Early Land Grants

Many people have asked me about the land grants dating from the Pueblo de San Jose era. Most people refer to them as the “Spanish Land Grants.” In fact, the grants were nearly all Mexican grants as the Spanish king’s land was only given to retired soldiers for their military service. Of the 44 land grants in Santa Clara County, only three were Spanish while 41 were Mexican. To receive a Mexican Grant, an individual only had to petition the governor, file a crude map of the area, and submit a fee of about twelve dollars. The petition could be for a city house lot or a 50,000 acre rancho. In addition, one had to be a Mexican citizen and of the Catholic faith. To become a Mexican citizen, an individual merely had to pledge allegiance to Mexico.

Most of those applying for a land grant were illiterate, with little ability to draw a precise map. This became a major problem in later years. The crude map was known as a “disueno,” and the boundaries were described as a certain rock, tree or stream. The problem was that a rock could be moved, a tree could die and a stream could change course. The land was measured in leagues and “varas.” A vara was originally a bit less than a yard in length, but Spain changed the length of the vara during this period, adding another layer of confusion to all the early measurements. Further complicating legal ownership in some cases was the granting of the same land by two different Mexican governors to two different petitioners.

The original Spanish plan of government was that the Indians were to be converted by the missionaries to become good Spanish citizens and then the land would be given to them to farm. This plan had a major flaw: the Indians didn’t want to farm the land and they had no concept of land ownership. Only two grants were made to Indians: Roberto and Ynigo. Roberto’s grant was called “Los Coches,” (the pigs). He only kept the land for seven years from 1840 before selling it to Antonio Sunol. This land is where Burbank and the Rose Garden areas are today. Ynigo also sold his land soon after receiving his grant and this land is where Moffett Field is today.

Later purchases of granted lands presented great difficulties in determining where the boundaries of the properties were located, and it took U.S. courts more than one hundred years to settle all of the land claims, some as recently as the 1960s.


  1. Great info Leonard,
    I’m not sure if this is the first in a series on land grants, if not I hope Jerry or Tom will pass these questions on to Leonard, so he can enlighten us on the following.  Who got the three Spanish Grants?  Doesn’t Roberto’s home still stand on Lincoln and 280?  The effort to save that building is a great example of historic preservation, they rerouted Hwy 280 to save the home.  Do you know who the local citizens were that are responsible for saving the building?  I also hope you will tell us a little about Peralta’s Land Grant.  Thanks for getting my Monday off to a good start.

  2. I wish you’d been my history teacher…as a CA native I’ve never heard the difference between Spanish and Mexican land grants (hey, I’d blame it on public schools, but both parents were teachers) and am enjoying each of your segments.

  3. #3
    The natives’ reluctance to farm was due to the availability of other foods.  Why farm when elk, deer, rabit, otter, beaver, fowl, berries and acorn were all plentiful.  I have read early accounts of this area, they describe giant redwoods growing right down to the SF Bay.  The sky at times were black with birds and the riverbanks were filled with
    wildlife.  We have come a long way baby, to get where we are today!

  4. Wonderful to learn about San Jose’s history.  I visited the Vallejo homestead in Petaluma and was amazed to discover he was jailed after pursuing California’s independence. What was the cause of the Native American’s recluctance to farm?

  5. Leonard, fascinating information.  I believe there are still a few direct descendants of those original grantees still here in the valley.  Re a question posed by another in this column, I recall reading a book that was dedicated entirely to the history of the Roberto Adobe… can’t recall the author or title, however.

  6. My Great, Great, Great Grandfather came to San Jose in 1800.  At age 12, he was sent here from the Lorenzana orphanage in Mexico City. He was of Aztec decent. He was given the name Macedonio Lorenzana and was taken in at Francisco Castro’s home.  Francisco was the Alcalde or Mayor of San Jose at that time.  I am not sure if Macedonio was treated as a family member or servant. From a map that Leonard gave me, I discovered that his home was next to the still standing Peralta Adobe.  Somewhere along the way, he learned to read and write.  After serving as a Spanish soldier in San Francisco, he became an early settler in Branciforte (now part of Santa Cruz).  In Banciforte he served as Secretary and Vice Alcalde.  Part of his duties were to record the land grants.  As Leonard points out, when the Americans took the lands, many of the land grants were contested.  The Castro Family Land Grant of Branciforte (not San Jose) was contested and went to court.  I have newspaper articles from that period detailing the case.  An attorney argued that Macedonio could not testify about recording the land grant since he was an Indian.  Francisco Castro from San Jose, and a cousin to the Castros of Branciforte, testified that he had adopted Macedonio as a boy.  The judge ruled that he was a Christian and could testify.  The rest is Castroville history.

