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What Happened to the Californios After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war between the United States and Mexico, which lasted from 1846 to 1848.* By winning the war, the United States gained most of what is today the American southwest. What was not clear was exactly how the provisions of the treaty concerning property ownership would be administered.

American newcomers to California feared fraudulent land claims by Mexican land-grant holders. There was some reason for this fear. For example, one land-grant claim by Jose Limantour to part of the city of San Francisco proved to be a fraud. Throughout the entire period of translating the old Mexican land holding system to a new American one, suspicion of fraud clouded the proceedings.

A federal act passed in 1851 [California Land Act of 1851] set up a system to settle land grant disputes in the courts. A special Board of Land Commissioners was set up to review land claims. This system assumed that no land grant existed unless the claiming party could prove its existence by documentation. Many Californio families had long since misplaced any official documents establishing their claims. English speaking lawyers had to be hired by Californio landholders in carrying such cases before the Land Commission [located in San Francisco].

American land law was very precise, with real estate ownership described in scientific terms by means of surveying instruments. Mexican land law was more artistic, with properties defined as existing south of one group of mountains and north of a river, or west of a wash and east of a heap of cattle bones. Californio landowners had to hire surveyors to translate their holdings into precise measurements.

Californio landowners had to travel to faraway San Francisco to have their case argued by expensive lawyers. All of these things cost money, which they did not have. To raise the necessary funds to defend their claims, they had to sell parts of their holdings to speculators, who got them cheaply because the legal title had not yet been established.

Even if a Californio landowner won his case before the Land Commission [and most did], the size of their holdings had been shrunk to pay attorney fees and other expenses. Also, even after the U.S. government acknowledged the legality of a land grant, the owner then had to deal with often-violent Anglo-American squatters who set up farming illegally on their lands. Gun fights between owners and squatters often left the owner dead.

Additionally, the California legislature created a tax structure to raise most of its money through high real-estate taxes. Its motive in this policy was to break up large estates not being put to “productive use.”

Map of the land area under negotiations
Adapted from an article by Ward McAfee, CSU San Bernardino, Emeritus