I recently had the pleasure of providing “something a little different” for the Sacramento GIS Users’ Group. This biannual gathering explores geographic information systems – the technology that underlies digital mapping including everything from the maps in newspapers to smartphone apps.
Bob Earle, my instructor for an introductory course in ArcGIS (which is a prominent and powerful GIS application), had been intrigued by my midterm and invited me to share my final project. So after we heard about sophisticated techniques to support the management of vineyards, sewers and municipal transparency, I let loose with a 150-year-old legal controversy regarding 15 square miles of central Sacramento.
The Sutter Case
The trouble all started with Johann Augustus Sutter’s claim to land that actually lay miles south of what he was granted by Mexico in 1841. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually endorsed his enormous squat in 1864, but they seemed to see their ruling as simply the least objectionable solution for an unsolvable problem.
I can’t blame the Court for punting. The Civil War was providing enough trouble already, and a legitimate ruling would have unleashed legal chaos in California. I think those justices did what they had to do with the information they were given.
Even so, they were wrong.
Here is the truth: Sacramento sits on land that was taken not only from the indigenous Ninesan people, but then again from the United States government and settlers who moved onto what they correctly believed to be public land. This second theft was enforced by the city government as well as vigilantes.
The Sacramento Settlers’ Association was organized to hire lawyers to protect against evictions, and reportedly boasted over 1,000 members. They tried to work within the system, but continued harrassment provoked bloodshed during August of 1850 as the Settlers’ patience ran out.
Two days of violence claimed the lives of eight Sacramentans including the sheriff and assessor. The mayor was shot off his horse, left office and later died in San Francisco. These so-called Squatter Riots triggered the collapse of the local economy and population, followed by many years of lawsuits.
Fourteen years later, the Court apparently attempted the final cover for Sutter’s land grab, bundling 15 square miles of valuable and contested territory into a parcel with the modest name of “Lot 1” (along with Lots 2, 3 and 4 surrounding Marysville). See map here.
Sutter’s purported holdings in Sacramento were legally not his, no matter how disruptive that truth might have been at the time. Sutter’s Fort was a squat. Sutter could not legally have given his son authority to sell the land under Sacramento City to Sam Brannan and his gang of speculators. The whole massive real estate scheme entangling everything between the American River and Broadway, the Sacramento River and Alhambra Boulevard – the core of Lot 1 and the heart of the modern city of Sacramento – was illegal.
The land on which Sacramento sits was stolen.
(Update 7/29/16: According to a recently-discovered set of accounts by Dr. Charles Robinson, who led the uprising against this theft, it appears that a significant number of “squatters” were able to hold onto their property in Sacramento. Much further research is needed to determine the details of which parcels were purchased from holders of the fraudulent title and which were obtained properly as homesteads.)
Unearthing the Bones
The theft was clear to many when it happened. Consider an 1851 editorial in the San Francisco Alta, after a District Court judge ruled on the case that eventually reached the nation’s highest court: “It might seem pedantic to pit our opinion against lawyers and judges of such high standing and position…But if that decision was in accordance with the law, why the less of such laws we have the better.”
The problem is less obvious now; we are all confused by deep layers of historical misinformation. I’ve found several anomalies that all point toward a concerted effort to revise history during the decades after 1850. These anomalies start to explain how Sacramento’s canonical history could be so badly at odds with what actually happened here, and I’ll explore them in other posts (like this one and this one).
Some of what I’ve discovered was hidden in plain sight, and required nothing more than a glance at a map held in the state archives: The Von Schmidt survey of 1859 (which the 1864 ruling approved) allots land approximately equaling the original 76 square miles Sutter was originally granted by Mexico nearly two decades prior – although these acres were much more valuable than Sutter’s original spread.
It looks good at first glance. There’s a table tallying the total acreage. The numbers for Lots 1 to 4 add up, more or less. But then there’s this weird little note below that about Lot 5: another 6,733 acres (10.5 square miles!) of prime riverfront that wasn’t included in the final tally. This extravagant bonus would be like getting one entire side of Interstate 80 between Sacramento and Auburn – and that was just the part not included in the total acreage!
By leaving this central connector out of the total acreage (to meet the requirement they faced to declare one contiguous land grant) it appears that the judges undermined their entire decision. Either the eastern bank of the Sacramento was part of Sutter’s land, therefore included in the total, or it was not. To avoid this reality would only perpetuate the uncertainty.
Now I’m no lawyer, and I can’t rule out some third state between legal and illegal land holdings. More research is needed to see what actually happened with those parcels. However, this stretch of riverbank is only the start of the trouble. If this phantom land grant was an effort to soothe contested cities, then we might expect the ruling to at least hold up around those cities.
