In New Mexico as well as in Arizona the name of Will Tipton is inextricable linked to investigations of Spanish and Mexican land titles. Tipton knew the Spanish archives like no other and the Court of Private Land Claims [1891-1904] relied heavily on his expert testimony in many of their decisions. For better or for worse, his opinions had far reaching consequences. Who was Will Tipton?
William M. Tipton was born in February 1857 in McConnelsville, Ohio, where his father Thomas W. Tipton practiced law and was an ordained minister of the Methodist Episcopal church. Two years later the family moved to Brownville, a town on the banks of the Missouri River in the southeast corner of Nebraska, and here young Will crew up while his father served as the new state of Nebraska’s first U. S. Senator (1867-1875). He was still a child when in 1865 his sister Kate married Henry M. Atkinson, a future (1876-1883) surveyor general of New Mexico Territory.
Tipton probably came to New Mexico in 1875 to work as a surveyor for the General Land Office. A year later he married Felipa Gallegos, a native of Santa Fe who was raised in the household of José Manuel Gallegos (and said to have been his natural daughter). Gallegos was a giant in the Hispanic community and easily the most universally known man in the Territory. He was a former priest of Albuquerque’s San Felipe de Neri, had been suspended by Bishop Lamy and in 1867 had married. He had already been president of the Legislative Assembly when New Mexico was still under Mexican rule and in 1853/54 and 1871/72 was a delegate to the U.S. Congress.
Under Felipita’s influence Tipton soon became fluent in Spanish, which opened up to him the Hispanic culture of New Mexico and shaped his future. When Atkinson became surveyor general it gave him a unique opportunity to study the workings of the land office and to become a part of and advance it its hierachy. Under the tutelage of veteran translator David J. Miller he likewise became a translator and, after Miller’s death, custodian of the Spanish archives. By 1884 the studious Tipton was an expert on colonial Spanish handwriting and phraseology, paper, ink, seals and signatures, and was called upon by the courts as an authority in cases of suspected forgery.
In 1891 Congress created the Court of Private Land Claims (CPLC) and installed Matthew Given Reynolds, "a lawyer of splendid ability" to represent the United States before the Court. At Reynolds “urgent solicitation” the Attorney General appointed Tipton in 1892 as a special agent. Reynolds put him to work to compile a volume of Spanish and Mexican laws, which he accomplished with the cooperation of Henry Ossian Flipper, expert surveyor, associate of Albert B. Fall, and the first Negro graduate of West Point [Antepasados Nov. 1990]. This compilation was published in 1895 and became an important legal source for CPLC as well as for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Tipton also made a study of the so-called Cruzate grants that constituted the title of eleven of New Mexico’s Indian Pueblos, and after exhaustive research declared all of them to be spurious. But perhaps his most celebrated accomplishment was his investigations and subsequent testimony that in 1894 and 1895 exposed the forgeries of the documents that had been submitted by James Addison Reavis in the notorious Peralta swindle, by which Reavis claimed about twelve million acres of Arizona and New Mexico real estate. Tipton was able to show that genuine Spanish cedulas and other documents had been altered to make it appear that the king of Spain had made a huge grant to a certain Don Miguel Peralta, and that the said Peralta with his elaborate genealogy had never existed but was only a figment of Reavis’ scheming imagination.
In a report Matt Reynolds made in 1904 he had that to say about Will Tipton: ”No one rendered more valuable assistance than he. His accurate knowledge of Spanish, expert study of handwriting, thorough familiarity with land titles in the Southwest, and his acquaintance with the details of public survey, combined to make him conspicuously qualified for the work to which he was called…and it is not overestimating him to say that he was simply invaluable to the government.”
Tipton’s private life suffered a severe jolt in 1890 when his wife died, leaving him with an eight-year-old daughter. His marriage to Felipita had been an exceptrionally happy one, a fact attested to by southwestern ethnologist Adolph Bandelier who for some years was a close friend of the family.
Tipton resigned from CPLC in 1901 and went to the new U. S. possession of the Philippines to organize the government land department. In Manila he was again active as a handwriting expert and was called upon to testify in eight court-martial proceedings were the issues were the suspected forgeries of manuscripts. His testimony convicted the perpetrators. In Manila he remined about four years untill ill health caused by overwork and unfamiliar climate forced him to return to the United States. In 1907 he returned to the Interior Department as an inspector and special agent for the General Land office. In 1911/12 he was U. S. Deputy surveyor for the GLO, and later he accepted an offer to work for the State Land Commissioner in Santa Fe. He became a familiar figure to the local residents, who observed him cycling or walking between the capitol and his home in a quaint old house on DeVargas Street.
Tipton retired in 1921 and with his second wife Alice moved to a ranch in Santa Clara County,California there to spend his golden years in growing prunes. A higher power intervened, and after undergoing a surgical procedure he died suddenly on December 15, 1922 in San Jose.