The Coastal Post - October, 1996

California's Mexican Lands Were Saved By Gringo Attorneys For Themselves


In spite of the fact that the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo which ended the Mexican-American War and granted that the Mexican-Californians would keep all their lands, by 1866 all of the Marin grantees had lost their lands.

"That it belonged to somebody under Mexican title was preposterous," said the newly-found Californians, who won the war in 1848. "This was U.S. territory, won on the battlefield, and as U.S. citizens they felt that it was rightfully theirs," wrote Jack Mason in the forward to his book Early Marin. "The history of the land in Marin is one of broken promises, litigation and injustice nurtured on political expediency."

The Mexicans lost their land in various ways by selling the land to Americans, and by astounding legal costs, and by lawyers holding vast tracts of land in lieu of fees.

It seems to us today that everyone was trying to deny the Mexicans their land, which had been granted to them when Mexico ruled California before the war. Of course, this was over 150 years ago, and no one knows now what really happened, but the Mexicans at the time knew right well, and they feebly fought back.

They found a hero in William McKendree Gwin, who took their side. But the irony of it was he only made things worse. On March 3, 1851, the U.S. Senate passed Gwin's Act to Ascertain the Land Claims in California. The Act provided that three members appointed by the President (who at this time was Millard Fillmore) rule on land claims. A government land agent also sat in on the proceedings. The proceedings were very formal. Each side could appeal to the United States District Court and to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This automatically made the entire process extremely expensive, and only the wealthy ranchers could afford it. Historian John Hittel found a name for it.: An Act to Despoil Owners of Land under the Mexican Grants.

Gwin should have known better. He was an intelligent man, a former confidential secretary to President Andrew Jackson. His political know-how got him elected as one of California's two first federal senators. But his Act soon went awry, as only the wealthy could survive this legal marathon. And to make it even worse in Marin, the Court of Sessions levied very heavy property taxes, so that the owners sought to sell their lands.

"Asio sold his Point Reyes sobrante and got out. Pablo de la Guerra got out of Nicasio, as did John Cooper at Nicasio and San Quentin, Garcia at Olema, Briones at Boinas, Borques at Chileno Valley, Mea at Souluayulle, Mrs. Duartes at Buacola and the Indian Camilo at Olompali," wrote Jack Mason. All the original grantees were gone by 1866.

"In the midst of this lengthy legal process, most of the claimists went backrupt," wrote Dewey Livingston in Dairy Farming in Olema Valley, and he continued, "By the close of 1866, vast tracts of Marin County had fallen into the hands of San Francisco lawyers, while not one of the original rancher grantees remained to witness the nearly-completed American takeover of the land."

So Senator Gwin has only added to the Mexican problems. The Bolinas Rancho owner, Briones, sold half the side of Bolinas Lagoon to Isaac Morgan and got rooked because he got nothing for the land.

It's a sorry tale, and one we cannot be proud of. But it was way back then, and soon to be forgotten. There is not one word in the histories about the claims the Indians had, except they worked for the ranchers and were very patient. Today the claims of the Indians are becoming apparent and the Mexicans are listed as "illegal aliens."

A Touch Of Sutter's Fort


John Augustus Sutter is important in California's history, because he founded (although unknowingly) the state capital of Sacramento, and with his partner James Marshall, discovered gold in 1848.

Sutter was born of Swiss parents in a village of Germany not far from the Swiss border. He married Annette Dubead in 1826, and the next day she gave birth to a son. He was a refugee from the law, because of bankruptcy, but he pretended to greatness. His title, Captain, he made up, saying he had been in the service of Charles X of France. But it stood him in good stead when he came to America, because everyone thought he had been to a military academy and trained in the rites of warfare, which, of course, he had not. He was eternally optimistic about money. He always dreamed of founding a colony in which he would be an absolute ruler.

In the five years after he got to New York, he was a farmer in the St. Charles area of St. Louis, had spent four years in the Mississippi Valley, been to Santa Fe twice, traveling on the Santa Fe trail, but always without success and always on borrowed money. He was famous for not paying his bills.

From there he made the difficult trip, with the help of the Hudson Bay company to Fort Vancouver. From there he sailed to Hawaii, thinking that it would be easy to get a ship to San Francisco. (Remember that it wasn't easy to get to San Francisco in those days.) But the only ship he could find was going to Stika, Alaska, so he sailed on her anyway thinking he could at the very least get to continental America. He had acquired, mainly on credit, an arsenal of weapons, including two small cannons, five white men trained as mechanics, and eight native Hawaiians. Finally, they reached San Francisco harbor in 1839. Sutter was then 36 years old, and had left his wife and, by now, four children in Germany.

This time he was bound and determined to found a colony, or a fort, at least. He chartered two ships, the Isabella and the Nicholas, financed from some unknown source. He set out for what was then the rugged interior of northern California. At the juncture of the Sacramento and American rivers, where the city of Sacramento is today, they discharged their cargo.

This intrusion of white men into the Indian's ancestral hunting grounds upset the natives. At first, Sutter's men tried to answer with firearms. But Sutter, who was never lacking in courage, unarmed, spoke in Spanish (of which he had but feeble command), because he thought some of the Indians might have been trained in the missions. Some of them had, and to them he managed to explain that he and his party were on a peaceful mission, and that once the colony was established, the Indians could visit them. The Indians were reconciled to the settlers and didn't bother them after this explanation.

As the two ships sailed away, Sutter, who liked the military, even though he hadn't been trained in it, fired off a nine-gun salute on one of the cannons brought from Hawaii. The youthful captain of the Isabella wrote long afterwards, "This salute was the first echo of civilization in the primitive wilderness so soon to become...a great agricultural and commercial center."