Jump to Content

Collection Guide
Collection Title:
Collection Number:
Get Items:
Inventory of the State Land Office Records
View entire collection guide What's This?
Search this collection
Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Agency History
  • Surveyors General of California:
  • Scope and Content
  • Indexing Terms
  • Related Material

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: State Land Office Records
    Dates: 1852-1932
    Collection number: R388
    Creator: State Land Office
    Creator/Collector: Department of Finance, Division of State Lands
    Collection Size: 47 cubic feet
    Repository: California State Archives
    Sacramento, California
    Abstract: The State Land Office Records consist of 47 cubic feet of records documenting transactions in the disposal of state public lands, and early survey records of various geographic areas within California, especially San Francisco.
    Physical location: California State Archives
    Languages: Languages represented in the collection: English

    Administrative Information


    Collection is open for research. Access to some records may be limited due to the physical condition of the documents. Please see Reference Archivist for access information.

    Publication Rights

    For permission to reproduce or publish, please contact the California State Archives. Permission for reproduction or publication is given on behalf of the California State Archives as the owner of the physical items. The researcher assumes all responsibility for possible infringement which may arise from reproduction or publication of materials from the California State Archives collections.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of Item], State Land Office Records, R388.[series number], [box/folder number], California State Archives, Office of the Secretary of State, Sacramento, California.

    Acquisition Information

    A gap exists in the State Land Office Records' custodial history. The records are believed to have been deposited with the State Archives by the Department of Finance, a division of the Governor's Office, as early as the 1930s or 1940s. Details regarding the acquisition, however, are unknown at this time. See Scope and Content note for further details.

    Agency History

    The formal administration of state public lands began in 1858 with the creation of the State Land Office for the purpose of "ascertaining, protecting, and managing the title and claim of the state to any lands within its limits, derived by grants from the United States, or in any other manner." The Surveyor General, a statewide elected official whose Office was established by the 1849 California Constitution, served as ex officio Register of the State Land Office (Chapter 176, Statutes 1858).
    Between 1850 and 1862, the State of California acquired interest in nearly 9 million acres of land from the federal public domain within its boundaries for various salutary purposes, including reclamation and the funding of public education. Grants from which California received public lands were as follows:
    500,000 acres for the purpose of internal improvements. An Act to appropriate the proceeds of the sales of the public lands, and to grant preemption rights. September 4, 1841. 5 Stat. 453.
    Swamp and Overflowed Lands. An Act to enable the state of Arkansas and other States to reclaim the "Swamp Lands" within their limits. September 28, 1850. 9 Stat. 519.
    Sections sixteen and thirty-six of each township for school purposes; seventy-two sections for a seminary of learning (university); ten sections for the erection of public buildings. An Act to provide for the Survey of the Public Lands in California, the granting of Preemption Rights therein, and for other purposes. March 3, 1853. 10 Stat. 244.
    150,000 acres for an Agricultural College. An Act donating Public Lands to the several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. July 2, 1862. 12 Stat. 503.
    In addition to public lands from the Congressional grants, California acquired ownership upon statehood of all sovereign lands. Sovereign lands are those underlying the navigable and tidal waterways within the state.
    Prior to the creation of the State Land Office, many different federal, state, and local offices and officials had been responsible for activities related to the disposal of State public lands. This uncoordinated effort added to the problems caused by both pre-emption and the State's attempts to sell public lands before the U.S. public land survey was conducted. In addition, California's first Surveyors General, who were charged with maintaining an estimate of the aggregate quantity of land belonging to the State and the characteristics of those lands, were frustrated by the lack of information from officials, especially County Surveyors, regarding surveys, locations, and sales of lands. In his 1857 annual report to the Governor, Surveyor General Brewster echoed his predecessors' concerns regarding the lack of centralization for State lands activities. "The settler is far ahead of the state in every section, and lands which should properly be sold by the state for the benefit of her treasury, are constantly being purchased from the United States. The principal cause of these difficulties and losses is to be found in the want of a central office in which could be collected all the information necessary to an establishment of the state's rights, and in which should be placed the authority to survey, select, register, and patent all lands sold by the authority of the state." The Legislature responded by creating the State Land Office and making the Surveyor General of California ex officio Register of the State Land Office.
    As Register, the Surveyor General's duties included: communicating with the United States Surveyor General in matters concerning the U.S. Survey going on within the state, especially the demarcation of swamp and overflowed lands; approving surveys made by county surveyors; ascertaining the extent, limits, and boundaries of all lands to which the State is or may be entitled, and having the title vested in the state; keeping records, including land descriptions, of facts concerning survey, location, and sale of lands, and the issuing of patents for all classes of land to which the State may be entitled; issuing certificates of purchase; issuing Register's Certificates; and receiving various documents from other officials concerning public lands disposal.
    By the mid-1860s, California had sold much of the public land it was entitled to, though the state had not yet received title from the federal government for even one acre of land. Two Surveyors General traveled to Washington at their own expense, determined to settle with the Commissioner of the federal General Land Office over the issue of land titles. In 1866, An Act to quiet Land Titles in California (14 Stat. 218) finally confirmed to the State the lands that it had sold to individual purchasers as State public lands.
    Throughout the life of the agency, and especially during the 1860s and 1870s, various State laws were passed in a continuing effort to alleviate problems that plagued the public lands disposal process. Much of this legislation affected the documentation process of surveys and land sales, forcing the State Land Office to make adjustments in its administrative tasks.
    Chapter 516, Statutes 1929 abolished the State Land Office and the Office of Surveyor General, transferring all duties, powers, purposes, responsibilities and jurisdictions to the newly-created Division of State Lands within the Department of Finance. The Chief of the Division, appointed by the Director of Finance, served as ex officio Register of State Lands.
    In 1938, the State Lands Commission became successor agency to the Division of State Lands (Chapter 5, Statutes 1938, first extra session). The Commission continues to serve as the administrative agency for state public lands. Members include the Lieutenant Governor, the State Controller, and the State Director of Finance. The Commission's authority and duties are defined in the California Public Resources Code, sections 6101-6111.

