All around the San Francisco Bay, as well as in other parts of California where there were Mexican or Spanish land grants, squatters and squatter claims existed. In some cases the squatters were right while in others they were not intentionally wrong. The United States government encouraged and invited settlement on public lands and when there was a fair presumption that the lands settled on had not been part of a land grant there was some justification for the squatters to take possession. The earlier court decisions held that squatters had a right to settle on disputed land grants and remain there until it could be determined that there was an actual land grant and that an approved survey showed it contained the land in dispute. These decisions were known a “squatter decisions” because they leaned toward the squatters.
So it was that circumstances in the beginning favored squatters. Open land along the American frontier had always been available to settlers and Americans expected the same in California. California miners however recognized that the first occupant of the land had the right to continue his occupancy as long as he worked the land. Over time mining laws were devised to determine what was required for occupancy but these rules were to preserve the rights of whoever worked the land. And due to the lack of accurate surveys from Spanish and Mexican days there was always uncertainty to what land was granted and what was public domain. Both the squatters and those who claimed the land could be expected to do all they could to influence decisions so that they would wind up with title to the best of these disputed lands. But the main reasons for squatting were the determination to make money without regard to the means. The increasing value of the land, the worth of even its temporary use and the chances of compromising on favorable terms with the true owner were powerful attractions.
John Rose Putnam is the author of HANGTOWN CREEK, INTO THE FACE OF THE DEVIL and TALES FROM THE PROMISED LAND, hard driving historical fiction from the California gold rush. See more at John Rose Putnam.com.