California Land Claims Act

After the Mexican American War, Mexican American land owners in United States territory began to lose their land at a disheartening pace. Either through fraud or force, Mexicans living in United States regions were often stripped of their rights to their land.

Looking for a hero, Mexicans Americans believed they found one in William McKendree Gwin, who sympathized with their land claims. In 1851, the United States Senate passed Gwin’s Act to Ascertain the Land Claims in California. The Act mandated that three members appointed by the President rule on land claims. The proceedings were formal, and either side could appeal to the U.S. District Court and to the U.S. Supreme Court.

While intended to secure fair treatment of Mexicans’ land claims, the bill actually worked in the reverse. Since either side could appeal a court decision, the process of protecting one’s land became very expensive. In essence, only the wealthy ranchers could afford the lengthy legal process. Many of the people with legitimate claims to land went bankrupt under the tremendous legal costs. Often, the land fell into the hands of the claimants’ lawyers who acquired the land as payment for their fees. Mexicans’ hopes of equality under the California Land Claims Act were squashed. Moreover, landowners became the victims of American squatters who would take their lands piece by piece through violent means.

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