Insecure by Design: Property Rights of the Spanish Enlightenment in California, 1769 to 1810

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Insecure by Design: Property Rights of the Spanish Enlightenment in California, 1769 to 1810.

by Marie Christine Duggan, Keene State College,, April 16, 2015. Draft: not for quotation.

Research Question

The Alta California colony was founded by the Bourbons in 1769, two years after the expulsion of the Jesuits, and with a conscious goal of implementing reform. In contrast to twenty-first century faith that secure property rights promote society’s well-being, Spain’s Bourbon thinkers held that property rights must be insecure to achieve the common good. Modern readers may be familiar with the argument that eminent domain is a necessary power of government in a private property rights regime, but the Bourbon faith in insecure property went further than the justification for eminent domain. Where property rights are private and land can be sold or mortgaged or willed, the state’s authority to assert eminent domain is used to remove property from one private individual if it blocks the prosperity of a majority of the community (Lamoreaux 2011). By contrast, the Spanish state granted usufruct right to land temporarily and with conditions, in order to keep the loyalty of the grantee to state authority assured. In other words, for the Bourbons, prosperity was not defined as high private productivity, but rather by profound private loyalty to the state.

First, the logic of the argument for insecure property will be presented by outlining the Bourbon experiment at Sierra Morena (1767) and also by analyzing Juan Sempere y Guarinos’1803 text. This leads to a hypothesis about the purpose of property insecurity in Spanish California. A new dataset is then utilized to reconstruct the land-size of selected missions in California over time. Two recent developments in the field of anthropology are maps of pre-contact indigenous villages (Milliken 1995, Carrico 1997), and a database which provides the date Indians from each village were baptized into missions.1 This author’s particular contribution is to use the baptismal dates and the maps as a method of reconstructing mission boundaries over time. The maps are then used as a backdrop for exploring the disputes over insecure land-rights between the four sectors of Alta California: privileged military officials, rank-and-file veterans, mission Indian congregations, and the unconverted. Part IV concludes by reconsidering the Bourbon methods and intent.

Review of the Literature

Hernando de Soto is a well-known proponent of secure property rights as the solution to slow productivity growth in Latin America (2000, 2002). He pointed out that migrants of the 1970 to 1990 period seeking a better life in urban centers did not lack for work ethic. He noted the long hours that Andinos on the outskirts of Lima put into constructing their own adobe homes, and then installing pipes for water and sewage, and finally hooking each home to electricity. De Soto attributed the low net worth of these industrious people to the insecurity of their titles to this property. He contrasted the near impossibility of obtaining title in Lima with the situation of US homeowners who can use the title as the means of obtaining a mortgage loan with which they might found a business. He concluded that if each Andino head of household in a shantytown home could obtain a title, he or she could also obtain the capital to expand and regularize his or her informal business. The mystery of capital was then secure title in property; should such title be provided, capitalism would flourish in shantytowns across Latin America. If secure property rights could raise standard of living of so many by so much, then why would anyone stand in their way?

The institutional rules which two influential Bourbon Reformers set up at Sierra Morena in 1767 reveal a strong predilection for providing access to land, but with insecure titles. The fundamental problem that Pedro de Campomanes and Pablo de Olavide sought to resolve was joint “ownership” of the harvest by tiller and nobility. They wanted to incentivize a work ethic on the part of the tiller, and promote interest in the science of agricultural efficiency on the part of the nobility. Their method of aligning the interests of both was to permit nobility to charge rents, but the rents should be fixed for extremely long periods of time (emphyteusis). Such emphyteusis would impede landlords from raising rent in times of high grain prices, and permit the renting farmer to benefit instead (Perdices 1993, 126-27). The logic of incentivizing the tiller comes through, interesting the nobility in the science of agriculture was to be accomplished in other ways, such as the salon for elites which Olavide held in his home when he served as intendant of Seville.

In addition to incentivizing the work ethic of the tiller, Campomanes and Olavide also wanted to stem the rise of income inequality. No-one should be without land, as Campomanes puts it in the following quotation, content subjects should be rooted: Pedro de Campomanes (economic advisor to Carlos III) wrote in 1765, “in the partition of an inheritance among a group of heirs, one attempts to distribute real estate equally to each one for his greater permanence, and so that they can live rooted [arraigados] in their homes” (Campomanes 1765:2). Long-term access to land which would produce a reasonable harvest was meant to mitigate one end of the scale of inequality. To restrict the upper income side, the reformers put strict limits on how much land a tiller could retain. Campomanes and Olavide assigned each colonist a permanent and hereditary lease for a 50 fanega plot2 (Perdices 1993, 199-200; Herr 1989, 38); the property would remain that of the state, while the tillers would have secure usufruct rights. The usufruct rights were secure in that a poor harvest or a low price would not force the colonist to lose the land, and it seems likely that getting into arrears on the rent would have been tolerated as well. However, failure to cultivate would lead the state to evict the colonist (a penalty for poor work ethic). The colonist could not subdivide or mortgage his land, but he could sell it to another outsider that was acceptable to the community (he could not sell his plot to a neighbor, because that would double the neighbor’s plot to 100 Fanegas, which was unacceptable).