  7. Look up “U.S. Theft of California Territory” on Yahoo. Also
    “The Forgotten Promises of Guadalupe Hidalgo”.
      Leonard, and single gal, Thanks for your posts. I’ve spent 2 very enjoyable hours this morning simply checking out our history on yahoo.
      With the War on Terror now in full swing, and walls being built between Mexico and the U.S. One can only wonder what is right or wrong. History has a way of repeating it’s self.
      Are we to become a society that would require tasters, to see if Mikey doesn’t keel over first. We are flying in from foreign countries every thing from fruits to nuts.
      I think we should all go to our rooms for a time out.
      The Village Black Smith / Taste Master

  8. hi yes my family owned the san vicente rancho my great great grandfather jose reyes berryessa owned that property he was a soldier of spain came over with de ansa expedtion stayed under the mexican rule he and 9 of his sons were slain and the land taken away captain fremont kit carson shot him off his horse and two teenage boys they left the buzzards to eat them yes they lost their lands contact me i have alot of history many generations sure would like to get some or part of that land back???

    • I am a desendant of the Berryessa family. I am having a difficult time linking myself to the right Berryessa. The story that I have been told goes as follows: Squatters broke into the home of a Berryessa and his wife (last name Rodriguez), he was murdered and she survived. She was pregnant at the time but did not know it. She continued to use her maiden name (Rodriguez) for fear of her life. I hope that you can help me.

      • Hello,

        My step father raised me from the time I was 4yrs old.  This past New Years he passed away.  I belong to Ancestry.com and I’m trying to find out as much as I can.  I was always told that Dad was adopted and either his biological or adopted Grandparents had the name Berryessa.  I am hoping maybe you could ask some of your family about an adoption of a boy born 4/16/1926?  His name was Tory Mendoza.

        Thanks for your time,

  9. I appreciate your site very much as it details a history of California that few people know. It’s no wonder that current Californians of European descent have little or no respect for Mexican culture and its people being totally ignorant of California’s Mexican legacy. However I do have one critique . You do the same thing that most European Americans do in that you are a little heavy handed with descriptions of the people and the processes. I, at one time scripted a video project on the “Disenos” of Mexican California. The lot descriptions varied and could be as elaborate as a work of art, colorful and quite detailed.The Mexican government were not as loose as you describe. Your narrative is contridictory, as you casually state that all you had to do was convert to Catolicism renounce your American or other citizenship and pledge allegiance to Mexico. By ALL standards asking a lot of applicants particularly Americans. Nonetheless still a valuable site. Much appreciated.

    • Frank,
      I am the sole surviving son of Leonard McKay and also a student of this period of early San Jose History. You are accurate in your estimation of of dad’s analysis of the over simplification citizenship requirements and of the pioneers abilities in mapmaking.
      With that being said, we should not underestimate the contribution that my dad made in stimulating public awareness of San Jose History which brings to light so many of its injustices. The land grab unfortunately was one of many crimes against humanity during that period.
      Chris McKay

  10. My family history has it that my Great grandfather, Bernard Distel, arrived in Santa Clara County from the Alsace area of France with some grapevines from the family’s vineyards there and was deeded a land grant from Marie Castro for an area now known as Los Altos. He grew the vines and became a well-known area vintner. His youngest daughter (my grandmother) Fanny Distel, who inherited all the property, married Edgar DeWolfe Mosher who developed it after it became known as Los Altos. First he ran cattle and changed the vineyards into orchards of apricots, then he parceled it all, except several acres of the family estate, into subdivisions of houses, as they remain today. I wonder how I can get information regarding the actual land grant made by Marie Castro to Bernard Distel?  Anyone have any ideas?

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