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Politics and the Courts: The Struggle Over Land in San Francisco 1846-1866

39 Pages Posted: 5 Nov 2010  

Christian G. Fritz

University of New Mexico School of Law

Date Written: November 4, 2010


The struggle over land constitutes one of the most persistent and important themes of California’s nineteenth-century legal history. Ultimately that struggle pitted those who had objections to the concentration of land in a few hands against those who believed in the sanctity of vested interests; those who recognized the letter and spirit of treaty obligations to Mexico, against those with an antipathy toward Hispanics; those concerned with protecting the public’s welfare against real estate speculators; and the civil law against the common law tradition.

While the struggle over land in San Francisco was not typical of all California land disputes, it raised virtually all the problems confronted in quieting title and resolving the state’s land disputes. Moreover, the resolution of San Francisco’s land disputes brought federal judges into conflict with one another and provides insight into the dynamics of the state’s federal judiciary in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Integral to the complexity of the struggle over land in San Francisco was the city’s right to 18,000 acres of pueblo land that it claimed under Mexican law. The resolution of San Francisco’s pueblo title provides a good example of the types of land solutions that were forged by federalism. Under the California Land Act of 1851, the segregation of public from private land was technically the exclusive province of the federal government in its examination of Mexican land grants. In practice, however, the state courts’ early involvement with land issues affected how the federal courts exercised their “exclusive” jurisdiction. Further, the struggle over land in San Francisco offers a microcosm of the elements that affected the pace, nature, and ultimate outcome of California land litigation in general.

More than anything else, the struggle over the pueblo title offered a view of the contrasting judicial styles of the Federal District Court Judge Ogden Hoffman and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field, the federal judges who played a central role in resolving the San Francisco land disputes. The relationship and differing approaches of Hoffman and Field not only shaped the eventual settlement of San Francisco’s pueblo title in 1866, but also influenced the character of federal justice in California until Hoffman’s death in 1891.

Suggested Citation

Fritz, Christian G., Politics and the Courts: The Struggle Over Land in San Francisco 1846-1866 (November 4, 2010). Santa Clara Law Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, 1986. Available at SSRN:

Christian G. Fritz (Contact Author)

University of New Mexico School of Law ( email )

1117 Stanford, N.E.
MSC11 6070
Albuquerque, NM 87131
United States

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