Meet James Reavis, the greatest con man you’ve never heard of. Called the Baron of Arizona, Reavis defrauded thousands of people — scamming them out of more than $150 million in today’s dollars. Using his forgery skills and a love of Spanish romance novels, he literally stole most of Arizona from legal landowners. And the most famous newspapermen, railroad giants, government officials, and Spanish aristocrats of the 1800s fell for it — hook, line, and sinker. Join us as Emily breaks down largest and most diabolical scam in American History.
Timeline of James Reavis
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
· Ended the Mexican-American war
· Gave US lots of land: Rio Grande, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada Utah, Wyoming, Colorado
· Signed 12/30/1853, final approval 6/8/1854
· James Gadsen was American ambassador to Mexico
· Lands south of Gila River and west of Rio Grande, finish Arizona, New Mexico
· acquired to construct transcontinental railroad along deep southern route, Southern Pacific Railroad completed in 1883
· Reconcile outstanding border issues following Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
Under terms of treaties above, US had to recognize and honor existing land grants made by Spanish or Mexican governments
· Born 5/10/1843 in Missouri
· Father immigrated from Wales, mother of Spanish descent and proud of that heritage, read Spanish Romantic literature to him as a child
· Enlisted in Confederate Army at 18 full of romanticized ideals of military life and realized it wasn’t quite so grand
· Realized he could forge not only his commanding officer’s signature, but the entire handwritten furlough form, began creating passes so he could leave and visit family or scape the drudgery for a while
· Fellow soldiers noticed, so he started selling them fake passes
· Forged provision orders and resold goods a cut-rate deals
· When superiors got suspicious, he took leave to “get married” and then surrendered to Union forces instead. Served in the Union Army briefly.
· Returned to Missouri after war, odd jobs – streetcar conductor, traveling salesman, retail clerk, finally landed in real estate where discovered that those forging skills he learned on army passes were easily transferred to property titles and other real estate paperwork.
· Physician turned prospector who supplemented income selling patent medicine
· Purchase rights to large Spanish land grant from Miguel Peralta for $20,000 in gold dust, prospectin equipment and saddle mules – deed scratched on scrap paper, no notary just witnesses
· Had some legal paperwork, letters that supported claim – had William W. Gitt, expert in Spanish land titles, join them & verify
· Reavis saw opportunity, they agreed to meet in Arizona territory, traveling separately so they could meet up when they got there, increasing their credibility and decreasing the likelihood anyone would know they were partners
· Willing arrived in Prescott in March 1874, filed his claim at the county courthouse and was found dead the next morning.
· When Reavis arrived in San Francisco, received two letters: from Willing announcing his safe arrival, from country sheriff announcing his death.
· Reavis needed the papers Willing had in order to pull off his plans, but ran out of money so stayed in CA working as a teacher and journalist
· Spent time observing the Public Land Commission, how it worked, claimed approved, bribery
· Met Collis P. Huntington, railroad magnate, who was angry at his paper San Francisco Examiner for its attack on him and was using his influence to scare away advertisers and subscribers. Reavis met with him, told him about the Peralta grant which would allow him to grant right-of-way privileges to Huntington’s railroad line. Got him to buy large advertising contract from paper and to pay him a $2000 advance on the claim development.
· May not have fully believed him, but could use him against competitors like Jay Gould who was also trying to build railroads in the southwest
· Reavis visited in May 1880, gave probate judge who oversaw Willing’s case a letter from his widow authorizing his to take custody of any papers that Willing had, so he got the Peralta grant paperwork back, returned to CA
· Documents not overly impressive, but spurred on by success already, thought he still had something to work with.
· Changed grant from “Floater” – certain amount of land but no fixed location – to specific location by interpreting historical measurements by the most favorable definition possible. 10×30 league (about 2000 square miles) turned into 49.5 miles x 149.5 miles later almost 80 x 240 miles (18750 square miles). Included Phoenix, Globe, Casa Grande, Florence, Tempe, Silver King Mine, Southern Pacific Railroad.
· To Sacramento to buy mining rights Willing had used as collateral for a loan
· To DC to examine a record box for Mission San Xavier del Bac
· To Mexico to search archives in Guadalajara and Mexico City, developed friendships with key archivists, gathered collection of photographs and certified copies of papers related to Peralta grant – some of which he had snuck out of the archives, forged copies or adjusted and smuggled back in
· To Kentucky to buy Willing’s widow’s interest in the grant
· Reavis fabricated Spanish aristocratic family out of whole cloth
· Don Miguel Nemecio Silva de Peralta de la Cordoba was born in 1708, related to Philip IV of Spain (FIL of France’s “Sun King” Louis XIV) joined the military in 1727, appointed royal inspector in 1742, sent on a secret mission to Guadalajara possibly to locate silver mines, named “Baron Of Arizonaca, Knight of the Golden Fleece and member of the Order of Montesa”
· Philip V issued royal decree stating his intention to make a land grant to Don Miguel in November 1744. His successor Ferdinand VI promoted him to captian of dragoons, gave him the title Baron of the Colordaos and issued decree instructing the Viceroy of New Spain to find 300 square leagues of land for Don Miguel.
