Henry O. Flipper in the Court of Private Land Claims: The Arizona Career of West Point's First Black Graduate

by Jane Eppinga
Original published in The Journal of Arizona History, volume 36, Spring 1995, p. 33-54.

IN 1878 HENRY OSSIAN FLIPPER, the first black graduate of West Point, appeared destined for a long military career. Four years later, he was court-martialed at Fort Davis, Texas, for embezzlement of government funds. Although found innocent of the embezzlement charge, he was dismissed from the army for conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. Whether the charges were motivated by racial prejudice is impossible to prove, but there can be no doubt that the punishment was too severe. Undeterred by this disgrace, Flipper went on to forge a career as an engineer, Spanish translator, Justice Department special agent, inventor, author, historian, and newspaper editor.

Flipper spent much of the 1890s in southern Arizona, where he surveyed the Nogales townsite, briefly edited a local newspaper, and defended the community in an important land grant case. As special agent to the Court of Private Land Claims, he saved over 700,000 acres from falling into the hands of unscrupulous speculators. Remarkably, his important contributions to Arizona history are all but forgotten today.

Standing just over six feet tall and weighing about 190 pounds, the thirty-one-year-old former army officer retained his erect military bearing.1 On October 31, 1885, Flagstaff's Arizona Champion commented on Flipper's "distinguished arrival" in the border town of Nogales, population approximately 1,500. In 1887, he purchased a lot for $28 in Mexican money. Two years later, he acquired a second piece of property, on what is now Nelson Avenue, for $25 in Mexican currency.2

Flipper appeared ready to settle down and enjoy life. He informed his brother Festus in Atlanta that people in southern Arizona were not so "prejudiced and mean as they are in the south."3 He formed close friendships with Jesse Grant, son of former President Ulysses S. Grant, and with newspaper publisher, territorial representative, and Nogales postmaster James J. Chatham.

Flipper stepped into a legal quagmire, however, when he began work on the Los Nogales de Elías land grant. In the 1880s the Nogales townfolk legally owned no property because the Camou and Elías families, along with several individuals who had purchased quit-claims from family members, claimed their lands. With the peace that followed the surrender of Geronimo and his Apache band, economic activity increased in southern Arizona. Mining claims were filed. Ranchers again grazed their cattle on land granted to them by the Spanish and Mexican governments prior to the Gadsden Purchase. They also occupied surrounding lands known as "overplus" or the "outer boundaries," which was legal under both Spanish and Mexican law.

When Congress ratified the Gadsden Treaty in 1854, it agreed to recognize the legality of land grants that people had acquired when the region was either a part of New Spain or Mexico, provided they met certain conditions. Grants must have been "located and duly recorded in the archives of Mexico" and marked with proper monuments of mortar and stone. Land reverted to the public domain if the property was abandoned for more than three years. An exception was made if claimants could prove that they had vacated the land because of Indian encroachments.4

The long and tedious process of searching out and translating documents in Hermosillo and Mexico City complicated the adjudication of land grants. Measurements such as sitioscabellarias, and varas had to be interpreted in English units. In this regard, judges and other government officials complimented Flipper for his translations that incorporated the subtle nuances of the Spanish language. Procedures for conveying grants had remained the same under both Spanish and Mexican rule. The matriz, or original document, was filed in the appropriate government repository. The most common document accepted by the court as evidence for claiming a land grant was the expediente, or second original, which was supposed to be in the possession of the claimant. A testimonio, or second copy, was allowed if it could be authenticated. Documents used to determine the validity of titles recorded in Mexico were bound in two volumes known as the Toma de Razón, or the accounts of "people of reason," generally landowners and always Catholic.

When it appeared that the United States was going to formally sanction legal Mexican land grants, speculators and opportunistic attorneys such as Santiago Ainsa, George Hill Howard, and Rochester Ford rushed in to exploit the situation. Brooklyn Bridge promoters had nothing on the con-artists who bought quit-claims to land that had been in pioneer families for centuries.

With the specter of uncertain titles to millions of acres, it was difficult to attract settlers to southern Arizona. After almost forty years of doing nothing, Congress came to the realization that the land-grant problem was not going to go away by itself, and in 1891 it created a special Court of Private Land Claims, with sessions to be held in Denver and in Santa Fe, to determine the validity of the claims. 5

President Benjamin Harrison appointed five judges to the court: Chief Justice Joseph R. Reed of Iowa, along with associate justices Wilbur F. Stone of Colorado, Henry C. Sluss of Kansas, Thomas C. Fuller of North Carolina, and William W. Murray of Tennessee. Other court officials included U.S. Prosecutor Matthew G. Reynolds, U.S. Attorney James H. Reeder, U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney, Clerk Ireno Chaves, Deputy Clerk R. L. Long, and U.S. Marshal E. L. Hall. Special agents such as Will Tipton and Henry Flipper, who investigated claims and gathered evidence, were appointed as necessary.

