THE LAND PROBLEM
CHAPTER 19

Under Hispanic law, land ownership had been the basis for measuring a person’s wealth and status. Land in the New World belonged solely to the crown. The king, however, had authorized a few California land grants to deserving colonists. Later, under the Mexican colonization law of 1824, the number of these grants increased to more than 800. The expense to grantees for such properties seldom exceeded the equivalent of $12. By the time of the American conquest, almost 14 million acres had been granted to rancheros by both Spanish and Mexican officials. A few of these claims were gargantuan; one covered 1,775,000 acres.

In 1846, the last year of the Mexican era, eighty-seven rancho grants were made by Governor Pico alone, mostly to personal friends. Although the U.S. and Mexican Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed protection and security to landowners, invading American land seekers were appalled at the size of such grants. Two different legal traditions, the Spanish and the American, were about to collide, this at a time when old-time Californios came under extreme pressure to change their way of life. Rancheros had, perhaps for too long, clung to their silver-trimmed saddles and horsemanship. The times were changing, and swiftly.

After 1850, rancheros were stuck with herds of stunted cattle on overgrazed pastures. These animals had to be sold at prohibitively low prices because of rising costs. The rancheros also faced fierce competition from American cattle drovers who herded stronger Texas Longhorns into the new state. Land-hungry American squatters also challenged virtually any ranchero’s right to hold huge grants intact. These avaricious newcomers, oblivious to personal property rights, roamed about the countryside, moving their covered wagons onto rancho tracts, using up scarce water, as well as grazing areas as

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