De-Evolution: Individual Property Rights, Communal Property Rights, and Mexican Land Grants in California and New Mexico, 1821-1925



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The standard narrative of Spanish and Mexican land grants in California and New Mexico concludes that after the Mexican-American War the U.S. federal government deliberately, consistently, and systematically dispossessed non-Anglo land grant claimants in an inherently corrupt and racist process. This dissertation complicates this narrative through an analysis of judicial and economic outcomes for Anglo, Hispanic, and Pueblo land grant claimants; and a case study analysis of selected individual and communal (ejido) land grants. Also, a discussion of trans-national connections between the U.S. and Mexico regarding land grant legislation and the influence of anti-corporate utilitarian thought on liberal legal philosophy provides important context.This dissertation explores the importance of timing on the judicial and economic success of land grant claimants in California and New Mexico. Placing events and outcomes concerning land grants into three separate eras between 1850 and 1925 reveals an evolving judicial philosophy that explains significant differences in the success of land grant claimants in each period. The first era takes place between 1850 and 1877. During this period, the success or failure of land grant claims were based on the validity of legal contracts between the grantee and the Spanish or Mexican government, local Mexican custom, perceived intent of the Mexican government when issuing land grants, and oral testimony. Hispanic, Anglo, and Pueblo land grant claimants whose land grants were adjudicated during this period were generally successful in receiving confirmations to their claims and generally achieved long term economic success. The second era takes place between 1877 and 1897. During this period, the success or failure of land grant claims were based on the validity of legal contracts between the grantee and the Spanish or Mexican government and a strict interpretation of the terms of the grant. While confirmations were more difficult to obtain during this period, contract supremacy remained central to court rulings. This was a period of transition as a more complex version of white supremacy, anti-corporate ideology, and anti-monopolist ideology were adopted at the local, state, and federal levels of government. All three sentiments favored the rejection of remaining Spanish and Mexican land grant claims. However, the federal judiciary continued to protect the property rights of Anglo, Hispanic, and Pueblo individuals and communities by minimizing the impact of increasingly racist and anti-corporate state and federal legislation. The third era takes place between 1897 and 1925. During this period, the U.S. federal court adjudication of land grants was increasingly influenced by anti-corporate utilitarianism. This led to the rejection of both individual and communal (ejido) land grant claims that disproportionately disadvantaged Hispanic land grant claimants. After 1897, U.S. federal courts also no longer provided legal protection from state and local level regulation that specifically targeted multiple minority groups attempting to achieve economic success through land ownership.