The fraudulent Peralta grant provided the impetus for creation of this special court. In 1882, James Addison Reavis claimed twelve million acres of central Arizona dirt, rock, and conglomerate. He swindled railroads, businesses, and individuals out of thousands of dollars before his hoax was exposed.

Although hardly as sensational as the Peralta case, the Los Nogales de Elías grant received considerable attention in Arizona because it affected the lives of so many residents. Moreover, the Elías family were among the most prominent pioneers in the area. Ignacio Elías y Gonzales, the last commander of the royal presidio at Tubac, had acquired both the Babocomari and the San Juan de las Boquillas y Nogales grants from the Spanish Crown. Following Mexican independence, his older brother Simon became governor of the combined states of Sinaloa and Sonora, and later governor of Chihuahua. Another brother, Rafael, owned the San Rafael de Valle land grant and was the grandfather of General Plutarco Elías Calles, twice governor of Sonora and a president of Mexico.

Allegedly, the Los Nogales de Elías land grant consisted of seven and one-half sitios (32,250 acres) that included the Nogales townsite. It was supposedly derived from one José Elías, long dead, who purportedly had a copy of the title dated April 20, 1858. Further complicating the situation, the Camou family claimed that in 1882 Pedro Camou had applied to the Mexican government to purchase the lands under this grant, including more than 30,000 overplus acres.

Mayor William F. Overton held the Nogales titles in trust until the ownership issue could be resolved. In the meantime, several Nogales residents, who had purchased quit-claims from the Camou-Elías families, hired Flipper to search the records on their lands. From documents in the Hermosillo archives, Flipper determined that by taking the well-defined monuments at the south end of the tract and making a survey in accordance with grant terms, the claim not only failed to take in the town of Nogales, but missed the international border by approximately a mile. The people of Nogales had complete confidence in Flipper's ability. 6 Armed with this data, they filed the Los Nogales de Elías case in the Court of Private Land Claims at Tucson on August 15, 1892. 7

As the case progressed, government prosecutor Matthew Reynolds became aware of the quality of Flipper's engineering work and scholarship. First, he hired Flipper to conduct some small investigations. Then, on September 4, 1893, he appointed Flipper as special agent to the Court of Private Land Claims. The people of Nogales were delighted. The Oasis predicted that "being a thorough Spanish scholar and knowing the Spanish laws by intent as well as text he will be invaluable to all concerned." 8

Attorney General Olney was less certain and asked Reynolds if he could find someone other than Flipper to perform these services. Reynolds staunchly defended his choice (although he indicated that if someone else were as qualified, he would use him in preference to Flipper). Reynolds was especially determined not to allow the land claimants to dictate who would collect the government's evidence. 9

Flipper derived his qualifications from years of surveying in Mexico, where he was charged with determining which lands were under title and which were in public domain. In the process, he examined between 2,000 and 3,000 grants awarded by officers of the Spanish and Mexican governments in the states of Chihuahua and Sonora from 1665 to 1888. Because Flipper was personally acquainted with many Mexican officials, he had ready access to documents.

As a government agent, Flipper received $10 a day plus expenses. 10 From November of 1892 to April of 1893, before his formal appointment, Washington authorities came up with a variety of reasons for turning down Flipper's claims. They thought $10 a day was exhorbitant. When his superiors bounced a claim for working on Sunday, Matt Reynolds stepped in to defend Flipper's activity on the Sabbath. On another occasion, a Chinese man signed one of Flipper's meal receipts. No one in the Washington office could read the signature, so they rejected the voucher--even though the hotel owner had countersigned it. Eventually, Flipper was reimbursed but, typically, payments ran two to three months behind schedule. 11

When hearings on the Los Nogales de Elías case finally convened in Tucson, Rochester Ford, William Herring, George Hill Howard, and Santiago Ainsa stepped forward to represent the defendants. Oddly, Ainsa--who was supposed to represent most of the claimants--was himself a defendant as administrator for Frank Ely, deceased. Other claimants included Jean Pierre Camou, José Pierson, the New Mexico and Arizona Railroad Company, Luisa Romero, Alberto Elías, Enrique Elías, Esperanza Elías, Guadalupe Rothenhausler and her husband Joseph, Francisco Elías, Francisco Bedoya, Carmelita Aguirre, Antonio Campilla, Anita Padilla and her husband Ismael, Victoria Campilla, Carlos Elías, M. Elías, Anita Campillo, Helena Elías, Gilebaldo Elías, and Refugio Elías. George Howard, who claimed to represent the Camou brothers (Jean Pierre and Pascual of Hermosillo), was not supposed to have anything to do with the case; but, to the Camous' consternation, he filed a brief on their and his own behalf. Matt Reynolds and L. F. Parker served as prosecutors for the government. 12