    Surveyors General of California:

    • Charles J. Whiting, 1849-1851
    • William M. Eddy, 1852-1853
    • Seneca H. Marlette, 1854-1855
    • John H. Brewster, 1856-1857
    • Horace A. Higley,* 1858-1861
    • James F. Houghton,* 1862-1866
    • John W. Bost,* 1867-1871
    • Robert Gardner,* 1871-1875
    • William Minis,* 1875-1879
    • James W. Shanklin,* 1880-1881
    • Henry I Willey,* 1882-1886
    • Theodore Reichert,* 1886-1894
    • Martin J. Wright,* 1894-1902
    • Victor H. Woods,* 1902-1906
    • W. S. Kingsbury,* 1906-1928
    • * Surveyors General who served as Register of the State Land Office.

    Scope and Content

    The State Land Office Records consists of forty-seven cubic feet of records created and collected by the State Land Office, and arranged into twenty-eight series. The collection reflects the cooperative relationship between administrative bodies in the disposal of public lands and includes records generated by the State Land Office, the Board of Swamp Land Commissioners, the Board of Tide Land Commissioners, the University of California Regents, county Boards of Supervisors, federal district land offices, and the General Land Office under the U.S. Department of the Interior. In addition there is correspondence created between 1929 and 1932 by the Department of Finance, Division of State Lands. This collection represents only a small portion of the records created by the State Land Office. Most of the records of the former State Land Office are in the custody of the State Lands Commission.
    The disposal of state public lands was a significant activity in California's early history. It enabled the reclamation of millions of acres of swamp and overflowed lands, allowing the state to become the agricultural leader it is today. In addition, the revenues received from the sale of school lands supported the early development of the state's public education system.
    The bulk of the records in this collection were created during the nineteenth century, largely in the 1860s and 1870s, when land sales and legislation concerning land disposal were at a peak. With the exception of Series 6, 9, and 13, the records within the first seventeen series consist primarily of standard forms that document various activities related to individual land purchases in accordance with the laws that governed the disposal of such lands. Twenty-three of the forty-seven cubic feet of records consists of Register's Receipts. In addition to their historical value, many of the records have legal value, filling gaps that exist in the State Lands Commission's historical records for evidence in chains of title.
    Series 18 through Series 28, as well as the exceptions mentioned previously, consist of documents that were created outside of the mandates for documenting the activities of state public land disposal. These records include correspondence, special surveys, records generated by special Boards, and records related to legal actions. In addition, twelve oversized maps are stored separately. Smaller maps can be found within the folders of these series. Much of the correspondence in Series 24 is addressed to various Governors, who in turn redirected the letters to the Surveyors General for investigation and response. These letters are primarily inquiries from private citizens regarding land issues or are from the General Land Office regarding the transfer of lands. In most instances, copies of the responses are not included in the records. The letters from private citizens serve to provide examples of the problems individuals experienced as purchasers of public lands. Also of particular interest are the 1868 San Francisco waterfront survey documents in Series 21. These records document the original waterfront line of San Francisco.
    Researchers should be aware of a gap in information concerning custodial history of the records (See Administrative Information). Prior to being made a separate collection, these records comprised Series 17, Land Office Papers, within the Governors Office Records (Inventory No. 4). As a consequence of that gap, unanswered questions exist concerning both the arrangement of series and the reasons for the collection of certain materials. With the exception of Series 24 through Series 28, which were arranged from three cubic feet of records, the original arrangement was maintained. The arrangement for Series 24 through 28 is artificial and documents have been placed in chronological order.
    Because of the age and condition of the documents, many require preservation treatments prior to use. Researchers are advised to contact the California State Archives reference staff for access information.

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.
    California -- State Land Office
    Land use -- California
    California -- Surveyor General's Office

    Related Material

    Department of Finance Records
    Governor's Office Records
    State Controller Records
    State Lands Commission Records
    State Treasurer Records
    Surveyor General Records