Spanish Land Records for the United States
To promote settlement, the Spanish and Mexican governments liberally dispensed land grants. The procedure for obtaining a grant involved applying to the governor, who then sent an order of approval to a local officer to make an examination, survey, and appraisal of the land tract before placing it in the applicant’s possession. The notary recorded the receipt of the order and, with the commissioned officer and petitioner, certified the act. A visual inspection, survey, and demarcation of the tract was then made by the local officer, the applicant, appraisers, witnesses, and adjacent landowners. Finally, a written report of the proceedings, in which the applicant was put into possession, was prepared. All of these documents constituted the owner’s title, which for Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California had to be approved by the viceroy of New Spain at Mexico City.
Land record files, or expedientes, were archived locally and sent to Mexico City, New Orleans, or Cuba. During Spanish rule, local officials permitted settlers to occupy land long before the legal requirements had been fulfilled. Surveys were generally not made and title papers not completed, so the expedientes remained incomplete. Transfers, exchanges, donations, and partitions of land were made before the local alcalde or provincial governor, then recorded in their archives. Because boundaries of the grants were natural landmarks and very vague, and because final title papers were often not issued, controversies would inevitably arise. Disputes over titles to lands, boundaries, and water rights were heard by the same officials, and eventually those documents were filed in the same local archives.
Spanish land grant records contain a variety of documents, including the following:
- Acts of possession
- Boundary proceedings
- Circular letters
- Decisions and reports of the departmental assembly
- Claims for lands
- Controversies of land
- Confirmations of grants
- Distributions of estates
- Donations of lands
- Gifts and grants
- Grants of lead mines
- Inventories and partitions of estates
- Laws and regulations relating to lands
- Mining regulations
- Mining suits
- Orders for possession
- Orders for the settlement of towns
- Partitions of lands
- Petitions for land
- Petitions for permission to remove
- Powers of attorney
- Proceedings for locations
- Proceedings regarding contested wills
- Proceedings regarding the establishment of towns
- Proceedings regarding the settlement of estates
- Protests against the sale of lands
- Registrations of mines
- Revocations of grants
Beginning with Louisiana in 1803 and ending with the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, each of the former Spanish colonial areas were transferred to the United States as a result of treaties specifically providing for the legal recognition of titles to land owned by individual Spanish or Mexican citizens and others under Spanish and/or Mexican authority. Similarly, each treaty provided for the handing over of land title documents from Spanish archives to the American authorities. In most cases, such as in New Mexico, the archives were seized by the Americans at the time of conquest and retained in situ. In Florida, the withdrawing Spanish officials packed up the materials and shipped them back to Cuba.
In each of the former Spanish colonies, a board of land commissioners was established by the U.S. government for the purpose of evaluating land claims and determining their validity. As each board of commissioners completed its work on a claim, it filed a detailed report of its final determinations.
These procedures were followed in Texas without federal intervention as the determination of land claims was made initially by the Republic of Texas and, subsequently, as all public lands remained in the hands of the state after annexation by the state government of Texas. There, land records acquired by the General Land Office have been classified, indexed, and bound into 175 volumes, covering the years 1720 to 1836.
The two books mentioned previously by Henry Putney Beers will prove helpful in describing the great variety of land documents for all states but Florida. Those interested in Florida land records should consult Spanish Land Grants in Florida, Volume 1, Unconfirmed Claims: A–C.11 Each of the above sources describes existing documentation in land grant files and the process whereby the grant was reviewed and confirmed, as well as the history of the obtaining, retaining, or recapturing of the original Spanish documentation. Each also serves as a starting point for using these claims as they appear in the following:
- American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive of the Congress of the United States. 38 vols. Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1832–61.
- American State Papers: Public Lands and Claims. 9 vols. Reprint, Greenville, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, 1994.
- McMullin, Phillip W., ed. Grassroots of America, A Computerized Index to the American State Papers: Land Grants and Claims (1789–1837). Reprint, Conway, Ark.: Arkansas Research, 1990. Originally published 1972, by Gendex Corporation, Salt Lake City.
The short abstracts in the American State Papers do not adequately describe the potential richness of documentation of a land claim file, which may contain any, and in some fortunate circumstances all, of the following:
- A petition, generally in Spanish, to the Spanish governor requesting land.
- The governor’s order requesting testimony or information concerning the petitioner.
- Responsive documentation to the request for testimony, usually identifying family, slaves, ages, and other pertinent information concerning the ability to work the land.
- A certificate of service indicating the reason for the particular claim, generally showing military or public service by the petitioner.
- A grant by the governor or the captain general, and a notarial attestation thereof.
- In those cases where the grant of land was conditional, such as requiring cultivation and/or habitation for a certain time, there may follow a report on the fulfilling of the conditions and a granting of absolute property rights.
- A verification of the documentation in Spanish by the U.S. government official.
- A warrant or order of survey.
- The survey plat.
- Deeds of sales, gifts, wills, requests, and exchanges showing the subsequent passage of property from the original grant deed to the then current claimant.
- An application to the U.S. Board of Commissioners for recognition of the claim.
- The decree of the commissioners or proceedings of the U.S. courts approving or denying the claim.
It should be stressed that the specific documentation, order of presentation of the documents, and the very existence of documents will vary dramatically from one file to another, but the genealogical potential is so rich that it justifies the search.