Finally, the colonists were meant to cultivate grains, and not to raise cattle in large herds. The Sierra Morena project was implemented in Andalusia, where large landowners with large herds of cattle dominated the landscape. The reformers wanted to reduce income and wealth inequality, and so were promoting small-holders. Each colonist had a few head of cattle, whose manure they were meant to incorporate into the fields where wheat and legumes would be planted. While adoption of innovations suggested by the leadership was promoted, the colonists themselves were not to further their educations; the point was to create a society of small-holders who were content with their lot.

The experiment indicates to us that reduced income inequality was a goal, that super-exploitation via high rents was condemned, that the nobility were meant to interest themselves in scientific advance, that land was meant generally to be inherited, rather than purchased. The ultimate owner of the land was the state, and for this reason the state would receive the “small fee.” So long as people continued to till the land, they would hold onto it, even if they did not pay the small fee. Selling the land would be difficult, because only outsiders of which the community approved could buy it. Failure to till would lead to exile from the community. We will see below that these property rights were largely identical to what was implemented in Bourbon California.

While Sierra Morena indicates by example that the Bourbons favored usufruct rights with conditions, the logic of the argument in favor of insecure property rights has to be inferred. Fortunately, the argument was put forward more directly by Juan Sempere y Guarinos in Spain in 1803. The policy problem was--in Sempere’s view--a nobility whose secure title to property had removed incentive to serve the King. Sempere called for a return to the property-rights systems in Spain’s past: the 7th century Visigoths, the 8th century medieval Kings, and even to aspects of Almoravid rule of the 14th century. The use of examples from the glorious past was the typical method of justifying innovation in 18th century Spain.

Under the early Visigoths, land held in common with fields rotated annually among members of the community (1803, 5). Rotation prevented men from becoming overly attached to land, thereby freeing them for service in war. Sempere also noted that rotations prevented “greed for money from which could arouse…factions” (ibid), and in doing so presages a distrust of desire for money in itself, which was characteristic also of Bourbon contemporaries such as Pedro de Campomanes. Sempere contrasts the hard-working subjects of Visigothic King Recesvinto (649-672) with his contemporary nobility to the latter’s detriment:

“In those days, there was no such thing as a purely consuming class, nor of a nobility with the privilege to do nothing, nor of enjoying fat rents without any corresponding obligations. Every nobleman was a soldier, and had to sally forth against the enemy in person…Even the bishops and other clergy…were not exempt from this most essential obligation of the nobility [i.e., to risk their lives in battle] (1803, 9).”3

Apparently, late 18th century Spain was rife with noblemen whose secure title to ‘fat rents’ undermined motivation to serve the King in war.

Sempere also lauds the system of reward-for-service implemented in the first half of Spain’s Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula from the Umayyad Caliphate (722 to 1492). Initially, the Reconquista involved a wise use of financial incentives to leverage desire for honor on the battlefield. For example, Soldiers were compensated for their wounds, so that they would not fear falling into poverty as a result of fighting (1803, 17). The King was entitled to one-fifth of the winnings, unless a wealthy man had contributed money and knights, in which case the King was to receive only half of his fifth, giving the contributor the other half. If the King had personally fought in the battle, his fifth was taken from the winnings before his men received their compensation for wounds. There were also prizes for exceedingly courageous and risky acts, such as saving the King’s life, or taking down the enemy flag. Sempere concludes that with these financial incentives for bravery in battle, “our monarchy could not help but be abundant in good soldiers and excellent officials” (1803, 19).

The nobility risked their own funds on the King’s battles: “The Spaniards of the Middle Ages made war, not for a state salary, or to cede [to the state] their conquests, but rather by common consent, and at their own cost. As a consequence they had a right to distribute amongst themselves the winnings, according to the effort and costs that each one contributed (1803, 16).” Sempere’s analysis of the property in the early Reconquista culminates in his ringing manifesto for the King’s right to use property to stimulate service: “Although honor is the prime mover of all true noble and loyal vassals, universal history teaches us that it generally influences human action in a lukewarm manner when it is not accompanied by self-interest (19).”

In the early Reconquista, “Most of the wealth of the crown consisted in lands and inheritances from conquests…These lands were given in usufruct or feudo to the lords and noblemen in return for military service, and once the possessors died, [the lands] returned to the crown, unless for some particular concession, the usufruct might be continued by their families” (1803, 31). Sempere contrasts lifetime usufruct rights to conquered land with two other possibilities: salaried military service, and the right for the soldier to bequeath the land. He opposed salaried soldiers on the grounds that military salaries tend to bankrupt the King (1803, 30). He condemned wills because they were a means for the land to be distributed away from the King’s vassals (the deceased’s relatives) and possibly to his enemies. In Sempere’s ideal world, land grants remain at the King’s discretion: “The goods of the crown could not be alienated as property. They could only be given in usufruct or fief for the lifetime of the giver, unless his successor confirmed it” (1803, 17). That the king had the power to take away what he had given is confirmed by a reference to Don Alfonso VII’s order in 1128 that lands given out to men be returned to church and crown as a means of putting down rebellious barons (20).

Yet the leverage of honor by means of financial incentives became distorted in the 11th century, after Christian victories became few and hard-won. The Christian capital of Spain, León, fell to Almanzor in 988. Once the city was back in Christian hands, it was difficult to persuade the King’s vassals to return. In 1020 a special privilege (fuero) was granted to holders of usufruct rights on royal lands in León to bequeath the usufruct to their children and grandchildren. During the seven long years spent of the battle for Toledo (reconquered 1085), the King offered a stream of income (sueldo) to his knights that could be bequeathed to their heirs. For Sempere, these grants for longer than one generation indicate that the Crown was dissipating its assets and beginning to lose the means to channel the ambition of future vassals towards honorable ends (1803, 46).

