. All of the facts related here are taken from the official and court records, and in the author’s forthcoming “History of the Supreme Court of the United States,” are described in great detail, with abundant references to documentary records.

When California was about to pass from Mexican rule to the authority of the United States, the business of forging land-grant deeds was carried on more briskly than ever before. Literally, it was a business. As United States Attorney-General Black reported to Congress in 1860: “The archives thus collected furnished irresistible proof that there has been an organized system of fabricating land titles carried on for a long time by Mexican officials; that forgery and perjury had been reduced to a regular occupation, that the making of false grants, with the subornation of false witnesses to prove them had become a trade and a business.” The grants in most of these fraudulent cases, Attorney-General Black reported further, “were very skillfully got up, and were supported by the positive oaths, not merely of obscure men whose characters were presumed to be fair, but also by the testimony of distinguished men who had occupied high social and political places under the former governors.”

Mexican authority in California was overthrown on July 7, 1846. But, as Justices Davis, Clifford and Swayne, of the Supreme Court of the United States, said in a dissenting opinion in 1869, “the history of the times made it clear to every intelligent man for a considerable period before this date that the country would pass to the jurisdiction of the United States.” It was during this time that a large number of great grants of land were made by the acting Mexican Governor, Pio Pico, and other alleged grants were forged and antedated as having been given by previous Mexican governors.

By the year 1850 there was a fine assemblage of alleged land grants submitted to the United States Board of Land Commissioners. They were impressively drawn up, carried official signatures and seals and looked proper enough. One thing only they lacked, and that was final confirmation by the United States authorities. They were not modest grants. Altogether, they purported to give away millions of acres of the finest lands on the coast. Some of the pushers of these grants did not care about agriculture and had no such end in view. Gold had been discovered in California, and the great aim was to get as much land as possible upon the supposition that gold was everywhere. Other claimants wanted big areas for grazing purposes.

Manuel Micheltorena.

Familiar with the fraudulent origin of most of these alleged grants, the United States Boards of Land Commissioners and the United States District Courts in California refused to confirm many of them. Indeed, it looked as though nearly all of them would be thrown out as spurious. But the real holders of many of the bogus grants were some of the most powerful politicians in the country. General John C. Fremont turned up with a claim for a “floating grant” for ten square leagues (44,386.33 acres). Fremont claimed that the Mexican Governor Micheltorena had made this grant in 1844 to Juan B. Alvarado, from whom he (Fremont) claimed to have bought it. By “floating grant” was meant one with boundaries not described, but with power to locate anywhere.

The Government contested Fremont’s claim, asserting it to be invalid. But the Supreme Court of the United States, in 1854, confirmed it, accepting Fremont’s fraudulent excuse that “Indian hostilities” had prevented the settlement called for by Mexican laws. When Fremont bought this claim he was—in 1850-51—a United States Senator from California. Two years after winning the case he became, in 1856, the candidate of the Republican party for the presidency.

This grant, as we have seen, was alleged to have been given by Governor Micheltorena. In the hearings in 1858, on the great fraudulent Limantour claims six of the eight of which professed to cover 924 square miles, and which claims Judge Hoffman at San Francisco threw out of court on the ground of proved forgery, certain remarkable facts were brought out. It was shown that a great number of blank grants with the names of Governors Micheltorena and Bocanegra attached, or purporting to be attached, on genuine Mexican government stamped paper of the years 1842 and 1843 had been extensively in circulation in California for years. These blanks had been used for the purpose of fabricating grants to land.


Doubtless Fremont’s claim was filled out on one of these blanks. But it had been validated by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1854, and that case served as the leading precedent which the land commissioners and courts in California were compelled to follow. Under the “principles” established by the Supreme Court of the Fremont case, the courts in California were forced immediately to validate a number of other great land grant claims.

