If you have an ancestor who came into what is now Texas in the 1700s or 1800s, understanding the history, jurisdictions, and records will be key to your research. This is the first of a three-part series where we’ll explore the Spanish, Mexican, Republic, and Statehood eras of Texas, specifically focusing on the land grants.
Several push/pull factors would have influenced our ancestors in their choice to move to Texas. A major reason was land availability. Although the Spanish era offered relatively few individual land grants, proof of a family story of an ancestor being granted land by the King of Spain could be discovered. As land on the U.S. east coast filled up, the lure of land availability encouraged many settlers to move west. Many men wanted to live on the frontier and Texas certainly offered plenty in the way of adventure. During the Mexican era, there was no reciprocal agreement requiring fugitives to be returned or allowing creditors to collect debts making it a desirable place for those wanting to start over. After the Civil War, southerners came to Texas wanting a new start, leaving behind the ruins of their plantations and way of life. Consider the area your ancestor was living in before their move to Texas and the reasons they might have migrated.
We want to learn about our ancestor’s actions. Land can reveal military service, the time when the family moved to Texas, how long they had lived on the land, and more. The land records can reveal military service if the ancestor or his heirs received a grant for his involvement in a war or other conflict. The land grants include the original surveys, complete with a map showing the neighbors. Because the ancestor could choose his own land, the neighbors were likely his family, friends, or acquaintances. Research the land grants of the neighbors to see if there are any clues to your ancestor. Did they serve in the military together? Did they move into the area at the same time? Land grants have many possibilities for research.
Spain (1519-1685; 1690-1821)
Republic of Texas (1836-1845)
Confederate States of America (1861-1865)
United States of America (1845-1861; 1865-)
The Spanish rule in Texas began in 1519 with the landing of Spanish explorer Alonzo De Pineda on the Gulf Coast. It wouldn’t be until the 1680s that Spain established a mission at Ysleta near El Paso. In 1685, the French explorer La Salle established Fort St. Louis near Matagorda Bay. The French settlement was short-lived and in 1689 Governor de Leon destroyed the fort. A few years later, Spain decided to strengthen their presence in Texas and began to establish Missions in Texas.2
In 1821 Mexico obtained its Independence from Spain and ruled Texas until the Mexican army led by Santa Anna was defeated by Sam Houston and his men. In 1836, the Republic of Texas was born and claimed lands in Texas as well as other western states. When Texas joined the union in 1845, it gave up its claim to those lands in exchange for 10 million dollars and was allowed to keep its public lands, entering as a state land state. The annexation of Texas into the United States precipitated the Mexican War because Mexico still considered Texas part of Mexico. The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended with the Mexican cession and defined the southern border of Texas. Texas seceded from the Union during the Civil War and rejoined in 1870. How was land distributed during each era and what records survive to reveal more about our ancestors?
Settling of Texas
Despite the Spanish claiming of Texas in 1519, the land was virtually ignored until the French established the fort at Matagorda Bay and claimed the area for France. Spain then decided it needed a presence in Texas, but the Spanish colonists in Mexico were unwilling to move north to a dangerous land. Finally, with the Spanish desire to spread Christianity among the native Americans living in Texas, missions and presidios began to be established. The following map shows the clustering of the missions and presidios along the rivers.3
Spanish Land Grants
Under Spain, the Spanish crown owned the land and private ownership required a grant from the king. The king delegated his authority to designated representatives such as governors and captains at the beginning of the settlement. The oldest surviving record of a Spanish land grant is the 1720 title to the San Jose Mission in San Antonio – housed at the Texas General Land Office.4
The earliest land grants in Texas came under the rule of Spain as missions and presidios were established in east Texas beginning in 1690. A presidio was a fort built of adobe or logs and provided protection for the mission as well as a place for soldiers and officers to reside. The spread of missions and presidios in Texas was designed to gain control over the region and to teach Christianity to the native people. Pictured below is the Presidio La Bahia.5
Private land grants began in the 1750s with Spanish royal commissioners surveying and distributing the land in south Texas. The land was distributed based on seniority – original, old, or recent settlers. Because of the importance of irrigation water, the lots were set off on long thin strips of land (porciones) with a narrow frontage on the river. The porciones could extend several miles back from the river in order to achieve enough land.
The area of south Texas comprises about 170 porciones grants and 33 larger land grants – all issued by Spain.6 These grants were recorded in the Acts of the Visit of the Royal Commissioners and generally went to influential citizens.7
1820: Opening of Texas to Foreign Settlement by Spain: Empresarios
In other areas of Texas, informal agreements with local officials resulted in families receiving a portion of land. As more settlers moved into the region, these settlers sought to formalize their grants. The number of inhabitants in Texas remained small, so in 1820 the Spanish government opened Texas to any settler who would respect the laws of the land. In 1821, Mexico obtained Independence from Spain and land settlement entered a new era.
Texas fell under Mexican rule, but Spanish influence was lasting and still is felt. Horses, cattle, and sheep were first introduced by Spanish settlers as the land was well suited to grazing. Many Spanish laws were retained and Texas land laws became a combination of English common law and Spanish civil law. The land measurements used through the Spanish colonies of a “vara” and a “labor” continue to be used as land measurements in Texas.
In part two of this series, we’ll look at the era of Mexican rule over Texas and the Mexican colonization policy through the empresario system. We’ll also look at the types of records created and where to locate them.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!
- Texas Historical Commission, “Six Flags Over Texas,” (https://www.thc.texas.gov/public/upload/forms/six-flags-over-texas.pdf : accessed 26 January 2022)
- Harriett Denise Joseph and Donald E. Chipman, “Spanish Texas,” TSHA Handbook of Texas, ([https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/spanish-texas : accessed 27 January 2022)
- Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File: Spanish Missions in Texas.JPG,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Spanish_Missions_in_Texas.JPG&oldid=577409665 accessed 27 January 2022).
- “Mission San Jose and San Miguel de Aguiayo,” 1720, Catalogue 2, Certificate #1768, The Texas General Land Office, (https://s3.glo.texas.gov/ncu/SCANDOCS/archives_webfiles/arcmaps/webfiles/landgrants/PDFs/1/0/7/3/1073974.pdf : accessed 27 January 2022)
- Presidio La Bahia Entrance, photo by John Stanton 1 Dec 2011 http://www.fortwiki.com/File:Presidio_La_Bahia_Front_-_1.jpg#filelinks
- “The Visita General and the South Texas Porciones,” (https://medium.com/save-texas-history/the-visita-general-and-the-south-texas-porciones-a7ddd26f48f4 : accessed 3 March 2020); Morris, Webb Co., Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1901, Map #63113, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.
- The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, “Acts of the Visit of the Royal commissioners” archives.lib.utgrv (https://archives.lib.utrgv.edu/repositories/2/resources/263 : accessed 27 January 2022).
My oldest brother (81 yrs) and I recently visited our birthplace of Pearsall, Tx. We went out to our old “homeplace” where we lived in the 40s and 50s. He was able to tell me many interesting stories, one being the time our dad took him out in the field to show him something. He recollected that it was two mesquite trees with markings that indicated they were Spanish Land Grant markings and the trees could never be cut down. Do you know of any additional information or history of these types of markings?
That is a fascinating story. The surveyors did use what landmarks they could find, so the original grant probably mentions the two mesquite trees. You should be able to track down the grant if you know the name of the ancestor whose name would be on the grant and the location.