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Court of Private Land Claims, 1891-1904

After victory in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), America acquired vast territory in what is now the southwestern United States. Prior to the war, the Mexican government had issued land grants to several individuals and communities in this area. The legal status of these grants and the rights of parties claiming property under them became a source of political conflict in the decades following the war. The original text of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which ended the war and confirmed the cession of this territory, stipulated that the United States would continue to recognize the validity of the Mexican land grants. Although Congress struck out this provision of the treaty during the ratification process, the United States assured the Mexican government that it would uphold valid grants and adjudicate land rights accordingly. 

After setting up a series of controversial commissions to take surveys of the land in question and determine the validity of claims, Congress created a court in 1891 (26 Stat. 854) to dispose of remaining land claims related to the Mexican grants. The court was originally designed to terminate after five years, but the complexity of the cases led to series of extensions, such that the court finally completed its work in 1904. The court’s five justices were appointed by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate to five year terms that were themselves subsequently extended. Appeals from the court were taken directly to the Supreme Court of the United States. Over the course of its thirteen year history, the court adjudicated title to over 35 million acres of land, although several individuals and groups continued to contest the ownership of some of this land for decades following the court’s termination.