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Ranchos were large land grants that provided a logical frontier solution for isolated Spanish governors in remote California and New Mexico. Making grants of land was the most effective way in which Spanish governors could reward their employees for good service and attract settlers to the area. After U.S. rule began in 1846, the existence of ranchos led to strife, speculation, and dispossession. In sparsely settled New Mexico, ranchos fueled the activities of corrupt and greedy politicians. While the United States promised to respect existing land titles under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, confirmation of those titles became hugely political.

Before the secularization of the California missions in 1834, Spanish and Mexican governors had granted some 50 ranchos. Afterwards, with essentially all land becoming available ...

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