Sempere writes, “Without great incentives, there is no patriotism, loyalty, valor, nor exactitude in carrying out duties. To think about men working, they have to discomfort themselves, to sacrifice their goods and their lives for the state, they are not going to do this without well-founded expectations of great recompense. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand well the hearts of men” (1803, 47). One could easily misread this ringing statement as endorsement for the generous intergenerational rewards that the medieval Christian kings gave to their men in the battles for León and Toledo. But to do so would do a disservice to Sempere. Instead, he meant these words to explain that the King must retain ultimate ownership of land and streams of income, he must not dissipate them in overly generous grants, because his successors would need those resources to distribute as rewards for new services to ensure the loyalty of future generations.

Surprisingly, Sempere saw some virtue in the Almoravid property-rights structure: he attributed Moorish scientific advances to the fact that Almoravid landlords collected only 10 to 20% of the harvest compared to the one-third customary in Christian The implication is that low rent will stimulate science, though exactly how is unclear.

Like his contemporaries, Sempere viewed a church which served the King as virtuous, contrasting it with a church servile to the Pope as an anti-royal interest. There were legitimate reasons for the King to grant the church usufruct rights in property, but too much had been granted in the past: “The Spaniards either because they were more pious and religious, or because the lights of science and the useful arts arrived later to them, and because they had not understood well the disadvantages of unlimited acquisitions…overtook all the rest of the nations in enriching the churches and monasteries” (1803, 37).

Since church control of property will loom large in the discussion of the Bourbon colony of California below, it is worth noting what types of service to the King Sempere deemed worthy of reward. He notes that in 1572 according to the Council of Braga, “the kings and lords founded and populated deserted districts which were their own land. They put as many workers as necessary in order to work and cultivate the land…and built for them churches and gave them a clergyman.” (35) Since populating deserted areas was an active part of Bourbon reform, and since Sempere has already stated his approval for a nobility which financed useful actions without draining the treasury, clergyman granted land to sustain them while they service cultivators of deserted land would seem appropriate. He also states that in 1212 (when the Reconquista was granted Crusade status by the Pope), land grants did not have the pernicious affect which they would later attain. The reason was that land which passed to church control was not tax exempt, and further that the bishops and clergy to whom it passed were expected to do battle to defend the King like any other lord (1803, 30). Furthermore, at this time, the church served the king by carrying out useful service such as teaching the youth, sustaining families, and providing aid to the sick and the poor. (p. 39). We can conclude that if the church facilitates the increase of cultivated land, pays taxes and if clergy will pick up the sword to do battle upon the King’s command, then clerical land is at worst benign and possibly beneficial.

From these words, we can glean a sense of the relationship of the church to land that the Bourbon reformers would have held in high esteem. Clergy who populated deserted areas with cultivators, clergy who paid the tax to the king, and clergy who taught the youth, sustained families and provided aid to the sick and the poor received Sempere’s approval, so long as these clerics were willing to pick up the sword to defend the king in battle.

These reasons for allocating property to church hands describe remarkably well exactly what an 18th century missionary did in California under Spain: he baptized and ministered to Indians and taught them to bring cultivation to uncultivated land. He took care of the sick and the poor, sustained families, and taught the youth. In time of conflict, he was ready to pick up the sword and fight for King. The one area where the Bourbon reformers might have found fault is in the tax exempt status of the produce of California missions.

For the military, we see that Sempere expected the nobility to command the soldiers, and viewed land grants to noblemen for a lifetime to be appropriate rewards for service. The right to bequeath the land to the next generation was the King’s to give, not that of the holder to take. There is a sense that support for the next generation would be forthcoming, so long as the family did not take it for granted, but continued to serve the Crown. Finally, although Sempere does tack on a concern for science and the arts and for cultivating desolate land, the larger message is that land grants are to reward courage on the battlefield.

Research Hypothesis

From this literature, I expected that insecure property rights channeled everyone in Spanish California to serve and flatter those with political authority in hopes that the official might use their influence to provide insecure land to particular families or bands for the foreseeable future. The insecurity of the grant fostered a dependence of the populace on the good will of the authorities. Land was not typically purchased or sold for cash, but rather granted and used with hereditary privileges conditional upon maintaining a good relationship with authority. The native people complied with baptism and deferred to and served the missionaries as a means to maintain usufruct rights over ancestral lands. The rank and file military men deferred to and served their commanders as the means to obtain usufruct rights over land. Commanders deferred to and served the viceroy in hope of either obtaining rights to the exceptional large land grant, or having the power to grant such to their most loyal men. By channeling what Smith called “the desire to better one’s condition” into service to a superior socio-political structure established by the Bourbon Crown, the system succeeded in its own goal of keeping subjects loyal and (for the most part) peaceful.


For the four military presidios and nineteen missions between San Diego and San Francisco between 1769 and 1810, there were four different types of insecure land tenure. First, Indians brought the territory of their original village with them at baptism, so that the land under mission cultivation expanded with baptism. Secondly, at retirement military men obtained small plots similar to those envisioned for Sierra Morena; the difference was that the men received half-pay to supplement their small-plot income. The pueblos were located at San Jose and Los Angeles, the most fertile locations among the six missions founded first in the 1770s. Thirdly, military men could till land among unconverted Indians, if they had the ambition and diplomatic skill to do so. Fourthly, in 1786, the top military official in California, Pedro Fages was authorized to make grants of private land to soldiers on the condition that the grant not exceed 3 leagues, and did not injure the missions. It was theoretically possible for these types of land tenure to co-exist, but one can see already that the tillers would require the support of the state to maintain their control over land in the face of competing claims.