Among these confirmed grants were Charles D. Semple’s to eleven leagues of land on the Sacramento River; George C. Yount’s to ten square leagues in Colusa County; Hiram Grimes’ claim to eight leagues of land in San Joaquin County; Juan Pachecho’s claim to eleven leagues in Mariposa County; Andreas Pico’s claim (one of a number of his claims) to eleven leagues in Calaveras County; Thomas O. Larkin’s claim to eleven square leagues on the west bank of the Sacramento River; the Chambolla claim to eight leagues in San Joaquin County, and Antonio Maria Pico’s claim to eight leagues in the same county; James Noe’s claim to five leagues in Yolo County, and many other claims of the same character.

In all, these particular claims comprised more than 550,000 acres of the richest and most accessible lands in California. In confirming them Judge Hoff- man made severe comments upon their origin, and more than hinted that if he did not have to follow the ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States in the Fremont case, he would have rejected most of them as fraudulent. Indeed, after Judge Hoffman had confirmed Andreas Pico’s claim, United States Attorney-General Stanton later presented evidence to the Supreme Court of the United States showing that Governor Pio Pico had never made any such grant to his brother, Andreas Pico. “It is a forgery,” Stanton declared in Court. “The proof of this is powerful and overwhelming.” In the face of this proof the Supreme Court could not avoid invalidating this particular claim. But most of the other claims were never voided.

Land Claims in the Bay Area.

A few notorious claims were kicked out of court, but not until their promoters had exhausted every possible resource and had persistently fought the Government from court to court. The secretary of the Acting Mexican Governor Pio Pico had been one Moreno. “Gomez, Abrego and Moreno,” reported the House (Congressional) Committee on Claims, in 1869, “are equally notorious for the forgeries and perjuries in which they have been concerned. Gomez and Abrego were the chief instruments in the false swearing in the great Limantour swindle. Abrego had been a witness to support thirty-two, and Gomez, twelve, claims, most of which were ascertained to be frauds or forgeries.”

The Luco claim to 270,000 acres was thrown out of court. So was Cambuston’s claim to eleven square leagues on the upper waters of the Sacramento River. Likewise was Boulton’s claim to 10,000 acres of land in the vicinity of San Francisco. These claims were proved to be forgeries. So, too, was Rafael Garcia’s claim to nine leagues of land; Garcia swore that the grant emanated from Governor Micheltorena, but it was a forgery. The heirs of Augustin Deyturbide claimed four hundred square leagues. This claim was rejected by the Supreme Court of the United States, but only upon the technical ground that the claimants had not filed their appeal in the prescribed time.

These were some examples of rejected claims. In many cases they were contested not so much because of their obvious fraudulent character, but because they conflicted with the aims of powerful politicians, individual capitalists or corporations. The reason that the Limantour claims were fought so hard and fin- ally exposed and voided was because they conflicted with claims and property of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and other large land holders.

Now and then, in the case of some too glaring fraud, the Supreme Court of the United States dared not sanction the claim. In 1853, Vincent Gomez applied for a confirmation of an alleged claim of four leagues of land. Who was his attorney? None other than Pacificus Ord, the United States District Attorney at San Francisco. In 1859, Attorney-General Black proved to the Supreme Court of the United States that Gomez had conveyed one-half of the tract to Ord, when the latter was district attorney. The claim was then thrown out.

Sacramento River claims.

In fact, there were few Government officials, including judges, who were not interested, like Ord, in the great looting in process. The records show this. The scandal became so great that Congress subsequently passed a special act forbidding judges to sit in land cases in which they were interested. It may be said that Judge Hoffman was one of the very few honest judges.

Year after year the Supreme Court of the United States went on confirming private land claims alleged to have been granted by Mexican governors. Juan Jose Gonzales claimed a tract of one league in length, and three-quarters of a league in breadth; he had only one witness to prove the genuineness of his claim, but his title was confirmed. Pearson B. Reading came forward with a claim for six square leagues on the Sacramento River. This claim was alleged to have been signed by Micheltorena. Reading professed to have been a Mexican citizen, yet he had served in the war against Mexico. The principal pusher of the Reading claim was Lewis Cass. This was the same Cass, who as Governor of Michigan Territory, had been bribed by John Jacob Astor, in 1817, and who was in the United States Senate in 1845-1848. He was the Democratic candidate for president in 1848. The majority of the Supreme Court of the United States, in 1855, confirmed the Reading claim.

