The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Fall 1974, Volume 20, Number 4
By David Pinere Ramirez. Translated by Ronald R. Young
On March 10, 1857, Ignacio Comonfort, then President of the Republic of Mexico, declared that all titles to land in Baja California which had been issued between 1821 and 1857 were invalid and of no other value unless they were approved and re-certified by the new government which he headed.
As could be expected, the Baja Californians were greatly alarmed to find their land titles so threatened. To re-validate their titles, those Baja Californians who were affected were required to pay the Mexican Government 300 pesos per sitio which they owned.1 To get a perspective of how relatively high these fees were, it is documented that during this same period, land title fees in Sonora, Chihuahua, and Coahuila, where land was of higher quality than that in Baja California, varied between fifty and thirty pesos and even dropped to a low of seven pesos occasionally for the same size parcel of land.2
Historian Adrian Valades mentions that as a consequence of this decree, “an exodus by many Baja Californians to other countries was initiated . . . others, fearful of finding themselves stripped of all the land which they had acquired during the colonization period, sold much of their land in order to pay for the new assessments and to retain title to the remaining land.”3
Confronted by this situation which threatened to depopulate the already sparsley populated peninsula, the local authorities recommended that the inhabitants remain calm and that those who were affected by the decree establish a committee to defend their interests.4
These incidents help to characterize the lack of security in the possession of property which is presented in the history of land ownership during certain periods in Baja California. Similar land dispositions had existed in Mexico before this particular decree. One example is the land review policy ordered by Santa Anna on July 7, 1854. Thus we can see that the Comonfort decree is not the only case of land review in Baja California, but it is the most thoroughly documented case we have. That there does exist so much information on the Comonfort review is due primarily to a very interesting person: Ulises Urbano Lassepas.
Unfortunately little is known about Lassepas’ personal life. There are some isolated bits of information supplied by a few historians and some which Lassepas himself inserted randomly in his book, A History of the Colonization of Baja California and the Decree of the 10th of March, 1857, published in 1859. Since so little information is available, it has been necessary to infer some details of his life through deduction.
By virtue of one of the documents included in his book, we deduce that in 1856, one year prior to the Comonfort decree, Lassepas was in La Paz serving as an agent of the federal Department of Land Development, Colonization and Industry. He was already aware of the intentions of the Comonfort government to demand that some of the land titles in Baja California be re-certified. However, as an individual sympathetic with the people who would be affected, he used his position to try to solve the problem in a just and realistic manner.
There were two basic reasons in the government decree for the exacting of such large quantities of money from the Baja Californians. One was the necessity to raise money for the near bankrupt federal treasury. The other was the erroneous idea that in distant Baja California the inhabitants were accumulating vast sums of money by selling land to United States citizens.
Lassepas, who knew first hand what the land situation was, and consequently that the accusations of vast land sales to Northamericans was a gross exaggeration, proposed to the federal government in 1856 that only those landowners who, for a specified reason, were truly obliged to legalize their titles be affected and that they be required to pay between 16 and 50 pesos to the government.5 However, the government chose to disregard his proposal and levied the already mentioned fee of 300 pesos per sitio.
This action seemed unjust to Lassepas, who apparently left his post just about at that moment, since the Annual Report of the Minister of Development for the year 1857 lists no agent in Baja California until November, when C. Leon Yanez was appointed.6
What were the reasons for leaving his post? Did he resign or was he discharged? Or, was his removal merely a consequence of the political instability which spread throughout the country during precisely those same months, due to the War of Reform? Any of these hypotheses is possible, and we call them hypotheses because neither he nor any other author, at least to our knowledge, explains his quitting that office. It would appear that due to his love of Baja California, which he demonstrates throughout his book, and because of his frank opposition to the forces which threatened to victimize the Baja Californians, he resigned the position. At any rate, it is indisputable that another person was appointed in his place and that Lassepas himself devoted this time to his book which appeared in 1859 under the title: Historia de la colonizacion de Baja California y decreto de 10 de marzo de 1857, por el ciudadano Ulises Urbano Lassepas. Printer Memorial.7
It should be noted that his position is listed merely as a citizen (ciudadano), not as an employee or functionary of the government. This makes us think that his work is not, as is generally believed, an official report by the agent of the Ministry of Development, but rather a plea, a memoir, as he puts it, in favor of the Baja Californians who had entrusted the defense of their interests to him.