Lands of Indian Congregations

Rather than losing land at baptisms, Indians who entered a Christian congregation changed their relationship to the land, using it for agriculture rather than hunting and gathering.4 One source of support of this contention is a letter written in 18275 in which friars cited Law 9, Title 3, Book 6 of the Laws of the Indies: “The land that they formerly held is not to be taken from those Indians reduced6...[The land] will be preserved just as they had it before, so that they may cultivate it and attempt improvements.” Law 9, Title 12, Book 4 “No [land] can be given to Spaniards if it damages the Indians, and if given and having caused harm, it must be returned.” When soldiers settled among the unconverted, it was often the case that missions expanded later, in which case the argument was then made that since the soldier-settler’s use was contrary to the well-being of the Indian congregation, it must be returned. This happened, for example, at Rancho Camulos near Mission San Fernando. San Fernando was not founded until 1797, so a soldier had utilized Camulos in the intervening years as “land among the unconverted.” However, he was pushed to return the land to the mission. Though he did, animosity remained and festered for decades.
San Francisco and the Ohlone

Figure . Mission Landholdings Around the San Francisco Bay by 1815

The entire discussion of Bourbon land rights in California can take on more concrete dimensions due to recent advances by anthropologists who have reconstituted pre-contact native populations in geographic space. Figure 1 above provides a view of expansion of the three Bay Area missions between 1769 and 1815. The diagonal hatch represents the land of the communities which entered mission life the earliest, by 1785. One can see that at that date, there was plenty of territory outside of control of mission congregations. By 1795, additional communities had entered mission life (filled-in black dots). By 1805, nearly all the land visible to the naked eye when viewing the San Francisco Bay Area on a clear day would have been under the tillage of Christian Indians.

Pueblo Lands

José de Galvez had been sent from the King’s inner circle of advisors to New Spain in 1764 to implement Bourbon reform. When the Viceroy proved less than supportive of higher taxes, a new Viceroy Carlos Francisco De Croix was sent to rubber stamp Galvez’ actions. By 1767 Galvez and De Croix had carried out the Jesuit expulsion, which included the impoverished Jesuit missionaries in Baja. Galvez went to Baja and attempted to replace them with soldier-settlers who were to be rewarded by a system of usufruct land rights instead of providing pay. The terms ring of Sierra Morena: the 50 fanega small plot, the small fee to the government for its use, the restrictions on what could and could not be produced, the ban on accumulating more than one plot. Indian missions were to become tax-paying pueblos that would supply free labor and food to the military (Priestley 1916). The governor of Baja resigned rather than implement them, and settlers did not volunteer. Franciscan missionaries were Galvez’ fall-back option for replacing the Jesuits, but even the Franciscans insisted that the military compensate Indians at missions for labor and produce, resisted relocating Indians from ancestral territory, and by 1773, had attained the political authority to ban soldiers from service at missions should they mishandle Indians.

By 1781, de Croix’s nephew Teodoro was Commander of the Provincias Internas (Texas to California), and he reinitiated the Bourbon aim of removing the church as protector of Indian land-rights, and expanding the military by means of land-grants to a settler militia rather than increased payroll (Bancroft, I:336). The attempt to remove the church as a buffer between Indian land-and-labor and the military was rebuffed by 1786 (Duggan 2004), and few new settlers materialized, but two pueblos did come into being. Settlers were to receive a solar (house lot), and a plot for cultivation (perhaps 50 fanegas); to be provided with livestock on credit, to receive a salary less than half that of a soldier and only for five years, to use common lands for pasture. Land could not be sold, nor mortgaged. In order to retain the land, evidence of cultivation must be presented (a house built, irrigation dug, livestock maintained, implements repaired). Accumulation of wealth was discouraged by a ban on owning more than 50 animals of one kind. In addition, all were to contribute to tilling common fields whose harvest would pay for pueblo expenses. In return for the land tenure, the settlers must be prepared to fight by supplying themselves with a musket and horse.

These inducements were not adequate to induce many settlers to come to California, and of those who tried, one party was killed at Yuma in 1782. However, for people who were already there (soldiers ready to retire, or their offspring), and for people who had a member or two of the family on military payroll, the terms were agreeable. As Figure 1 illustrated, by 1805 there was very little land available outside of mission jurisdiction to which a retiring soldier could aspire. Furthermore, interacting with the unconverted was not an easy task. Two pueblos succeeded at San Jose and Los Angeles. The pueblos were not to exceed four leagues in size (about 10.5 miles).

Pueblo San José was founded as a proto-type in 1778 on the banks of the Guadelupe River, less than a league south of Mission Santa Clara, which at that time was one of the most fertile missions established. It is hard to avoid concluding that the military was aiming to get a claim onto the most fertile land prior to the expanding mission swallowing up the area as protected for baptized Indians. Even at that early a moment, it must have been clear that the Indians baptized into Mission Santa Clara would come from up and down the banks of the Rio Guadelupe. Over time, Mission Santa Clara proved less successful, with the most successful fields in the SF bay region being at Mission San José, further from the Pueblo.

