Territorial Arizona’s Royal Scam

Douglas TowneJuly 6, 2023
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map of fabricated Peralta land grant; Photo Courtesy Wikipedia.com
map of fabricated Peralta land grant; Photo Courtesy Wikipedia.com

A Missouri charlatan created a bogus 12-million-acre estate in Territorial Arizona via his forgery skills and a duplicitous marriage.

“Doña” Sophia Peralta Reavis; Photo Courtesy Wikipedia.com
“Doña” Sophia Peralta Reavis; Photo Courtesy Wikipedia.com
James Addison Reavis in prison in Santa Fe, 1905; Photo Courtesy Wikipedia.com
James Addison Reavis in prison in Santa Fe, 1905; Photo Courtesy Wikipedia.com

A long shadow fell over Phoenix in 1883 and stretched east all the way to Silver City, New Mexico. The gloom was caused by the mysterious appearance of James Addison Reavis, aka the Baron of Arizona, who claimed he had rights to an immense 79-by-237-mile chunk of land. Overnight, the ownership of thousands of homesteads, farms and mines in this rectangle, which included much of the present-day Valley along with Casa Grande, Globe, Morenci and Safford, was thrown into doubt.

Reavis got rich on the land-grab and dined with royalty until the scheme came crashing down in a denouement worthy of a Fitzgerald novel.

“Reavis likely would have continued living the high life if he hadn’t overreached,” Arizona state historian Marshall Trimble says. “He was slick but became overconfident, which caused his fraudulent empire to come crashing down.”

The backstory of Arizona’s biggest real estate fraud had its genesis in a Confederate soldier’s homesickness for his mother during the Civil War, according to Trimble. “Reavis became an adept forger to create fake leave slips to visit her,” he says. “After the war, he was involved in real estate and falsified documents for gain.”

Reavis’ less-than-stellar reputation connected him to Dr. George M. Willing Jr., who claimed to have purchased more than 2,000 square miles in Arizona Territory from the fictitious Peralta family, descendants of Spanish nobility. They partnered with plans to develop this property in 1871, but Willing died soon afterward. Later, Reavis determined Willing’s deeds were likely counterfeit, but they inspired a much larger scam.

The elaborate charade Reavis used to invent his kingdom involved forged documents that created the Peralta family, led by Don Miguel, whom the King of Spain bestowed with a land grant and the title Baron of Arizona in 1748. The Spanish crown conferred land grants to deserving individuals to encourage settlement in what is today the southwestern U.S. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, recognized these land grants if the U.S. could validate their ownership. “The fictitious Peralta Land Grant, a more than 18,750-square-mile tract, filled with rich farmland and valuable minerals, was massive compared to other Spanish land grants,” Trimble says.

Vincent Price in the film inspired by Reavis’ con; Photo Courtesy IMBD.com
Vincent Price in the film inspired by Reavis’ con; Photo Courtesy IMBD.com
The Baron of Arizona, 1950, top; the movie poster; Photo Courtesy Associated Press
The Baron of Arizona, 1950, top; the movie poster; Photo Courtesy Associated Press

After years of groundwork, in 1883 Reavis filed his Peralta claim (with the assertion that he inherited it from Willing) with the territorial surveyor general, who initially accepted it. The “baron” subsequently collected $50,000 from the Southern Pacific Railroad for a right-of-way across his land. Then, Reavis began collecting quitclaims that, for a fee, transferred his alleged property back to its rightful owners, starting with $25,000 from the Silver King Mine, followed by numerous settlers nervous about losing their homes and land.

“Flora Rosson purchased Block 14 of Phoenix Townsite, now known as Heritage Square in Downtown Phoenix, from her sister for $1,000 in 1883,” says Jennifer Hance, museum curator for Heritage Square Foundation. “Two years later, Rosson paid Reavis $150 for a quitclaim on the property.”

“He didn’t want to take the land away from people, just extort rent from them,” Trimble says. With this revenue, Reavis had a mansion built at a ruin south of Casa Grande at the alleged Peralta ancestral home. Over the next dozen years, Reavis earned more than $5 million from his alleged property. The strange narrative of how he acquired this vast estate made newspaper headlines nationwide. The wealthy Reavis, with his signature muttonchop beard, was feted by the queen of England and the Spanish royal family and became chummy with influential industrialists and politicians.

Reavis suffered a temporary setback when Territorial Attorney General Clark Churchill filed suit concerning title issues with his personal land against Reavis’ claims. The court ruled against the baron, giving Churchill clear title to his property.

Reavis moved to California to fabricate a direct Peralta descendant to support his claim further. “Reavis found Sophia Treadway, an orphan who worked as a housekeeper, and convinced her she was a descendant of the Peralta family,” Trimble says. “She was a pleasantly plump 16-year-old girl, and he groomed her for marriage by sending her to a convent for education.” After planting forged papers detailing her Peralta heritage in Spain and Mexico City, Reavis introduced her as Doña Sophia, the great-granddaughter of Don Miguel, and filed a new claim on behalf of his wife in 1887.

With help from influential supporters, the baron formed sham companies to develop his land, which reaped money from investors. But in 1889, after a six-year investigation, the territorial surveyor general rejected Reavis’ claim after finding numerous inconsistencies with his documents, including the use of a modern pen.

Reavis could have continued his opulent lifestyle funded by phony investment scams, but the baron got too big for his britches and instead sued the U.S. for $11 million over denying his claim in 1891. “That’s when he got too cocky and started to believe his own lie,” Trimble says. “In the courtroom, the feds had to get serious and do an investigation, and Reavis lost the trial. He walked out of the courtroom in 1895, was arrested, and went immediately from plaintiff to defendant.” In 1896, Reavis was found guilty of defrauding the government.

“For all his swindles, Reavis was only given a two-year sentence and a $5,000 fine, showing that society respected a creative con man,” Trimble says. “If the baron had done honest real estate, he had the talents to become wealthy with his gift of gab. Instead, Reavis became a forgotten divorcé who died destitute in 1914.”

Dubious Developments

Led by Ned Warren Sr., the “Godfather of Arizona Land Fraud,” the state became infamous for shady subdivisions in the 1960s. Here are some notable examples.

Chino Grande Ranchettes

The 2,560-acre development in remote Yavapai County near Seligman was subdivided into 5-acre lots without state approval. These were sold, sight unseen, through ads directed at servicemen stationed in Japan in the early 1970s. The developers misrepresented the property’s steep, rocky terrain, describing it as gently rolling hills with trees and meadows.

Cochise College Park

The subdivision, launched near Douglas in 1965, lacked roads, water and electricity. Developers sold 9,000 lots, mostly to out-of-state clients, though only 6,000 lots existed, resulting in multiple owners of the same property. In 1978, an article in The Arizona Republic estimated that the development swindled 15,000 investors out of $38 million through illegal land sales contracts and mortgages.

Twin Lakes Estates

The 4,175-lot subdivision southeast of Willcox advertised a championship golf course, fishing on 50-acre Lake Cochise, water skiing on 80-acre Lake Geronimo and services including electricity and water. But the development, started in the 1960s by a Florida land firm, folded without providing most of these amenities. Homes were only built on a few lots.