Some of Lassepas’ statements strongly corroborate this hypothesis. For example, in his conclusions he says, “we now take on the task which we expected when we agreed to defend the Californian colonists affected by the March 10 decree . . . but, if we do not succeed in this defense, if we do not receive the justice which we demand, we hope and expect that the government will explain in detail the reasons on which it bases its denial . . . .”8 Farther on are found the following exclamations which would never have come from a bureaucrat: “The government created at Ayutla recorded in its program: Respect and guarantee for private property! A hypocritical promise on a par with so many others!!”9 “The Administration of Tacubaya, in turn, has imprinted on its flag the same promise of respect for private property …. The Californians will soon see, in their own case, to what extent the government’s printed words are reflected in its actions.”10
These statements clearly contradict the general impression that Lassepas’ book is an official report. They support, to the contrary, that his writing is a defense of the position of those affected by the government’s decree, a defense which was published, following the custom of the times, for the purpose of influencing public opinion.
Now that we have expressed the above ideas, let us summarily analyze the contents of Lassepas’ book, which in our opinion, constitutes one of the most serious and detailed studies concerning questions of land tenancy in Baja California.
The book begins by presenting the historical development of the colonization of the peninsula, including the indigenous and missionary periods, the Galvez reforms and the measures which were taken by various federalist and centralist administrations of Independent Mexico.
Following this introduction, the book lists detailed and documented information about the peninsula concerning physical geography, demographic statistics, mineralogy, pearl fishing, interior and exterior commerce, etc. Lassepas’ style is similar to that of Baron Von Humboldt’s in his Ensayo politico sobre el Reino de la Nueva Espana which signaled the creation of a stylistic school on the treatment of these themes, including charts of statistics, comparative tables, etc. It would seem that either consciously or unconsciously Humboldt’s ideas are present in Lassepas’ thought. Both men demonstrate encyclopedic knowledge and Lassepas, following the Baron’s example, makes incurisons into the fields of geography, history, law, agronomy, political science, economics, surveying and other disciplines. At the same time, he was an enthusiastic traveler who covered the entire peninsula collecting information and even taking census where it had never been done before.11
In another chapter he describes the state of the missions during those years, mentioning to whom the mission lands were adjudicated when this process took place. This information is very important since civilian colonization revolved greatly around the disposal of mission land.
The book also makes reference to titles of vacant land granted in Baja California from 1821, copies of which were submitted for review to the Minister of Development as a result of the March 10, 1857 decree. The list includes 194 titles which covered 223 sitios and 20.5 suertes of land. On each form, noted very carefully, is the name of the person concerned, the type of land parcel, its size, the district in which it was located, the authorities who granted the title and the date of the concession, all of which provides a great deal of valuable information to the study of land tenancy in Baja California. Lassepas also includes information concerning the existing orchards in each municipality and among the names of the owners mentioned are a number of many well-known families now residing in La Paz. Also included is a graph showing, by municipality, the number of cattle, sheep, goats, horses, etc. Concerning this topic it is pertinent to mention how, while we were reviewing the microfilms at the Archivo Historico in La Paz, our attention was called to a number of titles to grazing land, a good many of them from the eighteenth century, which further demonstrates that for a long period cattle raising had been the primary economic activity in the peninsula and, not agriculture, as was commonly believed.
In the last section of the book, Lassepas transcribes a series of 57 documents, mostly legal dispositions, circulars, and proceedings, dealing with the colonization of Baja California, omitting none which might possibly have had any importance. Thus a study of the information presented here provides complete documentation of transactions from the Instruccion de Galvez in 1768 through the Comonfort decree of 1857.
From an historic point of view we can consider Lassepas a liberal author who was caught up in the “Enlightenment Movement,” since his writing echoes Rousseau when he makes reference to the Social Contract, the origins of the contractual relations with the State,12 the right of property as the basis of society,13 universal progress,’14 etc. It should be pointed out that this does not make him fit into the Jacobinism mold which was so common at that time, since on repeated occasions he recognizes and praises the civilizing accomplishments of the missionaries on the peninsula.
As far as supporting documentation for his work is concerned, we have found that he consulted direct sources such as titles and original records of land transactions, as well as other types of documents, in the archives of La Paz, Loreto, and San Antonio. He collected information by interviewing longtime residents, he had access to eighteenth century manuscripts and records concerning the various missions, and he did research in the Ministry of Development Archives. Some of the more outstanding bibliographical sources which he used in his study include La Historia by Clavijero, the works of Constanzo and Garcia Cubas concerning geographic questions and with regard to other matters, he alludes to the Memorias of Manuel Siliceo, the Minister of Development at that time.
Let us now assess the practical results of the Lassepas Memorial. The general conclusion of the work was that the federal government should void its decree, sanction the land titles of the Baja Californians, and recognize their rights without requiring them to pay any amount.