· 1/3/1758 land was located north of Mission San Xavier del Bac an land grant issued by viceroy
· May 1758 – Don Miguel traveled to the claim’s location, ceremony conducted to mark the claim with a large rock “Inicial Monument” marks center of western boundary
· 1768 – Don Miguel asks Charles III to reconfirm grant after Jesuits expelled from New Spain
· 1770 – married Sofia Ave Maria Sanchez Bonilla de Amaya y Garcia de Orosco
· 1772 – request granted, affirmed by Spanish High Court in 1776
· 1778 – Don Miguel attempted to settle on the land using the ruins at Casa Grande as base of operation, but Apache raids deterred him, returned to Spain
· 1781 – son born Jesus Miguel Silva (or Miguel Silva Jesus) de Peralta de la Cordoba y Sanchez de Bonilla (Don Miguel was 73)
· Paperwork to pass land on to son: will (exempting Indian rancheras to prevent conflict with Federal gov’t over reservations), decree before notary in Guadalajara documenting grant, title, ancestry
· Died at age of 116, buried in Guadalajara 2/2/1824
· Long life and elderly fatherhood – let him cut out an additional generation
· Don Jesus Miguel stayed in Guadalajara, spent his inheritance, no interest in Arizona property – too dangerous, married in 1822, only child born in 1833 – Sophia Laura Micaela de Peralta de la Cordoba y Ibarra
· Used his newspaper connections to hype the Peralta land grant claim
· Rumors started to spread
· Started negotiating with Southern Pacific Railroad over right-of-way, signed agreement giving $5000 upfront, $50,000 total to secure easement
· Traveled to Tucson in March 1883 with two trunks of forged paperwork and presented it to the Surveyor General J.W. Robbins
· Surveyor General started to get worried, area bigger than New Jersey, Maryland, and DC combined, bought time by saying he’d file a report with federal government and they’d make the final decision.
· Reavis started settling in, built a ten-room, redwood, red-brick home with servants quarters, stables, running water (huge luxury)
· Hired rent collectors, agents, hustlers, mercenaries
· negotiating with James Barney, owner of Silver King Mining Company, agreed to pay $25000 for quit claim
· publicized that residents needed to contact his lawyer “for registering tenancy and signing agreements or regard themselves liable to litigation for trespassing and expulsion when the Peralta Grant is, as it must be, validated by the US Government”
· Once Southern Pacific Railroad and The Silver King Mine signed on, he started collecting money from frightened residents – amounts varied greatly from a meal to $1000 – some just left because they couldn’t pay, especially when some of the people Reavis hired turned to intimidation and violence to collect
· Local newspapers started to attack Reavis for his tactics until the editor of the Phoenix Gazette was discovered to have paid Reavis for his own quit claim deed
· Survived lawsuits, newspaper attacks, anti-Reavis committees established in every town raising funds to pay lawyers to fight the grant
Next tactic – the heiress
· Reavis claimed to have heard rumors of a Peralta descendant way back in 1875 on his arrival in California
· Claimed to have met her on a train in 1877, learned of her heritage and even though she had no paperwork to prove who she was, that wasn’t a problem for Reavis.
· The exchanged letters for 5 years, he visited her in California in 1882 and they were married 12/31/1882.
· Reavis gathered support from influential people, senators, congressmen, bankers, the Spanish consul, sailed for Europe in December 1885 with a stipend to search for additional documents in Spanish archives in Madrid and Seville.
· Amazingly he found more documents including will naming Sophia as heiress, painting and photographs that proved the resemblance. The Peralta family in Spain entertained them, believing them to be long-lost relatives.
· Returned to US in November 1886, continued gathering documentation and support
· Returned to Arizona in August 1887 to file new claim on behalf of his wife on 9/2/1887
· Additional family history “discovered”
· Dona Sophia married Jose Ramon Carmen Maso in 1860 at age 28. Maso was called to Spain in 1862 to collect debts owed to him, so the whole family set off for San Francisco. In California, Sophia unexpectedly went into labor and gave birth to twins, boy & girl. Boy and mother both died. Girl left with a wet nurse, Don Jesus and Maso continued to Spain where they both died. Don Jesus had fortunately filed a codicil in San Francisco naming his granddaughter as sole heir. Granddaughter taken into the home of Mr. Sherwood, friend of a family friend
· Kept schmoozing and offering investment opportunities for development of the territory and got millions, formed corporations to develop the land (irrigation, telegraph, railroads, dams, etc.), lease water rights, sell livestock
· Lived in San Francisco, St. Louis, NYC, Chihuahua
· Philanthropist, built monument to Don Miguel in Monterrey, donated altar linens for Guadalajara cathedral, opened home for blind, hospital
· July 1889 New Surveyor General, Royal Johnson, released 18-month study of Peralta Grant which labeled it a fake: steel-nibbed pens used to write documents instead of quill; printing styles differed from documents from same time period – long S; Spanish archives didn’t turn up supporting documentation where it would have been expected; spelling and grammatical errors in documents, unlikely to come out of Spanish Royal court.