Before the case could proceed, U.S. Attorney Reynolds issued an order directing that the claimants file with the clerk of the court all documentary evidence, in English and Spanish, by which they expected to establish their claims. Supporting evidence included the quit-claim, executed on July 5, 1887, between Dolores Perés de Redondo of San Ignacio, Mexico, and J. R. Solomon of New York City. For $250, Dolores ceded all her rights, title, and interest in the Los Nogales de Elías ranch. Solomon, in turn, quit-claimed his interest to Frank Ely, who was dead by this time but fervently represented by Santiago Ainsa. Ainsa asked for a one-third interest in the grant on behalf of the Ely estate.

The hearing got off to a slow start when Ford informed the judges that Herring, the attorney for the Camou brothers, was ill and unable to attend the court. Ford requested that the case be adjourned. Reynolds responded that enough defense counsel were present without Herring, and the trial should proceed. The court granted Ford's motion and adjourned until the next morning, so that the defense could examine two boxes of additional evidence.

When the proceedings reconvened the next day, Herring's son-in-law Selim Franklin assisted Ford. The defense and the prosecution set to sparring over which side should bear the burden of proof. The judges ruled that the burden of proof rested on the claimants.

To support their arguments, the defendants introduced maps that predated the creation of Arizona Territory in 1863. Early surveyors general did their best, but maps from this era were inadequate. Ford produced a document alleged to be a copy of the recorded grant from the Toma de Razón . Old Pete Kitchen, whose ranch was along Potrero Creek north of Nogales, testified that the Elías family was residing in the area in 1855.

Flipper was the government's only witness. Ford objected when U.S. Attorney Parker offered Flipper's resurvey of the Las Casitas grant in Mexico, on the basis that it was irrelevant, incompetent, and depicted an entirely different ranch. The court, however, entered the survey as evidence because it provided the southern points for the Los Nogales de Elías grant. Again, Ford objected, calling Flipper's statements "irrelevant, immaterial and incompetent." The government's expert witness proceeded calmly amid repeated shouts of "objection!" until, finally, Ford announced for the record that he objected to all of Flipper's testimony.

The most dramatic moment came when Flipper described an alleged north monument, which would determine if the grant spilled over the border and beyond the Nogales townsite. The pile of rocks, about eleven inches high, was inscribed "N. de E. NX" ("Nogales de Elías north cross"). "Well I don't think it is a monument at all," Flipper testified. "I don't think it ever was. It looks more like an ant-hill." In fact, he had found another "exactly like it" just twenty steps to the northeast. "They are recent monuments beyond any question," he concluded. "I never saw any monuments like that anywhere in Mexico." 13

Flipper closed by affirming that measurements from one alleged monument to another did not add up to seven and a half sitios. When Ford attempted to interrupt, Judge Parker wearily dismissed him with the comment, "Yes, it is understood that all this is objected to." For all his protests, Ford asked Flipper very few questions on cross-examination.

The tedium of the closing speeches alone would have been enough to prompt a quick ruling. Ford began the arguments for the defense by speaking all afternoon on Tuesday and part of Wednesday morning. George Howard followed, speaking until noon on Wednesday. Selim Franklin took up the four hours until adjournment, and resumed his speech the next morning, when he spoke for about an hour.

Finally, Prosecutor Reynolds concluded the government's case. "The alleged expediente or transcript on which defendants base their said claim," he reminded the court "is not, and does not purport to be a copy of any original matrix, or of any instrument in the archives of Mexico, or in the State of Sonora, but only purports to be a copy of an original private paper in the possession of José Elías, the grantee, and is on its face fraudulent, null and void." 14

The judges took just thirty minutes to rule that José Elías had never taken possession of the land, nor had he erected proper monuments. Because the title was for a certain quantity of land, the metes and bounds could not be determined. The court ruled that the entire grant lay south of the border. From the Nogalians' point of view, the defendants' arguments were weak, while those of the government were brilliant and to the point.

On December 14, 1893, Flipper sent the Nogales Herald a triumphant telegram from Tucson: "The court decides in our favor." The town went wild with joy. Despite drizzling rain, the band came out and firecrackers exploded in the damp air. Christmas had arrived early, and the revelry carried on until Friday morning. 15 The Oasis proclaimed "Long Live Flipper!" and "Here is how it was done!"