As is known, in November, 1857, Comonfort, who promulgated the decree, left the presidency and the War of Reform, which was to incapacitate the country for three years, broke out. During these years there were two governments in Mexico: one conservative, which controlled Mexico City, the other liberal, which had regional headquarters throughout the country. This dichotomy was an impediment to the continuity of tasks of the Ministry of Development and consequently upset the enforcement of the Baja California land title decree.
This state of affairs had its repercussions in Baja California since, initially, there had been both a political leader and a government council, both adhering to the conservative Plan de Tacubaya of 1857.15 Afterwards, these two were replaced by a territorial delegation which was affiliated with the liberal power structure and which administered its authority with absolute independence.16 In April, 1859, it formulated the Ley de Baldios which was favorable to the local landowners.17
When the Juaristas triumphed in 1861, the situation in the country was restored to normal. The government renewed its interest in the Baja California land titles, but with a more reasonable approach, distinguishing the larger areas of the peninsula where the titles were generally in order, from the border region where some of the old mission land had indeed been sold to foreign interests, the situation which was in itself the principal cause of the land reform decree.
A positive aspect of this change was that it gave Lassepas the opportunity to write the book which throws so much light on the history of the colonization of the peninsula.
However, despite the book’s excellent qualities, hardly anything is known about its author. Jorge Flores, fortuitously, and without mentioning any source, reveals that Lassepas was French.18 Even though he might indeed have been French, it is believed that he had lived in Mexico most of his life, since his Spanish and the general tone of the book is that of a person completely familiar with Mexico. Because of his cultural bearing and relationship with the Minister of Development it could be assumed that he was well established in the capital.
In his book he makes very few references to his personal life. He confirms that he was well traveled in Mexico19 and mentions a visit to the northern part of Baja California in 1850.20 Valades informs us that he functioned in the capacity of Agent to the Ministry of Development in 1856 and that in 1860 he was in La Paz, either because he stayed on there or had returned there to live.
As can be seen, there remains much more unknown than known about this man who made such a valuable contribution to regional history. Even more, he was a man who used his knowledge to forcefully defend the legitimate interests of the Baja Californians of his era. There is an obvious necessity that more studies be undertaken to give us a more complete picture of the man, Ulises Urbano Lassepas, and to arouse more interest in his book.
1. Ulises Urbano Lassepas, Historia de la colonization en la Baja California y Decreto de 10 marzo de 1857, p. 26.
2. Because of the confusion which existed during that era concerning units of measure, the Political Chief of Baja California, Francisco Palacios Miranda, expedited an agreement on November 3, 1844 which established that it should be understood that a parcel of land used for cattle-grazing called sitio would comprise a square league. That is 5,000 varas on each side. Apud, Lassepas, op. cit., p. 215.
3. Adrian Valades, Historia de la Baja California 1850-1880, Prologue by Miguel Leon Portilla, p. 68.
4. Ibid., p. 68.
5. Lassepas, op. cit.. p. 115-116.
6. Memoirs of the Secretary of State and the Office of Development, Commerce and Industry, Colonization of the Mexican Republic, 1857, contains a listing of Agents in various capacities, dated June, 1857. In regard to Baja California, it is mentioned that the “Person in Charge” (el encargado) is to be the “Political Chief” (el jefe politico).
7. Lassepas, op. cit., p. 249.
8. Ibid.. p. 178.
10. Ibid., p. 179.
11. Ibid., p.45.
12. Ibid., p. 21.
13. Ibid., p. 20.
14. Ibid., p. 3.
15. Valades, op. cit., p. 69.
16. Ibid.. p. 74.
17. Ibid., p. 77.
18. Jorge Flores D., Documentos para la historia de Baja California, Tomo II, p. 95.
19. Lassepas, op. cit., p. 25.
20. Ibid., p. 174.
David Pinera, born in Tepic, Nayarit, in 1935, holds a law degree from the Universidad de Guadalajara. He has taught the History of Political Thought and the History of Culture at the Universidad Autbnoma de Baja California in Mexicali, and is currently completing his M.A. in History at the Universidad Nacional Autbnoma de Mexico, in Mexico City. His thesis, written under the direction of Dr. Miguel Leon-Portilla, concerns land ownership in Baja California. This article was presented as a paper at the twelfth annual Baja California Symposium, April, 1974, at La Paz.
Ronald R. Young, M.A. and Ph.D., University of Illinois, 1971, is Assistant Professor in Spanish and Linguistics at San Diego State University. Dr. Young was Director of SDSU’s campus in Mexico City in 1972 and 1973, is a member of the board of directors of Amity Institute, has conducted educational yacht cruises to Ensenada, Baja California, in 1969, and has written a tour guide to Ensenada.