Land grants to military

In 1786, Teodoro de Croix was Commander of Provincias Internas with known sympathies for Bourbon reform. He approved a request from Pedro Fages, Governor of California, to give several extremely large land grants to a select few of his men. Such grants do seem in line with Sempere’s argument that land grants should reward service in battle. However, far from the nobility that Sempere had in mind, the land grants went to rank and file soldiers who tended to be of mulatto or mestizo origin. Hence such grants facilitated the upward mobility of which Campomanes and Olavide would have disapproved. In theory, the size of the grants was not to exceed 3 leagues, and they were not to interfere with the lands of mission Indians. In practice, one grant alone to Manual Niego totaled 68 leagues, and it was quite close to Mission San Gabriel in the fertile Los Angeles River basin.

Before turning to that case, let us conclude with the San Francisco Bay Area. As noted earlier, the Huchiun of the East Bay opposite San Francisco rejected mission life, leading to armed conflict between 1795 and 1797 which resulted in the founding of Mission San José in the East Bay, but well-skirting the heart of Huchiun territory (see Figure 1; Milliken 1995). The Huchiun location across the SF bay gave that people some leverage because the Spanish had no boats, while the Huchiun did have tule rafts and the knowledge of the bay currents sufficient to use them to cross the bay. Over time, Mission San José built an outpost at El Cerrito in Huchiun territory, called San Pablo, which was used for pasture. If grants of land were the King’s to take away as penalty for disloyalty, perhaps it is no accident that the first private rancho founded around the SF Bay was Rancho San Antonio in 1820. The rancho ran from El Cerrito to San Leandro (modern Oakland). In effect, the authorities had taken Huchiun rights to their land away in 1820, though they would not have been evicted. The Spanish grants assumed people came with the land, and would be the labor force. How precisely Sergeant Luis Peralta’s sons got the Huchiun to labor on his rancho is not known (De Veer 1914, pp. 34-36).

Turning back to the Los Angeles Basin, Mission San Gabriel was founded in the first few years of Spanish rule in California along the San Gabriel River in the Los Angeles basin and, like Mission Santa Clara, produced high agricultural yields with the labor of the Christian Tongva. Father Lasuén could write by 1796, “[The Tongva congregation of San Gabriel] should look to the produce of the arable land which is to be given to them as their own, with building lots, improvements, and livestock.”7 However, this was wishful thinking because two competing claims to the lands near the mission had emerged in the 1780s.

First, Pueblo of Los Angeles was starting to collect veterans and their families in the next watershed north from the mission, along the Los Angeles River. This would naturally have made the mission inclined to expand to the south (behind them to the East was the steep San Gabriel mountain range). Then in 1784, Commander Fages and De Croix granted Manual Nieto, a mulatto-mestizo soldier who had served for many years and perhaps accomplished acts of particular bravery, 68 leagues of land. Rancho Los Nietos was intended to run from the Santa Ana River to the Los Angeles River, from Mission San Gabriel to the sea—i.e., it would cover most of modern Los Angeles County and a good bit of Orange County as well.

No anthropologist has yet mapped out the native villages of the Tongva. Yet given what we know from the rate of expansion of Mission San Francisco, we can assume that by 1784 when Manuel Nieto was granted his ranch, only a small circle of Tongva territory had been brought into cultivation by Tongva Christians. Thus, the sixty-eight leagues granted to Manuel Nieto in 1784 may not at that moment have overlapped with fields cultivated by the Tongva, but it would have prevented the mission from expanding area under cultivation to include the territory of the newly converted. By 1796, the inevitable clash had emerged.

By 1795, Tongva Christians at San Gabriel had increased to 1300, and attempts to expand the irrigation structure and plowed fields of the mission ran right into Nieto’s own fields. In 1795, the harvest was inadequate and half the Tongva returned to gathering acorns and harvesting pine nuts from the oak and pine trees in the San Gabriel mountains. The other half of the congregation kept agriculture going while subsisting on half rations. Nieto’s claim to the flatlands was preventing the Tongva from making the switch to an agricultural way of life, quite possibly the main attraction of the missions for the Tongva people.8 Father Sanchez lead the community for decades, and he wrote, “When we met with Nieto about how he plowed right next to where we sowed last year, preventing us from expanding the planting, he said he would go further down (that is, right near there, because further down from where he had sown, there is not good land), and I told him no, that was where WE were going to sow; because the Mission needs all that land, that’s what I told him.9” Nieto apparently told the Tongva congregation that if they wanted water they could build two aguajitos to the North of the mission in the slice of land between the mission and the San Gabriel mountains, to which the missionary replied, “but for this a lot of work is necessary, and the water has to pass through a sandy spot which could suck it all up.”10 Father Sanchez suggested that Nieto stick to Los Coyotes, an area to the South of San Gabriel about one third the way between the sea and Mission San Gabriel (see Coyote Creek in Figure 2)..