On Friday evening, December fifteenth, all businesses on the American side of the border closed at six o'clock, when the citizens turned out to welcome the stage carrying Flipper, Louis Proto, and other members of the Protective Association Committee returning from Tucson. Residents crowded the streets, and electric light bulbs illuminated the town. Preparations were underway for a celebratory banquet at the Montezuma Hotel.

At 8:30 P.M., about twenty gentlemen filed into the brilliantly arranged dining room and sat down to the finest and most skillfully prepared supper ever gotten up in Nogales. Claret and black coffee were the only drinks served, but they answered well the purpose of drinking to the health of the "committee, the court, the attorneys, Louis Proto, Lieut. Flipper, and all those who substantially aided in winning the glorious victory for the people." 16

A local physician marred the joy of the celebration by declaring that he would not eat at the same table with a Negro. Later, the same man ran for school trustee against a fellow Democrat. Flipper worked for his opponent, who "beat this Negro-hating doctor by a good majority." 17

No sooner had the celebration ended than Flipper was removed as special agent for the land court, and was accused of complicity in the defalcation of postal funds. Postmaster J. J. Chatham, who from time to time hired Flipper as a clerk or deputy postmaster, had been charged with embezzling funds from the Nogales post office in October. 18 Businesses and individuals, including Chatham and his attorney, bombarded the Justice Department with petitions to reinstate Flipper. 19 The Tombstone Epitaph chimed in, claiming that the only charge leveled against Flipper was that "he is a colored man." The prevailing opinion in Nogales held that Flipper was "too well posted" to suit the land grant claimants. 20

What emerged was an obvious conspiracy between U.S. Marshal William K. Meade, Territorial Secretary and Acting Governor Charles M. Bruce, ex-Lieutenant Louis Strother, who had replaced Flipper as quartermaster at Fort Davis, and various land claimants. Strother, Meade, and Bruce were Virginians and, judging from their familiar greetings, appeared to know each other (Bruce's uncle had served as Confederate secretary of war). 21

In a letter to Bruce on November 7, 1893, Strother indicated that he thought most of the members of Flipper's court-martial believed that Flipper was guilty of embezzlement, but they had shown sympathy by convicting him of a lesser charge. 22 Bruce turned Strother's letter over to Marshal Meade, commenting that "as the interest of both the settlers and land claimants are very large it would be questionable, it seems to me, to leave them in the hand of a man of bad character, which past record is such as to destroy all respect that should be entertained for an official holding such a responsible position; and whose standing in Arizona at the present continues to be a very disreputable one." 23 Meade forwarded both letters to Attorney General Olney. Aware that the allegations placed the government's special agent in a very questionable light, Olney insisted that Flipper be removed until the case was cleared up.

By December 15, Reynolds had acquired copies of Strother and Bruce's correspondence. He was still determined that the claimants in the Los Nogales de Elías case should not dictate who could collect the government's evidence. Moreover, it had come to his attention that rancher Colin Cameron had attempted to corrupt Flipper. Cameron, who claimed the San Rafael de la Zanja grant, had every reason to dislike the ex-lieutenant. Cameron had been accused of employing men to burn down the houses of homesteaders and filling up their wells. In his adverse report on Cameron's claim, Flipper indicated that the grant of title was possibly a forgery. If anyone had a valid claim to the land, it likely would be the town of Santa Cruz. 24

Judge W. H. Barnes saved Flipper's job. Barnes, who had earned the "venomous malignity" of land-grant claimants by ruling against them in a local case, accused Attorney Rochester Ford and Marshal Meade of slander. The only reason the marshal stood well in his position, according to Barnes, was that he had hired a bookkeeper who kept him honest. Otherwise, Meade was an ignorant, egotistical, and malicious man who was persona non grata in the Democratic party.

In a letter to the U.S. Solicitor General, Barnes stated that "On yesterday I heard that W. K. Meade, U.S. Marshal, boasted that he had caused the employment of Flipper to be terminated, by representing to your department that Flipper was in complicity with a defalcation of J. J. Chatham, Postmaster at Nogales." The Tucson judge doubted the validity of the charge. "Meade has been for years a willing instrument to do anything the Land Grabbers want," he alleged. Describing the marshal as "a tool of the conspirators," Barnes explained, "on yesterday before the decision of the court was announced, he was very confident that the Government would be defeated and he joined with Colin Cameron to bet a bottle of wine that the grant claimants would win the case." In the end, the grand jury "ignored" the charges against Chatham, and Flipper was reinstated. 25

Meanwhile, the Los Nogales de Elías claimants took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Santiago Ainsa charged that Flipper, having been "cashiered" from the army, was disqualified from holding any position of trust under the government. Consequently, he insisted, everything Flipper had done in the landgrant cases was illegal and should be expunged from the record.

