I want to share with you a story of the way in which privilege and wealth are subject to the cruel whims of fate, and a Cinderella adventure of royalty in disguise . Our story begins in 1742 when 32 year old Don Miguel Nemecio Silva de Peralta de la Corboda set foot in the city of Guadalajara, New Spain. He was on a secret mission, and carried papers identifying him as the “vistador del rey”, a visitor from the King, marking him as a wealthy and accomplished man, with powerful friends. He wore the gold collar of a Knight of the Golden Fleece, a title which placed him above the law, as he could only be arrested on a warrant signed by six other Knights, and there were only fifty of those in all of Spain. He was also a member of the order of Montesa, warrior Knights who served under Cistercian beneficence. Eventually he would become the “Baron of the Dry Area”, in Spanish the “arida zona,” but that would carry only those privileges he could make of them.
Two years later, pleased with Don Miguel's performance of his mission, Philip V of Spain promoted him and gave him an enormous grant of about 1,328,000 acres of land, leaving it up to Augustin de Ahumada, the Viceroy of New Spain, to pick the exact spot. It took Don Miguel ten years of searching for the best location. Finally on January 3, 1758, the Viceroy designated the grant as lying north of the Mission of San Xavier del Bac, on the Santa Cruz River, eastward from the confluence of the Salt and Gila Rivers. In May of that year Don Miguel, accompanied by a priest and two military officers traveled to the desert site and consecrated the grant on a barren hill he named the “Inicial”, or first, monument. Here Miguel scratched his mark upon a large rock, and laid claim to his new world empire.
Don Miguel Peralta immediately took physical possession of his land, establishing a base camp around the Pueblo ruins of Casa Grande. But the local Apache Indians did not recognize the claims of a far off Spanish monarch, and their constant raiding forced Don Miguel to return south of the Gila River, to the Mexican state of Sonora. Here he bought land and settled here. And his retreat was not without its benefits. In 1770 he married the lovely Sofia Ave Maria Sanchez Bonilla de Amaya y Garcia de Orosco. He settled his new bride in Guadalajara. In 1776 Charles III reaffirmed Don Miguel's grant to the north, even though the vassal still dare not take physical possession of the land. And in 1781 Don Miguel and Sofia had a son, Jesus Miguel Silva de Peralta.
Jesus Peralta showed little interest in his arid inheritance, and built his life in and around Guadalajara, accustomed to wealth and privilege. He did not settle down until he he was forty, marrying a local girl, Dona Juana Laura Ibarra, in 1822. In February of 1824 his father, Don Miguel Peralta, died at the fantastic age of 114 years, and Jesus Miguel inherited the family estates in and around Guadalajara, as well as a ranch in Sonora. There was also the still unoccupied desert grant to the north, but Don Jesus Miguel made no effort to claim that land or even show an interest in it. And after mortgaging and then losing his Guadalajara properties, Jesus took Dona and retreated to the ranch in Sonora. There they produced their only child, a girl named Sophia.
Sophia Peralta grew to be a pretty girl, but the eligible bachelors were few and far between. And the bride's family was by now, not considered the best, even in the limited social world of the empty desert lands south of the Gila River. Dona Sophia Peralta did not find a husband until she was 28. And only after the vows were exchanged in 1860 did it became apparent the union had been a gamble for both sides of the aisle. Don Jesus Peralta had thought he had matched his daughter to a wealthy man. But Sophia's new husband, Jose Ramon Carmen Maso, was in reality a professional gambler, and periodically down on his luck. And only after the wedding did Jose Maso discover his new wife's family estate was heavily mortgaged. This was why, in 1862, Jose Ramon was plan a trip to Spain, in hopes of collecting some old gambling debts. He took with him his entire family, and his in-laws. Dona Sophia was forced to travel with him, even though she was pregnant.
Their timing was very bad .The Great Flood of 1862 (which began in December of 1861) was devastating the western coast of North America from Oregon to Mexico. Directly in the family's path, the mountain road into San Diego was washed away in dozens of places, and the little town of Aqua Mansa, at the headwaters of the San Gabriel River, was destroyed. Only the alarm raised by the bell at the Mission of San Salvador de Jurupa prevented the loss of life there. And it was at the Mission, in February, that the flooding forced the party to pause, and where Dona Sophia went into premature labor and gave birth to twins, a boy and girl. The newborns were weak, as was Dona Sophia, so while the women stayed on, Jose Ramon and Don Miguel Peralta continued over the mountains to San Diego, where they caught ship, first for San Francisco, and then for Spain.
The newborn boy soon died, followed by his mother Sophia. And the infant girl was not expected to live. And as there was little food in the region, both grandmothers then abandoned the sickly child and returned to Sonora. But the child did not die. She lived, cared for by a wet nurse hired by Mr. John A. Treadway, who was a friend of the gambler Jose Ramon. But Treadway died shortly thereafter on a business trip, and both Jose Ramon and Don Miguel died while in Spain. And the grandmothers also passed away on their way back to Sonora. The abandoned child was raised by locals out of their loyalty to the departed Mr. Treadway. But everything about her family was forgotten, except her first name. Sophia was raised by local; villagers until she was eight, when she was entrusted to a local businessman, John Snowball, who employed her first as servant and then as a cook in his roadhouse along the route between San Diego and Arizona.
Then, in 1877 a chance encounter on a train changed the orphan's girl's hard life. A well dressed gentleman with large whiskered sideburns approached the 17 year old and inquired about her background. The girl nervously admitted she was an orphan, and did not know her family name or history. The stranger suggested she might be the missing daughter of a wealthy family. She had never before heard the name he suggested: Peralta. The girl was uncertain whether to believe his story or not, but she wanted to believe it was possible.
But it was not. The entire story I have just shared with you, save for the storm of 1862, from the streets of Guadalajara, to the battered remains of a mission in the California desert, every word and document supporting it was based upon was the invention of the fevered imagination of one of the most determined and resourceful con men in American history. His name was James Addison Reavis (above). And at one time he came very close to owning most of the state of Arizona. And what follows is the tale of how he did that, and how it all fell apart.
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