Figure . San Gabriel Watershed (Mission SG is close to Glendora, on the opposite side of the river)


Indians and Mexican soldiers like Nieto both preferred corn to the Spanish wheat, but corn required steady water to grow reliably. Nieto and his men argued that they had built the dam at La Puente, while the Tongva argued that they had done the real work of digging the irrigation ditch to provide the steady water that the corn fields required.11 A subtext of the discussions is that Indians who had not accepted baptism were using La Puente as a location from which to cull horses and sheep from mission herds—about a third of the Tongva congregation’s 10,000 sheep were grazing there. Nieto bargained with unconverted Indians from a village called Guapa to work for him, a bargain which allowed them to resist relocating to the Tongva village at San Gabriel. Fifteen horses and one sheep disappeared, and the word among the Tongva was that men from Guapa who used to hunt deer were hunting sheep and horses instead. In 1796, Nieto won out with his claim to La Puente. However, the Tongva congregation and their missionaries succeeded in pushing Nieto back to the southern side of the San Gabriel River. This left Mission San Gabriel with half of one watershed, compared to two entire watersheds for Mission San Diego. Eventually, the mission did expand inland to till the mountain canyon of San Bernardino.

If we turn now to San Diego, data exists for a more detailed exploration of the way in which the land of the Kumeyaay congregation expanded with baptisms. Three starting points emerge: first, Kumeyaay bands rotated on an East/West axis, so that each band could utilize resources from coast to inland mountains (of up to 6,000 feet), and into the desert beyond. Rivers also flowed from East to West, so Kumeyaay bands along a single rivershed were socially connected. The second starting point is that the Spanish way of agriculture placed a premium on land that could be irrigated continuously. El Cajón, Paguay and Santa Ysabel were the only plots of land in Southern San Diego county which had sufficient irrigation for growing crops, hence had the most value in this subsistence economy (see Figure 3 and assume San Bernardino is Paguay (Poway)). In general, sheep and cattle-raising were more productive than grain crops in San Diego, but scarcity of water could cut into herds. Pamo had a permanent watering hole for livestock, and Jamacha along the Sweetwater river was also prime pasture.12 Thirdly, water was more scarce in San Diego county than any other location in Alta California—in terms of climate, San Diego was naturally affiliated more with Baja than with Alta California.

Figure . Grain Fields and Pastures in Jurisdiction of Mission San Diego

Source: Glenn Farris 1997. Note: his article covered a later period, but the fertile pieces in the jurisdiction of San Diego Mission were the same as the land delineated on this map.

Initially, agriculture failed at San Diego because the Spanish did not control either El Cajon or Paguay or Santa Ysabel. The first “mission” was at the Presidio directly on the port, which the Presidio was built to protect from encroachment by foreign ships. There was no potable water at the Presidio, and no possibility of agriculture. Mission San Diego was founded as a separate agricultural settlement in 1774 six miles away from the port on the San Diego River. The river must not have run year-round, because even there, the missionaries and Kumeyaay were attempting to install a pump for irrigating the fields, a task at which they were initially unsuccessful. In November 1775, an uprising by the Kumeyaay led to the death of the missionary and two craftsmen working for the military; many Kumeyaay also died. Carlos Chisli was the kwaipai of the Kumeyaay village where Mission San Diego had been located, and he led the uprising. The proximate cause was his flogging by the Spanish for stealing fish from an unconverted Kumeyaay. The crime itself suggests that the failure of Spanish agriculture was leading to anger, disaffection, and tensions between the converted and unconverted Kumayaay as well as between the Spanish contingent and the Kumeyaay. The numbers show that the crops were incapable of sustaining the numbers baptized; indeed in some years, there were no crops at all.

It quickly became apparent to the Spanish that the plum location was El Cajon, inland on the San Diego River. However, a gang rape by military men at that location had poisoned relations between the mission and the people before 1773. This gang-rape may have been an attempt by the military to assert control over the prime productive land and its people before the missionaries acted, though that is speculation. Missionary leadership personally visited the Viceroy in Mexico City to clarify mission jurisdiction, but the Kumeyaay uprising in 1775 made that a moot point: it became unsafe for any Spaniard to go into El Cajón (Burrus 1967).

The most skilled missionary was brought in, Fermín Francisco de Lasuén. He negotiated peace with the people at the next watershed up from San Diego, along the San Dieguito River. There were possibly long-standing tensions between the Kumeyaay of the San Diego River and those of San Dieguito (Carrico 1997). It was then a very painstaking process to rebuild a relationship with the Kumeyaay that would lead to productive agriculture. Only twenty-one years after the uprising--in 1796--did large numbers of Indians from Meti and San Jorge (Kumeyaay villages in El Cajon) switch allegiance to the Spanish way of life, and only then did the mission become self-sustaining and a way of life that might have held any attraction. See map illustrating expansion of mission congregation land (spots highlighted with choice water spots highlighted [note: note yet included]). Ironically, after the initial years of extreme conflict, the Christian Kumeyaay of San Diego retained rights to the most useful land in the region longer than either the Ohlone in the San Francisco Bay or the Tongva in San Gabriel, up to 1833.

A geographical location that highlights the insecurity of landrights even during the Spanish period is Mission San Gabriel, in what is now Los Angeles. Unfortunately, no anthropologist has yet mapped out the locations of native villages near Mission San Gabriel, so it is not possible to make a diagram showing the expansion of the territory of the congregation over time. However, armed with the visuals from San Diego and San Francisco, we can imagine that in 1786, the amount of land controlled by the mission’s people was fairly small and close to the mission. San Gabriel had better water than San Diego and harvests flourished quickly; this may be why it was the object of military desire.