· Arizonans rejoiced
· Reavis filed suit against gov’t for $11 million, gathered depositions from people who had known Sophia as a child, extensive search for documents that turned up more evidence that supported his claim
· Reavis went to Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory to file his final complaint in February 1893. Land Office draftsman William Strover recalled “an express wagon drove up and unloaded an array of boxes and packages, all addressed to the court and marked ‘Peralta Grant.’ When all was unpacked three large tables, placed end to end, filled with documents, ancient books, pictures, including a large oil painting of the Marquis de Peralta, in his robes as grandee of Spain. There were documents with large leaden seals attached and signed by the king of Spain. There was a complete history of the marquis [and] letters to him and from him.”
· 106 real Peralta descendants filed claim on portion of the land grant
· Gov’t investigated, sent people to archives in Guadalajara, Spain, learned “Reavis had arrived as a tourist and after several days had applied for and was granted permission to search the archives. Reavis searched bundles for several days without success, the archivist assigned to assist him believing the documents he was searching for did not exist. Reavis then requested access to case 77, drawer 3, legajo (file) 31. The assisting archivist was surprised to see a document he had previously never seen in the bundle. This incident was reported to the Chief Archivist who ordered that Reavis be carefully watched and that all records be carefully numbered before he was allowed to examine them in the future.
· When Reavis later returned to the archive, the prescribed measures had been put into place. At the end of one day Reavis discovered a document in a bundle he was searching and requested a certified copy of it. The document was in an envelope and the paper folded. No other documents in the bundle were folded and the document Reavis had found was not numbered as other pages in the bundle had been. Based upon this evidence and testimony from other clerks in the archive that the questioned document had not originally been part of the bundle, an arrest warrant was issued for Reavis. Reavis however left Seville before an arrest could be made and influential friends in Madrid had suppressed any further investigation
· More evidence: Presentation of the government case began in earnest on Tuesday morning, Reavis and his counsel still not present. First on the stand was Mallet-Prevost who testified about language and grammar problems present in some of the Peralta documents. As an example of the problem he identified one document containing the word tanacion, a word not in the Spanish language. Another example was the word descrubudo, an incorrect past tense of the verb describir, being used instead of the correct descrito.
· Tipton, the government’s document analysis expert, next took the stand to discuss the 1748 cedula. His examination had found that while the coversheet appeared to be authentic, the only mention of Don Miguel de Peralta was located on a piece of yellowed tissue paper pasted to the paper. The five sheets of paper contained inside the cover he declared forgeries due to their style of writing not being consistent with the handwriting in use at the time and the seals being glued to the paper instead of impressed by a metal seal as was the custom at the time of the document.
· Following this, Tipton went on to problems with other original papers that had been located during the search of the Guadalajara archives. One group of papers was located in a set of papers related to work done by the notary Diego de la Sierra between 1697 and 1698. The Peralta papers had been inserted between two pages of a bound volume numbered 178 and 179 respectively, printed on paper that was shorter and narrower than the other pages of the book, showed evidence of being folded unlike the book’s other pages, and were glued in place instead of being bound as was the rest of the volume.
· Wednesday began with Mallet-Prevost testifying on his findings during his trip to Spain. He began with the will of Miguel de Peralta where the only mentions of the name occurred over erasures. Additionally the will indicated it had been recorded in the Registry of Mortgages, volume 23, page 2, leaf 216, in section 122. An examination of that part of the Registry found an unrelated document.
· Father P.J. Stockman, rector of the church of San Bernardino, testified the records of the baptismal of Mrs. Reavis and her twin brother and deaths of the boy and his mother were forged. During a trip away from the parish, Stockman had left a young and inexperienced priest, Father Joseph O’Reilly, in charge of the church. The young priest had been convinced to loan the birth and death registers to Reavis, but had failed to inform Reavis that the church kept a separate index that was organized by last name and updated annually. During Father Stockman’s testimony he pointed out differences in the inks between the pages related to Mrs. Reavis and the rest of the ledger. The index made no mention of Doña Sophia Laura or her son and there was no evidence of either of their graves in the parish graveyard. This testimony was followed by Father O’Reilly, who identified Reavis as the person he had given possession of the record books for a period of between two weeks and a month
· Reavis running out of money, lawyers stepping out as evidence mounted against him
· Trial date 6/3/1895, decision on 6/28/1895 to reject claim as “wholly fictitious and fraudulent”, documents forged and “surreptitiously introduced”
· Arrested, charged in 42 count indictment with forgery, presenting false documents and conspiracy to defraud US gov’t
· No one willing to post bail, spent year in jail awaiting trial, appeal of civil ruling denied
· Found guilty 6/30/1896, sentenced to two years in prison and fine of $5000
· Released on 4/18/1898 (3-month reduction for good behavior)
1950 movie “The Baron of Arizona” starring Vincent Price