In 1919, Robert Wentworth Bates moved to Rincon Point to manage his family’s 733-acre share of the Rancho El Rincon land grant. One of his first tasks probably seemed minor at the time, but it ended up affecting a lot of people along the Central Coast; he prosecuted an eviction case against a squatter named Tony Peraz, who had been living for years in a shack on the beach at Rincon Point.

Squatters represent a venerable and sometimes violent element of California history. In a two-day battle in Sacramento in 1850, squatters wounded the mayor (he died two months later) and killed the city assessor and the sheriff. In 1853, a posse exchanged fire with followers of squatter Jack Powers in the Santa Barbara plaza. At least one squatter was killed, and the sheriff was stabbed. In Ventura County in 1877, squatters murdered W. Thomas Moore, owner of Rancho Sespe. 

Fortunately for Robert Bates, California’s Wild West days were over by the time he filed suit, and the case proceeded peaceably in Ventura County Superior Court. Peraz submitted a map showing his shack and three versions of the Bates property line, relying on surveys from 1860, 1905 and 1919. All three lines were slightly inland from the shore. Under all three, the shack occupied a ribbon of unclaimed land between the Bates property line and mean high tide. If Peraz won, he wouldn’t own that ribbon (it belonged to the government, and you can’t get government land by adverse possession) but he probably figured that he’d be left alone.

Bates argued that Peraz was wrong about the property line. In establishing boundaries, a natural feature such as a shoreline trumps the so-called meander lines of a survey. According to Bates, the Rincon property extended to the sea.

The outcome of the suit depended on the federal document from 1872 that established the boundaries of Rancho El Rincon. The document, called a patent, refers to “the sea-shore on sand-beach” as one boundary. Bates said that the phrase applied to all of the property along the shore. Peraz said that a semicolon in the patent meant that the seashore provision applied only to some of the property but not to the part around his shack. Judge Merle J. Rogers examined the patent and the maps, inspected the shack, heard testimony and ruled for Bates. 

Newspapers presented the ruling as bad news for hundreds of squatters. Shacks like Peraz’s, according to the Los Angeles Herald,stood on “practically the entire ocean front” around Santa Barbara. 

Though he lost in court, Peraz was right about the uncertainty of old property lines. Teodoro Arellanes owned Rancho El Rincon starting in 1835, but he didn’t know how big it was. Sometimes he said it was one square Spanish league; other times he said two.

In 1855, a federal court upheld the validity of the Rincon land grant up to a maximum of 4,428 acres (one square Spanish league). Federal surveyors mapped out property lines in 1860 and came up with 4,460 acres. By 1860 standards, that was apparently an error too trivial to fix, so the ranch gained 32 acres. Other parts of the 1860 survey were equally imprecise. A tall tree had originally marked the northern corner of the rancho, but locals had cut it down and stolen the timber, so the surveyors had to make their best guesses. 

Before the federal court confirmed Arellanes’ Rincon land grant in 1855, a lower body called the Land Commission rejected it on the ground that the boundaries were too indefinite. Arellanes’ lawyer, Henry W. Halleck, denounced the process. The members of the Land Commission, he said in a letter, were nothing but squatters, trying to steal property from rightful owners such as Arellanes.

That’s one way to look at it. From a different perspective, Arellanes and his successors were able to claim Rincon Point only because of an earlier eviction, when the Spanish ousted some 300 Chumash villagers in the late 1700s. One person’s industrious settler is another’s thieving squatter.

Stephen Bates, the grandson of Robert W. Bates, is coauthor (with Vince Burns) of a pictorial history of Rincon Point, to be published later this year. He lives in Henderson, Nevada, and Carpinteria.

To learn more about Carpinteria history, visit the Carpinteria Valley Museum of History’s website carpinteriahistoricalmuseum.org to access more articles on local history. To support the preservation of local history, consider becoming a member of the Carpinteria Historical Society.

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