Extra, extra, I’ve got some news!!! This week’s prompt is Newsworthy, and I was waiting for the right time to write about my newest find. Let me preface the blog with this statement…..I have lived in the State of Arizona for 50+ years and I had never heard about this story. That is until a few weeks ago.
James Addison Reavis, my 3rd cousin 3x removed, was born in Henry County, Missouri on May 10, 1848. He was the second child of Fenton G. and Mary (Dixon) Reavis. The family lived on a small farm and owned a tannery. James had very little education, however, his mother who was of Scottish and Spanish descent read Spanish romantic literature to him. Because of this, he developed a grandiose writing style.
His family moved to a new farm located in Montevallo, Missouri about 1857. Here they opened a country store. At the beginning of the Civil War, he enlisted in the Confederate Army under Hunter’s Regiment, 8th Division of the Missouri State Guard. The war was not romanticized like he had envisioned so at 18 years old he accidentally discovered that he could reproduce his commanding officer’s signature. He used the skill to begin forging passes so he could spend time visiting his mother. It wasn’t long before the other soldiers noticed his frequent absences and his ability “make his own leave pass” and he began selling the forged passes to them. When his commanding officers became suspicious, he got one last pass, supposedly to get married. He immediately went and surrendered to the Union forces, joined the Union Army, and served in an artillery unit.
After the war, James began to travel, ending up in Brazil. Here he learned to speak Portuguese. When he returned to the St. Louis area near the end of 1866, he worked many jobs, including a traveling salesman, a clerk in a variety of retail stores, and a streetcar conductor. Finally, he became a successful real estate agent and after a few small deals, he saved enough money to open his own office. He soon realized that the same skills he had learned in the army worked very well in this business. In 1871, he met a man named George Willing who had purchased a large Spanish land grant in the Arizona Territory but did not have any paperwork for it. The two hatched a plan to obtain control of the land, and they made their way to the Territory. They soon learned they could make a lot of money by buying a stake in mine deeds then selling them back to the original owner.
It took a few years for Willing and James to be able to obtain or forge deeds and paperwork for the Peralta lands. James had discovered a letter some years before that had been signed by the President of Mexico, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, that was dated 1853 and he was going to forge the deed to these lands using his signature. Willing finally arrived in Prescott in March of 1874 and filed a claim for the land in the Yavapai County Courthouse. The very next morning he was found dead under suspicious circumstances. When James finally arrived he posed as a subscription agent for the San Francisco Examiner. After he discovered that the land grant was a floating grant and touring the land, he chose the boundaries for his land. Altogether, the land was 78 miles north to south and 236 miles east to west. The grant contained the towns of Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, Casa Grande, Florence, and Globe and stretched to the outskirts of Silver City, New Mexico.
Now he had to convince the Territory that he had a legal claim to the land. He went to Mexico and learned of a man named Baron Don Miguel Nemecio Silva de Peralta de la Cordoba who was born in 1708. He spent his time in Mexico forging paperwork that claimed that he was a direct descendant of Miguel. He added the name Peralta to his last name and so the scheme began. However, this plan died quickly so he devised another one. James began spreading the news about a Peralta heiress. In 1877, he met a young girl named Dona who bore a striking resemblance to a baroness. She was only 15 years old at the time, so in December of 1882, they were married. He then enrolled Dona in a convent school to train her in the skills that were expected of a well-born lady. He went to Tucson to file a new claim on behalf of his wife, Doña Sophia Micaela Maso Reavis y Peralta de la Córdoba, third Baroness of Arizona, thus becoming the Baron of Arizona.
After the inauguration of Benjamin Harrison in March 1889, Royal Johnson, with whom James had encountered on numerous occasions, was appointed Surveyor-General for Arizona Territory. The first thing Royal did was send a letter to the outgoing Surveyor-General and inquired about James’ claim. When the responding letter reached Royal in October 1889, it was a release of an adverse report upon the Peralta Grant. It concluded that it was a complete fraud. Royal then denied the claim. Outraged, James filed a lawsuit against the government for 11 million dollars in damages. This was a mistake because the force of the Government began an investigation. After several years of investigations, James was found guilty of forgery on June 30, 1896, and he was sentenced to two years in prison and a $5000 fine. While in prison, his wife gave birth to twin boys, Carlos and Miguel. Upon his release, James began traveling the country trying to raise support and revenue to refile the Peralta claim. In June of 1902, Dona filed for divorce on the grounds of desertion. After this, little was heard from him and by 1913 he was living in a poor house in Los Angeles. James died penniless and alone in Denver, Colorado on November 20, 1914, and was buried in a paupers grave. Dona died on April 5, 1934, still believing that she was the Baroness of Arizona. It is said that the marriage certificate had also been forged!
I am a professional genealogist, writer, photographer, wife, mother, and grandma. I have two books available on Amazon.com: Your Family History: Doing It Right the First Time and Planning Your Genealogy Research Trip. You can also connect with me via Facebook or Twitter