California Land Records

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This entry was originally written by Dwight A. Radford, Thelma Berkey Walsmith, and Nell Sachse Woodard for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
the California Family History Research series.
History of California
California Vital Records
Census Records for California
Background Sources for California
California Maps
California Land Records
California Probate Records
California Court Records
California Tax Records
California Cemetery Records
California Church Records
California Military Records
California Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
California Archives, Libraries, and Societies
California Immigration
California Naturalization
Ethnic Groups of California
California Gold Rush
California County Resources
Map of California


California is a Public-Domain State.

The earliest land records relate to the Spanish (1769–1822) and Mexican (1822–48) eras and are mostly in Spanish. During the Spanish period, California was divided into four districts for purposes of administration: San Diego in 1769, Monterey in 1770, San Francisco in 1776, and finally the district of Santa Barbara in 1782. The bulk of the surviving records are in the county recorders’ offices. The most notable collection of this period is undoubtedly the recorder’s collection (1781–1850) in Monterey County. It covers a multitude of proceedings as Monterey was the seat of government for Alta California. Santa Cruz has a similar set of documents (1797–1845), and the San Jose clerk’s archives hold various records from 1792.

For the period of Mexican jurisdiction, there are two major collections, one in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco, with the larger group of land records in San Francisco.

Under both the Spanish and Mexican regimes, land in California was allocated first to pueblos for the use of its towns and its inhabitants, second to presidios for use of the military in defending the citizenry and in keeping the peace, and third to the Catholic missions for the purpose of extending the church’s theology to the native population.

Almost as soon as the last of the edifices in the chain of missions was completed in 1833, the Mexican government secularized all mission lands (about one-sixth of Alta California) and allowed these lands to be bought for private use. By 1846 some 500 ranches were parceled out, generating numerous records and documents.

Spain had begun the practice of allowing concessions of private ranchos when, in 1784, Governor Pedro Fages bestowed ranchos upon three of his soldados de cuero (leather jacket troops) that he had led into California in 1769. These ranchos were San Rafael, San Pedro, and Los Nietos. By 1851, when the U.S. Board of Land Commissioners and the courts of record began hearing land claims cases, there were over 900 private land claims of named ranchos and an additional twenty-six unnamed grants. From 1851 through 1856, the Commission heard 813 cases in which title to over twelve million acres was decided. Of these, the board approved 520 claims and refused to recognize 273. Only a fraction of these decisions were overturned by the courts. Since the land commission met in San Francisco, a great hardship was created for the Southern California claimants. The California State Archives has a database of these records on its website (see California Archives, Libraries, and Societies).

Records pertaining to Spanish and Mexican land claims were bound into seven volumes by the U.S. Surveyor General’s office, a part of the Department of the Interior. For details, write to the U.S. Geological Survey Office, 119 National Center, Reston, VA 22092. The records of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM; Record Group 49), Private Land Claims No. 183, are located in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Robert Cowan writes in Ranchos of California: A List of Spanish Concessions, 1775–1822 and Mexican Grants, 1822–1846 (Los Angeles: Historical Society of Southern California, 1977) that there were 3,500 people in Alta California, and by the end of the Mexican administration in 1846, the population had increased to almost 7,000. The Alta California records for the period of the Mexican-American war (1846–48) may be found in the archives in Los Angeles, Monterey, San Francisco, and Sonoma counties.

During the Spanish and Mexican occupations, a government agent called the alcalde was the equivalent of our present-day mayor; however, his powers were greatly enhanced and his jurisdictions were singular in that he performed many functions not commonly associated with that office today. Several counties have preserved their alcades’ records for the period when California statehood became official. Counties with such records include Contra Costa, El Dorado, Marin, Monterey, Napa, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Sonoma, Sutter, and Yuba.

California is a public-domain land state (see pages []); consequently, land acquired by the U.S. Government in 1848 was disposed of by means of patents. The first of ten land offices opened in Benicia and Los Angeles in 1853. Those properties that continued to the final patent are indexed and on the Bureau of Land Management website www.glorecords.blm.gov. Patents and copies of tract books and maps are located at the BLM California State Office, 2800 Cottage Way, Ste. W-1834, Sacramento, CA 95825-1886 www.ca.blm.gov.

After the patent process the lands went into private hands and became a record of the county. These are filed with the county recorder for each county, with many on microfilm at the FHL.

Land records for sales between private individuals throughout the state begin with the formation of the county, with the possible exception of those counties where there have been unusual circumstances, such as the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. Contact the county recorder for the county in which the land is situated. In some instances the parent county must be searched as well.

The county recorder is usually in charge of land documents, except where the records are so old that they have been placed in an archive within the county or in the state archives in Sacramento. Ultimately, the county board of supervisors is responsible for the records and repositories. In order to chart the ownership of land in California, the records are executed with a “chain of title.” This record begins with the oldest entry of the land down to the most recent.

A compilation of indexes to real property owners was begun in the 1980s. In the alphabetical lists (for 1984, 1988, and 1989, available at the California State Library), a researcher can find the names and mailing addresses of all property owners. Because the state no longer allows open access to all driver’s license applications, and city and county directories are not available for all locations, the Property Owners Index is quite useful for tracing living persons.

Land Definitions

The following definitions will be useful for anyone conducting research in California.

Haciendas: Not widely used in California, it is the Mexican equivalent of rancho.

Ranchos: Land grants made by the government. The first one made in California was for 140 varas near Carmel. Of some 800 ranchos that were in existence when the U.S. government took possession of California, just over 500 were later confirmed by American courts.

Pueblos: Towns for civilian settlers, a tract four square leagues or 17,500 acres.

Presidios: Land granted for the use of the military to carry out its duties to defend the province against foreign invasion and to keep civil order. Title was actually passed in fee simple. Presidios were established in Santa Barbara, Monterey, San Diego, and San Francisco.

Missions: Land set aside for the use of the Roman Catholic Church in its work with the Indians native to the area. Title was not passed to the mission, nor to an individual. After the Act of Secularization, the missions were broken up and the lands were mostly granted to those making a petition to the government.

Districts: There were originally four districts set up for the administration of each province of Alta California, as mentioned earlier. Later, Los Angeles was added to the list. Each district had a presidio and a mission, although there might have been more than one mission in each.

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