And here’s where GIS mapping really gets useful: My favorite tool in ArcGIS (so far) is georeferencing – linking an image to a certain geographical area. I use it to superimpose maps from different years, illustrating some quirks in how land ownership and development have progressed over time.
A Bad Border
I’ve been curious about the southernmost portion of the Von Schmidt survey – a few square miles along the river downstream from Sacramento. The southern boundary of Sutter’s original land grant was a single measurement of latitude – 38° 49′ 32″ – and it actually lies well north of Sacramento despite various attempts to claim that it lies to our south. One of the most common rationales for the problem was a measurement error: A survey error simply resulted in the wrong line of latitude being recorded. Wherever it lay, the southern border of Sutter’s land was a nice simple line. So why does this odd dangling tract disrupt it?
A closer look at this border reveals that it is deeply flawed: Most of Lot 1’s perimeter follows the Sacramento and American Rivers, while most of the overland survey lines follow the familiar grid visible in much of rural America, made up of township/range and section boundaries (at six and one-mile intervals, respectively).
At its easternmost point, the border of Lot 1 departs the American River at what is now Howe Avenue (a section line), tracks south until it hits the boundary between townships 8 and 9, and thence eastward to the boundary of ranges 4 and 5, which is still physically clear as modern 24th Street. This would have been a very reasonable place to head southward. But as made very clear on the official map, the border continued another ½ mile (40 chains) before turning south.
Such a border was (and is) nonsense, as is clear from adding the court boundary to this 1885 county map. The north-south portion cuts right through the middle of a half-dozen properties along both sides of Freeport Boulevard, including the current sites of C.K. McClatchy High School and William Land Park.
The Court was of course free to approve a border wherever it chose, but their border logically should have followed existing property lines. After all, the ruling was specifically meant to resolve the ownership of particular properties.
Now, it’s not clear which of the properties shown existed in 1864. These “Sutterville Tracts” were part of ongoing legal battles involving Sutter’s trustee, Lewis Sanders, Jr. and one of Sutter’s creditors, William Muldrow. This struggle continued until at least 1868, when Muldrow launched 17 simultaneous lawsuits against the city and a great many individual landowners, in an effort to claim vast amounts of property (including, it seems, most of the central city). That all is well beyond the scope of this article, but illustrates a certain lack of closure from the 1864 ruling.
In any case, if the question before the Court was whether certain parcels had been properly bought and sold, then the answer in each case must have been either yes or no. I don’t see how part of a property could be originally Sutter’s land and another part not. Each property was presumably bought and sold in the same chain of transactions, barring some unlikely parcel-consolidation scenario for which I have found no evidence. Of course, the more I look at this history, the weirder it gets. I could be wrong.
But let’s set aside whether the survey’s split ownership makes any sense. We should find some sign of the ruling’s enforcement in the two decades between 1864 and 1885. Some or all of these unfortunate landowners should have lost a portion of their property, whether their title was based on a homesteading claim or a purchase from Brannan. They didn’t.
Instead, it seems that nothing at all happened along this border: The split properties all appear to remain intact in 1885 despite being officially divided by the U.S. Supreme Court. That was true then, and apparently remains true today despite many later subdivisions. Follow the line drawn by Von Schmidt and approved by the court, and you’ll find nothing at all to suggest a border. The range line along 24th Avenue provides a stark contrast.
The 1885 map suggests only one land action that followed the Supreme Court’s ruling: a subdivision that wrapped around the north end of this troublesome boundary. And oddly enough, this sketch of parcels does not even seem to match the streets that currently exist at that spot (nor does it appear in an 1889 map of the city, indicating that it was a speculative phantom). It appears that when someone actually attempted to follow the ruling, it was they whose scheme hit the wall of reality.
Meanwhile, a trio of nearby landholders reportedly renewed their patents in 1867. This suggests an increase in legal uncertainty in the vicinity, rather than any resolution. Sacramento’s legal troubles were far from over.
An Objectionable Charade
The Court offered a telling assessment of its own work: “We do not say that it is entirely free from objections, and from our examination of the evidence, we are satisfied that no survey or location of the tract, under the circumstances attending and surrounding the case, could be made that would be free from objection.”
But these words ring hollow: Such a cop-out ignores the obvious and less-objectionable range line that lay within a mere half-mile of their arbitrary, nonsensical and counterproductive boundary for Lot 1.
What does this all mean? As far as I can tell, the ruling was not just deeply flawed, but almost totally ineffectual and counterproductive. The Court’s decree was based on a false claim and multiple illegal actions, marred by obvious internal contradictions and in conflict with historical reality. The ruling was a catastrophic failure.
I can’t imagine how such a mess could have any lasting (positive) legal impact, but I’d love to hear a lawyer try to explain it.