THE BARON DE BASTROP LAND GRANT CONTROVERSY
By Stan Ginsel
Soon after arriving in Louisiana in 1795, the Baron de Bastrop entered into a written contract with the Spanish government to secure a land grant of around one million acres for the purpose of establishing a colony. The grant included transportation for up to five hundred farmers that the Baron would import from Holland along with funding to buy seeds and supplies to grow the first crop. The plan was to export flour to Cuba with the farmers growing the wheat that would supply the grinding mills the Baron would later build. After he secured the flour buyers in Havana, Spain agreed and the contract was signed.
The Baron had already imported the first ninety-nine settlers at his own expense before Spain realized it couldn't pay for what it had agreed to do, provide transportation to the colony along with the provisions for the first crop, which the Baron had already supplied using his own funds believing he would be reimbursed. Without the Crown ever having spent a single peso and with no warning, Spain suspended his colonization efforts until funding could or would be obtained. With his colony in limbo the Baron went looking for a new business venture which he found in Kentucky, a company that manufactured sail-cloth, a material used in frontier clothing similar to today's denim. To invest in the firm, the Baron needed to recoup the personal finances he had spent to start the colony and sold most of his interest in the grant. That transaction sparked a series of court cases that would keep the Baron fending off law suites for six years, almost drove him into bankruptcy and smeared his reputation, all courtesy of the United States of America.
After the Louisiana Purchase the U.S. refused to honor the titles of anyone who had purchased land within the Bastrop Grant. The Americans maintained that it was the Baron's fault his colony had failed, a failure that forfeited his ownership rights. According to U.S. Attorneys he had sold property he didn't own. This infuriated the folks who had purchased the property and like the American government, blamed the Baron for this injustice. They sued him and each other in a series of law suites that lasted nearly fifty years, culminating in a Supreme Court ruling and Congressional legislation.
In 1851, the Supreme Court ruled that the Baron had fully executed his terms of the grant in good faith and the colony's failure was entirely Spain's fault for lack of funding, not the Baron's for lack of effort. When speaking of the colony's suspension Justice McLean stated, “it was not through the fault of the Baron, but through obstacles opposed to him by the authorities of the colony themselves." Also, the Spanish language used in the grant, when interpreted through Spain's colonization laws, does indeed convey ownership to the Baron and it was reasonable for him to assume he owned the land with every right to sell it. On that point, Justice McLean confirmed “it gives to the grantee, in my judgment, a complete title.” However, in their final decree the court stated that although the Baron may have owned the land under Spanish laws, the grant didn't convey a “perfect title” under their interpretation of U. S. laws, meaning he didn't technically own it at the time of the Louisiana Purchase.
This ruling sparked the final action in the saga of the Bastrop Land Grant, congressional legislation. On March 3, 1851, Congress enacted a law allowing all purchasers who could prove they had occupied property within the Bastrop grant for the past 20 years, to receive legal title to their land. Eventually, all of the disputed titles were settled, but the damage to the Baron's reputation had already taken root. The opinions of the justices exonerating his character were never widely publicized but the belief that the Baron was a “land swindler” was and continues to this day.
It's evident the Baron felt he did own the Louisiana grant until the day he died as in his will, he bequeathed the remaining portion of the grant to his wife and children, an act that will later betray his true identity to the world. But, that's another story.