Land in southern San Diego was relatively undisputed despite the violence of 1775. The Kumeyaay congregation tilled the plum resources of El Cajon, Paguay and Santa Ysabel. A market was established at the edge of mission territory from which Christian Kumeyaay could exchange the produce of mission agriculture for the traditional foods they prized with the unconverted, or with the Mojave or Yuma. Soldiers who retired probably relocated to the Pueblo of Los Angeles, where they would have been granted a solar. Alternatively, they might have settled next to the lands on the Sweetwater River (Jamacha and Jamul in Figure 3) where the Presidio pastured its horses, or they might have obtained employment at the mission and settled near the San Diego river.

After Mission San Diego was abolished in 1833, however, the insecurity of Kumeyaay property rights emerged. The Kumeyaay probably thought that by serving the missionary, who served the King, their lands would be protected. However, the Spanish King was replaced by Mexican republic by 1825, and religious men lost authority in the new republican era. El Cajon, Paguay and Pamo passed to non-Indian hands, with the Kumeyaay villages located inside the rancho of some ex-military man. Eventually, when Americans took over the ranchos, they were not accustomed to having people come with the land, and lobbied successfully to have the Kumeyaay relocated to reservations on land useless for tilling. Many of the modern reservations in San Diego county are in fact just outside the boundaries of the fertile land. The American ranchers did lobby to have these reservations located next to their ranches (they were opposed to the President’s idea to relocate the Kumeyaay to Oklahoma!), because they wanted a labor force. By the 1930s, the Kumeyaay “volunteered” to work for in-kind payments, rather than money wages. The Kumeyaay reverted to hunting and gathering as a way to supplement this income and survive. Multiple tiny reservations remain inside San Diego county. The “useless” land has been brought to profitability by the 1988 law permitting casinos on Indian reservations.

Despite concerns of men like Sempere that the Crown would squander its treasure on military salaries, the King did pay California soldiers a salary. However, not without putting up a fight. Initially, Madrid’s representative in New Spain, Gálvez, suggested that in lieu of salary, soldiers receive 50 fanega small plots on which they would be expected to pay tithes and a small fee (can~on) to the state. This was not, however, adequate incentive to stimulate bravery on the part of anyone.

If the 50 fanega small plot for a soldier, and a share of harvest on mission lands for the Christian Indian, were the two primary ways in which Galvez envisioned that California would channel its ambition toward the service of King, there were others who had a different idea. Commander Fages seems to be going back to the practices of the Reconquista when he granted huge land areas in perpetual usufruct to five of his men. While all military grants undermined the ability of the religious to protect their Indian vassals, the largest grants naturally undermined that system to a greater extent.


A subtext of evangelization which has gone unnoticed in the literature on California’s Spanish period is that only the King’s vassals were to receive usufruct rights to property. In converting to Catholicism, the Kumeyaay people of the area would become the King’s vassals. By baptism, then, the Kumeyaay secured their rights to their land within the new colonial system. Simultaneously, however, they were bringing their land into a system in which no-one’s property was secure. One might say then that with baptism Kumeyaay land entered this insecure system of Spanish property rights. Given the lack of permanent title, the Kumeyaay desire for attachment to their territory was channeled into deference and service to the missionary who, as representative of the King, had the authority to renew their usufruct rights. Before exploring some concrete instances to support this argument, it is necessary to introduce the military component of the conquest of California, and the method the King used to provide it reward.

Ironically, the system of permitting the vanquished to retain their land in return for loyalty to the new regime is something of which Sempere would have approved, from his distant library in Madrid. Yet Bourbon reforms undermined this highly effective system of loyalty because they viewed the church as a rival to the state. On the frontier, the church WAS the state, and the loyal militias who did not require cash salaries to serve the king would prove in 1818 to be Indians—a group of armed Chumash from Mission San Luis Obispo arrived with their armed missionary to defend Monterey when it was attacked by a republican pirate.

Yet if the ill-defined nature of Indian land-rights at missions fostered dependence on the missionary, the anti-clerical nature of Bourbon reforms undermined the Bourbon’s own goals. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a 68 league land grant next to a mission was simply an invitation for anti-clerical Bourbons to supplant a missionary as the authority figure that stood between Indians and Crown.

On the other hand, the insecure nature of land boundary between Pueblo and mission might have had some useful purpose, similar to the eminent domain safety-valve for community transformation. If the community itself changed to include more veterans and their families, then it would be reasonable to expect some accommodation for them.

The date 1786 is important because this is when Pedro Fages granted his loyal soldier Manual Nieto a land grant of sixty-eight leagues in size. While the Bourbons had intended any rewards to go to the nobility (the point of Bourbon reform was to channel noble ambition toward service to the king), in fact Manual Nieto and many of the future California grantees were mulatto and mestizo people from Mexico who had served for a generation or two or three in the California military (first Baja, then Alta California). Their ancestors may indeed have initially gained their loyalty to the Spanish cause at a Jesuit mission in Sonora. The Kumeyaay called these men quite brave (Burrus 1967), and in fact Manuel Nieto proved an intimidating neighbor for the missionary and his congregation at San Gabriel. He made intelligent alliances with the unconverted who then patrolled the land to keep the Christian Tongva from using it.

