Differing Land Appeal Experiences

John Temple: Overcoming the Challenges of the California Land Act of 1851

John Temple was a cattle rancher who purchased Rancho Los Cerritos in 1843. After purchasing the land, he had workers begin construction on this adobe home. In 1851, the California Land Act established a Public Land Commission to determine the validity of prior Spanish and Mexican land grants. It required landowners like John Temple, who claimed title under the Mexican government, to file their claim with the Commission within two years.


John Temple had the time, privilege, and resources to argue for his land title to Rancho Los Cerritos; other landowners did not have the same privilege in court. Although the Public Land Commission eventually validated most land titles, many landowners had to sell their land to pay legal fees. While John Temple had difficulty fighting to retain Rancho Los Cerritos, other Californian and Indigenous landowners had an even harder time due to financial barriers and discrimination. Mr. Temple was ultimately successful; other landowners, such as María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, a prominent member of a Baja California family, were not so fortunate.


John Temple: Overcoming the Challenges of the California Land Act of 1851 compares how John Temple and María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, two landowners from different backgrounds, had very different experiences during their land appeal processes.


The exhibition raises important questions:

What factors helped John Temple retain his land title to Rancho Los Cerritos?

What factors contributed to the difficulties experienced by other California and Indigenous landowners as they tried to retain their lands?


Barriers in the Land Appeal Process

Landowners encountered multiple barriers while fighting for land recognition and ownership.

Language Barrier: Those who did not speak English had to pay to hire a translator or a bilingual lawyer.

Long Term Fees: The court process could take 5-20 years. The high cost of a lengthy legal battle and daily living expenses was often another reason to give up or sell land.

“Lost” Deed: If landowners could not find their title, courts would try to invalidate the purchase.

Deception: The government did not thoroughly enforce land protection under the law. With some intimidation and manipulation, unethical land transfers occurred.

Diseños: American courts challenged informal sketches of property boundaries that were recognized as valid under Spanish and Mexican rule.

Squatters: As settlers arrived in California after the discovery of gold, many saw the large ranchos as invitations to “squat” or settle illegally on the land. Once established, squatters were often difficult to remove, and fighting their claims resulted in additional expensive legal battles for landowners.



This diseño or map sketch shows the division of the original rancho owned by Manuela Nieto, which includes Rancho Los Cerritos.

Before John Temple owned Rancho Los Cerritos, Manuel Nieto’s family lived on 167,000 acres of land. After Manuel Nieto’s death, the land he owned was divided among his children. His daughter, Manuela Nieto de Cota, was owner of the parcel later known as Rancho Los Cerritos. Around 1833, the Nieto family employed Abel Stearns, a peer of John Temple and later owner of Rancho Los Alamitos, to map out a diseño. This diseño formed part of the land appeal document presented to the Commission by John Temple.



John Temple and Rafaela Cota de Temple

John Temple (1796-1866) was a trader and merchant from Massachusetts. He left home at age 20 to go to Boston. In 1827, Temple decided to emigrate to California, after which he obtained Mexican citizenship. He became known as Don Juan Temple and in 1828, he opened a shop in the Pueblo of Los Angeles with his business partner, George Rice. Temple married Rafaela Cota, a member of a prominent Californio family from Santa Barbara, in 1830. They later purchased Rancho Los Cerritos from Cota’s relatives in 1843. In the early 1860s, John Temple’s cattle business suffered due to severe flooding and droughts.  In 1866, Temple decided to retire and sold Rancho Los Cerritos to the Flint, Bixby & Co. for $20,000 ($372,718.24 in today’s money).


Jotham Bixby

Jotham Bixby lived at Rancho Los Cerritos from 1866 to 1881. Bixby was ranch manager and later half owner of the Rancho Los Cerritos sheep ranch.


Land Purchase

In John temple’s appeal document, he presented evidence of his original purchase of Rancho Los Cerritos. Manuela Nieto de Cota owned the 27,000 acres of land known as Rancho Los Cerritos. After her death, John Temple purchased the Rancho from her heirs, her 11 children. Her husband, Guillermo Cota, signed the sale document on behalf of their four youngest children.

Temple obtained the right to use the rancho cattle brand for an additional $25 ($1,001.05 in today’s money). Temple then built his family home and raised 15,00 head of cattle on his rancho.


Legal Challenges

The District Attorney Identified 16 grounds for complaints, stating that Temple’s claim to Rancho Los Cerritos was invalid. On September 11, 1854, John Temple went to court to prove that his title to Rancho Los Cerritos was valid.

For example, the Court questioned if the signatures of the Cota descendants were authentic, if Temple was a naturalized Mexican citizen at the time of purchase, and if the land belonged to the San Gabriel mission. Temple successfully discredited each of these claims.



Successful outcome

Throughout John Temple’s life, he enjoyed traveling and experimenting with different business and trading endeavors.  At one time, he was considered the richest man in California. Besides being a wealthy and very well-connected American, Temple was considered one of the largest landowners in Los Angeles County due to his purchase of Rancho Los Cerritos. All of these factors contributed to his success in getting his land ownership recognized.


Land Purchase

Maria Amparo Ruiz (1832- 1895) was a prominent member of a Baja California family. She married US army captain Henry S. Burton.

In 1854, Ruiz de Burton and her husband obtained Rancho Jamul. The original owner was former California governor Pio Pico. Like John Temple, Pio Pico had submitted a land appeal document for the property. However, the American land court rejected his claim. In the meantime, the property had been sold twice, the second time to Captain Burton. The Burton family resided at Rancho Jamul until Burton had to return to active service in the Union army. The family moved to the East Coast in 1859. Squatters took advantage of the unoccupied rancho to take over the land.



Legal Challenges

Ruiz de Burton began having legal battles for her land in the 1860s.

She ultimately received a title for Rancho Jamul in 1876. However, she lost most of the land in the 1880s because over 100 squatters filed against her estate. She never recovered her rancho because the court proceedings continued until after her death.


Unsuccessful Outcome


The California Land Commission eventually validated 604 of the 813 land claims; however, like Ruiz de Burton, most of the Californio families ultimately lost their land because of lengthy legal battles with squatters.


Conflicts of Interest: The book presents a collection of letters and background from Maria Amparo’s experience fighting for her land. In her letters to politicians and lawyers, she calls out the corrupt government practices by exposing how disproportionately Californios were affected.

The Squatter and the Don: Ruiz de Burton wrote this work of fiction in 1885 to present what was happening to her and others from the perspective of Californio landowners.