Permanent Hispanic settlement in today’s Arizona did not take place until 1752, when a presidio was established at Tubac, only to be relocated in 1776 forty miles north to Tucson. Under the uncertain protection of a weak Spanish garrison, rancheros attempted to raise livestock in the valleys of the Santa Cruz and San Pedro Rivers. The hostility of the Apaches eventually led to the abandonment of these rancherias, so that by the time of American acquisition in the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 only Tucson had Hispanic settlers. Originally referred to as Pimeria Alta, after Mexican independence all lands south of the Gila River became a part of the State of Sonora.
When Arizona was separated from New Mexico Territory in 1863, its surveys and the investigation of its land grants remained the responsibility of the Surveyor General in Santa Fe until March 1867, the year that Arizona came briefly under the authority of the Surveyor General of California. The Territory got its own Surveyor General by the Act of July 11, 1870, in which John Wasson was commissioned to serve in that capacity. In November of that year he opened his office in Tucson.
The heading of this article is somewhat misleading, because all land grants in Arizona have Mexican, rather than Spanish title. There might have been at least one truly Spanish grant, had not the heirs of Toribio Otero in 1893 relinquished their claim, which put the Otero Grant into the United States public domain. This was done in order to avoid the cost of having the grant confirmed by the Court of Private Land Claims [CPLC], a sad reflection on the intimidating and expensive rules adopted by that judicial body in violation of the peace treaty. Of the eighteen Arizona cases brought before the Court for confirmation only eight were eventually approved. In discussing these cases I omit the brazenly fraudulent Peralta claim it being nothing but a fantasy. I also omit Arizona’s two Baca Floats (#3 and #5), because they are American era in-lieu selections for the Las Vegas Grant that was granted in northeastern New Mexico and not in Arizona.
As for the small Otero Grant, Toribio Otero had received title in 1789 to a house-lot and four suertes (suerte: an area of 276 x 552 varas, or about 26.4 acres) of farming land. The grant had been made by the commander of Tubac under a 1772 Spanish regulation that allowed him to grant up to four leagues (17,354 acres) of land near the presidio to attract settlers. Under the terms of the grant, Otero had to keep arms and horses for defensive purposes, but by 1838 had abandoned his land because of the hostilities of the Apaches.
In 1820 and 1821, the last years of Spanish rule in Mexico, four additional grants were applied for. The first of these was the San Ignacio de la Canoa Grant, located on both sides of Interstate 19 south of Green Valley (that town is in the northwest corner of the grant). In 1820 two brothers petitioned the governor of Sonora/Sinaloa for four leagues (sitios) to raise cattle and horses. Title was issued by Mexico in 1849 and CPLC confirmed the grant in 1899.
The San Bernardino Grant south of Bisbee was also applied for in 1820. Ignacio de Perez, a Spanish lieutenant, applied for and paid $90 for the four leagues, and had the grant surveyed in 1821. It was recorded in Arizpe, Sonora but no title was ever issued by Mexico. Most of the grant is located south of the border and CPLC confirmed only the 2,383 acres that are on the American side.
Southwest of Patagonia is the San José de Sonoita Grant, the smallest grant made in Arizona. It was applied for in 1821 by Leon Herreras, a resident of Tubac, who had it surveyed and who received title in 1825 for 7,598 acres. CPLC rejected that title on the grounds that the treasurer of Sonora had no authority to sell land in that area, but in a rare instant of siding with a claimant the U. S. Supreme Court overturned the rejection. However the Court confirmed only 5,123 acres because the remainder overlaps Baca Float #3, even though the latter was not located until 1863. So much for the doctrine of senior rights.
The last application under Spanish government was made in 1821 for the San Rafael de la Zanja Grant just to the north of the Mexican border, east of the Patagonia Mountains. The four-league grant was sold at public auction for $1,297 and title was issued by Mexico in 1825. CPLC confirmed the grant in 1902 but the dissatisfied American owners appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, were they lost their greedy argument that four square- leagues really should be interpreted to mean a square measuring four leagues (10.41 miles) on each side.
Between 1831 and 1844 the Mexican state of Sonora issued title to ten additional grants, only four of which were approved by CPLC. The four confirmed grants were the Maria Santísima del Carmen (Buena Vista Grant), the San Ignacio del Babocomari, the San Juan de las Boquillas y Nogales, and the San Rafael del Valle grants. The Buena Vista Grant straddles the international boundary just east of Nogales and two thirds of it is in Mexico. – The San Ignacio Grant looks on a map like a twenty miles long boomerang north and west of Fort Huachuca. The petitioners paid in 1827 all of $380 for the nearly fifty-three square miles of the grant, about a penny an acre for what may be the best grazing land in Arizona. – The San Juan Grant is located along the San Pedro River west of Tombstone and is adjoined three miles further to the south by the San Rafael Grant. Both grants were originally applied for in 1827 and title was issued in 1833 and 1832 respectively. The San Rafael Grant was at first rejected by CPLC because of a short lived edict by Mexican dictator Santa Anna that required a review of all grants by the central government in Mexico City, but the rejection was overturned in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The remaining six Mexican grants were rejected by CPLC. All of the rejection decisions were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court where CPLC was upheld. For two of them, the Agua Prieta Grant and the San Pedro Grant, the Court ruled that they are located in their entirety in Mexico, their American purchasers only claiming confirmation of the “overplus”, an area outside of the grants that under Spanish and Mexican law could be used for grazing but was not considered to be a part of the grant. Two others, the Arivaca Grant and the Los Nogales de Elías Grant had never been surveyed and could not be located, even though the latter had documents that showed intend as to location. The last two, the Tumacacori Grant and the Calabazas Grant were rejected on the grounds that the granting Governor of Sonora had no authority to sell the Mexican public domain.
In addition, CPLC had been asked to approve two grants for which no title had ever been issued by Mexico. One of them, called El Sopori had no written foundation and its claimants, the Sopori Land and Mining Co. had submitted forged title documents. The second, Tres Alamos was more specific. A group of promoters had in 1831 petitioned for 58 leagues (393 square miles) of colonization grant and had received approval, but the Apaches made settlement impossible and the grant was voided by Mexico because it had never been occupied.
Finally there was the El Paso de los Algodones Grant, an oddball for several reasons. For one, it had supposedly been made in 1838 for five leagues located on the Colorado River below the confluence of the Gila, a desert that could not be occupied because of Indian hostilities. This was held to be the reason the grant papers called for no time limit for occupation but specified “… as soon as the circumstances… may permit…” Surveyor General John Wasson recommended rejection, stating, “… that the title papers are forged and ante-dated.” Yet after the Congressional House Committee on Private Land Claims had agreed with him and rejected the grant, CPLC in 1893 at its first session in Tucson approved 21,692 acres of it.
The successful claimant lost no time selling deeds to settlers and to the Southern Pacific railroad. Outraged, leading Arizona politicians accused the CPLC of “bribery or stupidity” and the Government attorney appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. There, CPLC’s approval was overturned, again on the familiar grounds that the Governor of Sonora had no authority to grant the Mexican public domain. The claim that the grant was a fraud was never ruled on, and it took an act of Congress in 1901 to relieve the occupants.
For those readers who need help to place the Arizona grants in their minds eye: Set a transit on an imaginary tower in downtown Tucson and back-sight on the south-west corner of New Mexico; turn 90 degrees to your right and intersect the Mexican border. All of the approved Arizona grants are located in that triangle.