Output per person in California was notoriously low: hundreds of women often ground wheat or corn by hand for serving their brethren in the communal dinner (see Duggan 2017). Yet productivity per man was not the colony’s own rubric for measuring its success. Rather, the colony aimed to control an extensive territory holding some 80,000 people without sharing power with any for-profit enterprise, and with very little government expenditure. By that measure, the allegiance of seventeen thousand native people (by 1810), hundreds of soldiers and forty missionaries across a territory over 500 miles long and over 4,000 miles from Spain was a success. Although the popular narrative in California is that Indians hated missionaries, animosity was unusual between 1769 and 1810.13 Instead, personal allegiance marked day to day relationships, which is precisely what Bourbon reformers had hoped for. A similar personal allegiance reigned between military rank and file and their commanders, and between missionaries and their father president and their father guardian in Mexico City. Both commanders and missionaries attempted to live up to their paternalistic responsibilities by providing land to their vassals—the troops and Christian Indians, respectively. However, the rights to land were only as secure as the political influence of the institutions of military and Franciscan order. This became a problem for Indians when the church lost influence in republican Mexico in the 1820s, and it became a problem for rank and file soldier-settlers when the American state replaced the Mexican state.

To all intents and purposes then, the non-Bourbon institution of religious mission succeeded at the Bourbon intention of promoting the number of deferent vassals willing to serve authority. In fact, the Bourbon reforms as implemented in Alta California undermined their own goals by breaking up the “keep your land in return for loyalty” approach with the vanquished Indians, and by creating wealth inequality among their own. If Sempere were here to comment, he might note that the medieval leaders of the Reconquista were also better at rewarding their own men than at protecting the vanquished by means of the wise incentives for surrender which they had promised.


BANCROFT, Hubert Howe (1886). The History of California. Four volumes. San Francisco: The History Company.

BURRUS, Ernest J. (1967). Diario del Capitan Comandante Fernando de Rivera y Moncada. Madrid: Ediciones José Porrua Turanzas.

CAMPOMANES, Pedro de [1765] 1975. Tratado de la Regalía de Amortizacion. Madrid: Artes Gráficas Ibarra.

CARRICO, Richard L. “Sociopolitical Aspects of the 1775 Revolt at Mission San Diego de Alcala: An Ethnohistorical Approach,” Journal of San Diego History 43 (1997), 142-157.

DE SOTO POLAR, Hernando (2000). The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. New York: Basic Books.

DE VEER, Daisy Williamson (1924). The Story of Rancho San Antonio. Oakland: The Claremont Press.

DUGGAN, Marie Christine (2016). “With and Without an Empire: Financing for California Missions Before and After 1810” in Pacific Historical Review.

DUGGAN, Marie Christine (2004). The Chumash and the Presidio: Evolution of a Relationship, 1782-1823. Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation.

FARRIS, Glen (1997). “Captain José Panto and the San Pascual Indian Pueblo in San Diego County, 1835-1878” in Journal of San Diego History, Spring 1997, Vol. 43, No. 2.

HERR, Richard (1989). Rural Change and Royal Finances in Spain. Berkeley: UC Press.

LAMOREAUX, Naomi (2011). “The Mystery of Property Rights: A U.S. Perspective,” Journal of Economic History 71, 275-306.

MILLIKEN, Randall (1995). A Time of Little Choice: Disintegration of Tribal Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area 1769 – 1810. Menlo Park: Ballena Press.

PERDICES DE BLAS, Luís. (1993). Pablo de Olavide (1725-1803) el ilustrado. Madrid: Editorial complutense.

PRIESTLEY, Herbert Ingram (1916). José de Gálvez: Visitor-General of New Spain (1765-1771). UC Press, Berkeley.

SEMPERE Y GUARINOS, Juan ([1803] 1847). História de los vinculos y mayorazgos. Madrid: D. Ramón Rodriguez de Rivera.

1 The Huntington Library, Early California Population Project Database, 2006. The database was built from mission registers through painstaking work by Randall Milliken, John Johnson and Steve Hackel.

2 This is a plot on which 50 fanegas of grain can be sown. The exact size of the plot might vary, since land of different fertility could accommodate different quantities of seed. There are 1.25 bushels in a Fanega.

3 This and subsequent translations are by the author.

4 Clarification: native Californians never gave up hunting and gathering completely; certainly up to 1810, native Christians subsisted from both sources harvested from the congregation’s land.

5 Frs. Zalvidea and Barona, Dec. 22, 1827 to Governor José María de Echeandía, Santa Barbara Mission Archive Library.

6 “Reduced” means baptized and congregated in mission villages based on agriculture.

7 Writings of Lasuen, op cit (the 1796 letter).

8 “Last year, they had to sow one hundred and seventy-nine fanegas of the first, twelve of the second, and the same amount of the others. Despite that, it did not suffice to support the Indians, and they had to send half of them away to the mountains, and to place the rest on half rations.” Writings of Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, there is a memorandum from Lasuen to be added to Gov. Boricas documents on the Nieto ranch. Date: May 9, 1796, p. 377-378 in V. I.

9 California Mission Document 256, Father Sanchez to Fahter President Lasuén about Nieto, 17 Marzo 1796, SBMAL.

10 CMD 257 March 20, 1796 Sanchez to Lasuen, SBMAL.

11 Nieto put some grass there, while the Indians built it, wrote Fr. Sanchez to Lasuén, March 20, 1796, SBMAL.

12 Dec. 18, 1827 Fr. Martín and Fr. Oliva of Mission San Diego to Governor,

Santa Barbara Mission Archive Library (hereafter SBMAL).

13 See Duggan 2016 for an explanation of the increasing conflict between 1810 and 1825.

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