I think, for all the pain and anxiety caused by James Reavis in the Peralta Grant scam, the most heinous crime he committed was what was he did to the woman known only as Sophia. She was an orphan, a woman and a Mexican in a sexist, racist culture. She had no family for economic or emotional support, no dowry to secure a supportive husband. She was adrift in the world, forced to face at an early age what we all must face in our adulthood, that we are largely alone in this world. And then, in 1877, she met a stranger on a train, who told her she had a physical resemblance to a noble family. And over the years this man continued to tease her with hint after hint that seemed to confirm her personal fairy tale. And then he swept into her life again, and offered to rescue her from the drudgery and poverty of her life and welcome her into a world of wealth and privilege. And all he asked in return was that she believe him and marry him.
She was working as a servant girl in a hotel in the Stanislaus River ferry crossing village of Knights Landing, California – about 20 miles north-west of Sacramento. The community was in decline, and the hotels and rooming houses were closing one by one. And the working class girl who had no past was facing a bleak future when James Reavis arrived on the Southern Pacific to rescue her. They were married on December 31, 1882. And in January, she was enrolled in a convent school, to train her in the social skills expected of a well born lady.
While the girl studied, Reavis journeyed to San Francisco. From Huntington and Crocker and other financial supporters he collected letters of introduction to several important Washington power players.
He also met with San Francisco banker Maurice Herr, who put up $25,000 to fund The Arizona Development Corporation. Where Reavis' Peralta Grant scam had only sought to fleece the people of Arizona, this corporation could fleece investors from all over the world. Reavis had finally learned the secret lesson of capitalism – a thief is a man who robs a bank, while a financial wizard is a banker who robs investors. At the same time James Reavis met with John W. Mackay, whose holdings in the Comestock Lode produced half of all the silver in the United States. Mackay wanted to get an inside track on the Peralta Grant, and offered to finance Reavis' Spanish research, paying him a stipend of $500 (the modern equivalent of $11,500). a month. It seemed James Reavis and wife and party, would be traveling to Spain in style
They stopped off in New York, where Reavis used his letters of introduction to bond with powerful Senator Roscoe Conkling, former Congressman and lobbyist Dwight Townsend and Bankers Henry Potter and Hector de Castro. A few weeks later the party boarded ship for Spain; the reprobate ex-lawyer Cyril Baratt, the short, violent thug Pedro Cuervo, the newly minted lady, Baroness Sophia Peralta, and the new version of James Reavis with the new name – James Reavis -Peralta, Baron of Arizona.
Once again, luck was with Reavis. His party arrived in Spain at the perfect moment. The 27th year old Alfonso XII (above - aka “The King without good fortune:) was entering his 10th year on the throne, his monarchy having been restored at the end of December 1874. The theory of noble blood was de require in Spain, and onto this stage entered the long lost royal cousin, the lovely, regal Sophia Peralta, and her charming, debonair paramour, the man who had rescued her from commonality, James Reavis-Peralta. The public and the nobility were both primed to see her as she saw herself, a fairy tale come true.
Reavis made his tour of the great cathedrals of Madrid. The civil government of the municipios had only been recording births and deaths since 1831. Everything before that, christenings and deaths and weddings, would be found only in the many cathedrals, Iglesia de San Andrés or the San Pedro el Viejo for example. It took weeks before James was able to discover the codicil to the will of Don Miguel's will leaving the Peralta grant to his only surviving daughter, Sophia.
When he was not laboring alone over the ancient dusty documents, Reavis-Peralta was wandering through the second hand shops and flea markets, buying the occasional paintings or daguerreotype of a forgotten nobility which had lost its fortune during the brief Republic before Alfonso's restoration. James picked those which struck him as bearing a resemblance to Sophia, those which might have been her ancestors. And in his weaving of her tale, they became her ancestors. And the living members of Peralta family were as willing to believe that this rich American had discovered their long lost distant cousin, as Sophia was. Wasn't she graceful? Didn't she carry herself like a baroness? You do not learn those things in a Catholic finishing school. True nobility is born with grace and culture. And Sophia was obviously born of noble blood.
In December of 1885 the King, Alfonso XII, fell ill with tuberculosis. His last words were, “What a struggle. What a struggle!” He was succeeded by his pregnant wife, Queen Maria Christina. Her son, and the new king, would not be born until five months later. By then, the delightful Baroness Sophia Peralta and her gracious American husband were so well accepted by the nobility, they were even presented to the Queen. In a cloud of fond farewells, the noble couple returned to America, arriving in New York in November of 1886
As they say, everybody loves a winner, and the Peralta brand was clearly winning. On their return to N.Y.C., they received the endorsement the powerful Missouri Republican James Broadhead, who endorsed the claim, referring to James Reavis-Peralta as, “a man of remarkable energy and persistence." Republican Senator Roscoe Conkling vouched for the validity of the claim, and said he believed Sophia “to be the person she believes herself to be...the lineal descendant of the original grantee.” Back in California in 1887, James was able to add to his list of supporting documents a testimonial from Alfred Sherwood, of San Diego County, who swore he had known Sophia all her life and her parents as well.
In August, the Peralta's journeyed by Southern Pacific train to Arizona. And fortuitously, while pausing in Phoenix, they took a carriage ride into the mountains, and stumbled across yet more evidence, the very Inicial Monument”, the great stone Don Miguel had carved his family crest upon when first coming to the grant in 1758 – wasn't that lucky. James even posed Sophia next to the carving, and included it in his new claim filing, in Tucson on September 2, 1887. Now his claim was simple and direct. He was the grantee, by benefit of his marriage to the direct ancestor of old Don Miguel Peralta Doña Sophia Micaela Maso Reavis y Peralta de la Córdoba, third Baroness of Arizona.
James Reavis-Peralta now formed the Casa Grande Improvement Company to exploit his land. He issued stock, which sold $3 millions, based on plans to build a massive damn on the Salt River, which would allow irrigation systems to make the desert bloom. But for all his plans, James barely paused in his fortress at Arizola. They had built or bought homes where their investors lived – San Francisco, St. Louis, New York and Chihuahua, Mexico. It was while in New York City that Sophia adopted a two month old orphan and named him Fenton, after James' father.
It looked as if the land commissioners in Arizona had little choice to approve the grant, and make James Reavis a millionaire and Sophia a fairy tale princess. And I have no doubt that would have happened – except for one man – the Surveyor General for Arizona, Royal Johnson.
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