Thursday, December 31, 2015

Clearing on the Halves - The Discovery of a Forgotten Real Estate Practice in Austin's Colony Pertaining to Mexican Land Grants

For several years I have been researching the early history of Montgomery County, Texas. The earliest Anglo-American settlement in what is today Montgomery County, Texas was the Lake Creek Settlement. The Lake Creek Settlement was located in Austin's Second Colony. While doing my research, I discovered a long forgotten real estate practice in Austin' Colony that was quite common in colonial Texas known as "clearing on the halves" or "clearing land."

First, it is important to know that Mexican land grants were not actually free.  There were a number of costs and fees associated with "clearing land" out of Stephen F. Austin's office in the town of San Felipe de Austin. To demonstrate this, we will use Owen Shannon's League which is located today in western Montgomery County.  Using Owen Shannon's League as an example, the costs and fees of obtaining a league of land in Austin's Second Colony in 1831 have been detailed by Galen Greaser, Translator with the Spanish Collection in the Archives and Records Division of the Texas General Land Office:

"In 1829, preparatory to the arrival of Commissioner General Juan Antonio Padilla in the colony, Austin put out a "Notice" advising settlers of the process for obtaining a land grant.  The first step was to obtain a certificate of admission showing that the settler had Austin's consent to locate in the colony.  The cost of the certificate was two dollars (pesos and dollars were on par at this time). As the Empresario, Austin also collected a fee of $50.00 for his services, $10 upon receipt of the title and the balance due one year later.  The Secretary (Samuel M. Williams) was due $10.00, $5.00 on presenting the petition to the commissioner and $5.00 one year later. The title was written on stamped or revenue paper of the third stamp, for which the interested party paid two reales (two bits). Two pages were required , making the total for paper 50 cents.  These are what we might label "office fees." They totaled $62.50.

The settler also had to pay a surveyor for surveying his land. Decree No. 128 of the Congress of Coahuila y Texas, dated April 1, 1830, set the fee at $8.00 for surveying a league of land.  You can find this decree in Gammel's, The Laws of Texas, Vol. 1. Previously, on May 15, 1828, the same Congress passed a decree, No. 62, setting the commissioner's fee at $15.00 for a league of grazing land and $2.00 for each labor of temporal land.  Finally, Article 22 of the 1825 Colonization Law fixed the government dues required from each settler.  The land was classified when it was surveyed. The two main classifications were grazing or pastureland and arable or temporal land. Each league of land contains 25 labors.

As an example, in Owen Shannon's title, 20 labors were classified as grazing land and 5 labors were deemed arable.  The fee for grazing land was $1.20 per labor, making $24.00, and arable land brought $2.50 per labor, or $12.50 in this case.  The total government dues were, thus, $36.50. Settlers were given six years in which to pay the government, the first payment being due in the fourth year.  If the commissioner charged $15 and the surveyor collected $8.00, added to the $36.50, the total would be $59.50 for this part, which added to the "office fees" make a total of $122.00. There may have been a few other incidentals, such as the cost of preparing the certified copy of the title that was given to the grantee, but I would be comfortable with stating that the cost of obtaining a title for one league of land in Austin's Colony in 1831 was in the neighborhood of $125 dollars."

$125 was a lot of money in 1831. Often, early settlers did not have enough money to pay these costs and fees to clear their land out of Stephen F. Austin's office at San Felipe.

"Clearing on the halves" or "clearing land" had nothing whatsoever to do with clearing trees or brush from land, as the name would initially suggest.  Many settlers that came to Texas had waited for years to get their land grants in Austin's Colony.  By the time the Empresario (Austin) had the deed papers ready, the settlers were often out of cash money when it came time to pay the costs and fees described above. Enterprising businessmen with ready cash would offer to pay these closing costs on behalf of the settlers in return for a portion of the league of land the settler was to receive. Typically the person "clearing land on the halves" got, as the name suggests, half of the settler's league of land.

The practice was a win-win-win situation.  The Empresario and the Mexican government won because they got all their costs and fees paid.  The settler won because he received clear title to his league of land without paying any money out of his own pocket.  And the business man "clearing on the halves" immediately got half of the league of land the settler received (about 2,214 acres) for an investment of about $125.00 (or just over 5 and a half cents per acre).

For instance, in the example in the section above, Thomas Taylor paid Owen Shannon's costs and fees on his behalf.  In return for paying these expenses on behalf of Owen Shannon, Owen Shannon deeded half of his league to Thomas Taylor.  This practice was known as "clearing on the halves."

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