At the same time the same court validated other similar claims. The Arguelto claim to twelve square leagues bordering on the Bay of San Francisco, and extending back to the mountains, was validated, despite the fact that the Mexican laws had expressly prohibited the granting of sea-coast territory. The Vaca and Pena claim to a large tract on the Sacramento river, and the Larkin-Misroon claim to a tract eleven leagues long and a league wide on the same river, were validated by the Supreme Court.

Then came the validation of the large and rich Peralta claim of five leagues, running south from the Bay of San Francisco over the town of Oakland, and east to the mountains. This was an alleged Micheltorena grant. The Pedrorena claim to eleven leagues in San Diego County was also confirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States; this claim was based upon an alleged grant made by Pio Pico, in 1845. The Castillero claim was next validated. It covered a large tract near Santa Clara, and included the rich New Alamaden quicksilver mine then producing a total of $1,000,000 a year.

Nearly nine million acres of the very best and richest lands in California were appropriated by a few looters who got them wholly on grants alleged to have been made by Mexican governors. The methods are described in full in the “History of the Supreme Court of the United States,” but a few more examples will be to the point here.

During and after the Civil War the Supreme Court kept on validating California land claims. The Supreme Court allowed John A. Sutter to get away with eleven square leagues in Sacramento County and Marysville, although all that Sutter could produce in support of his claim was an order alleged to have been made by the Mexican Governor Alvarado, in 1841, extended by Governor Michentorena, in 1845. The great Throckmorton claim came before the Supreme Court of the United States in 1878. The original pusher of this claim had been W. A. Richardson who had been officially exposed as a notorious perjurer. This claim purported to be a grant from Micheltorena; the Government charged that the papers were forged. But the Supreme Court validated the claim.

So 8,850,143.56 acres of California lands went. It is possible that a few of the private land claims purported to have been given by Mexican governors were genuine, but it is certain that the great majority of them were forgeries. A total of 588 claims were confirmed. We shall here recall Justice Brewer’s declaration given in the opening part of this article. The significance of that declaration will be more fully seen when it is explained that Brewer was the nephew of Justice Field who had been pushed for the Supreme Court Bench by Leland Stanford of the Central and the Southern Pacific railroads. Field was known as the “protector of the land interests.”


In addition to the nearly 9,000,000 acres described above, the railroads obtained a total of about 13,218,895 acres in California. The methods by which they secured this enormous area, and their successive briberies of Congress and the California Legislature, are related in detail in the author’s “History of the Great American Fortunes.”

More millions of acres of the very choicest lands were corruptly obtained by capitalists on the representation that they were “swamp lands.” The “Swamp Land Investigating Committee” of the California Legislature reported in detail, in 1873, how by means of fraudulent surveying and other official connivance, vast areas of the very best lands were practically given away under the pretense that they were “swamp lands.” Often, the committee reported, “they would postpone all investigations until the height of the floods, during the rainy season, when surveyors, in interest with themselves, would be sent to make out reports as to the ‘swamp’ character of the land…The simple presence of the water is all that is necessary to show to the speculators that the land is ‘swamp’ and it therefore presents an inviting opportunity for this grasping cupidity.” These are merely a few of a great mass of facts of how the land in California was stolen. It is a strong word—is stolen—but considering the facts, it is the exact word. The land robbers got the land, and you have to pay their successors for the mere privilege of cultivating or living on a small part of it. This is the way the capitalist system works. Those who steal in petty ways outside the law go to prison, but pirates who take care to annex the law become the respectable of society, and command the labor and produce of tens of millions like you. How much longer will you uphold this system? Is it not time that it was smashed—it and all of its institutions?

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 issue:https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v12n11-may-1912-gog-Corn.pdf

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