Attorney General Olney disagreed. "The record of this court-martial shows that he was convicted on a bare technicality, without credibility attached thereto." Apparently, Olney's earlier reservations concerning Flipper had disappeared. "My investigation as to Mr. Flipper, and my subsequent observations of him, as well as my associations with the people of Arizona," he commented, "justify me in stating that no successful attack can be made on his honesty, his integrity, and his reliability and this is borne out by the general respect and esteem accorded him in the community where he lives and where these land grants are situated." 26

With his character cleared in the postal scandal, Flipper became more involved in other land-grant cases. In 1897 he traveled with Will Tipton to report on the condition of the Hermosillo archives relating to Arizona land grants. Victor Aguilar, treasurer general of Sonora, placed the repository at their disposal, until he received orders from the "supreme government" to deny the American agents access to papers that pertained to grants in Mexico. They were, however, allowed to inspect documents dealing with land grants in US. territory. Flipper and Tilton found no mention in the Toma de Razón of the Aribac, Tres Alamos, El Sopori, Tumacácori, Calabazas y Huabab Reyes Pacheco (Tubac), and El Paso de los Algodones claims, nor the infamous Peralta grant. They suspected that a Mexican federal officer may have illegally disposed of public lands. 27

In April of 1898, Flipper traveled to Washington, D.C., to defend his work on the Los Nogales de Elías claim before the Supreme Court. The Oasis reported that "Lt. H. O. Flipper, now at Washington, D.C. [has] briefs in the cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, on appeal from the Court of Private Land Claims, involving the translation of an article of the Gadsden Treaty, and the existence of certain alleged documents in the archive at Hermosillo, in which Lt. Flipper's expert testimony cuts an important figure." The Nogales newspaper was incensed to learn that Attorney Ainsa had "the gall to assail Mr. Flipper's credibility." At the same time, it commended Matt Reynolds for his "eulogy of Mr. Flipper's worth and character of which the many friends of the gentleman are very proud."28

Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Nogales townsite. Even so, Nogales's problems were far from over. Because the Camou-Elías interests had sold so many quit-claims, several people found themselves "owning" the same parcels of land. Compounding the difficulty, squatters moved in to take up residence on these lots. Claimants drove off some at gunpoint. 29

Flipper, meanwhile, was working simultaneously on other Arizona land grants. The San Rafael de Valle case was a small claim that caused him big trouble. Rafael Elías had acquired this four-sitio grant, in the lovely San Pedro Valley, for $240 in 1827. Apache depredations forced Elías to leave but, after his death, his widow, Guadalupe, and their three sons--José Juan, Manuel, and José María--retained possession of the land. In 1862, the family mortgaged thirty-two leagues of the grant, for $12,000, to the Camou brothers. When the Elíases failed to repay the loan, the Camous moved to acquire the property. Not wishing to be left out of a good land-grant scrap, Santiago Ainsa entered an adverse claim, arguing that the widow's signature was invalid because, under Arizona law, she could not inherit property separately from her husband.

Flipper translated the documents and testified to their validity. The Camous, however, had petitioned for 20,034 acres, much more than the four sitios covered by the original grant. The land court rejected their claim on the basis that the edict under which the dictator Santa Anna had made the original grant was illegal and subject to review by the governments of Mexico and the United States.30

Colonel William Herring appealed the case before the U.S. Supreme Court. A graduate of the Columbia law school, Herring was a brilliant attorney, but his bald head and portly six-foot, 250-pound frame inspired detractors to refer to him as "His Mammoth Tanks." Although Herring patronized Flipper, he never disputed his translations or his statements as to the conditions of the grant. Instead, he attempted to discredit Flipper's competence as an engineer by making him guess the distances from one point to another. The Arizona Enterprise was furious. "The colonel's mind evidently is not as big as himself," the newspaper railed. "In fact it is very much smaller, for its true size and capacity appeared when he indulged in that disgusting harangue of vituperation against a competent officer [Flipper]."31

Herring won, however, when the Supreme Court ruled that a temporary dictator's edict did not nullify the San Rafael grant or destroy the title. The Camous received approximately four sitios, considerably less than their original claim. The Court of Private Land Claims appealed the decision, contending that the grant could not be identified on a specific plat. Once again, the Supreme Court sided with the Camous.

Flipper's work on the San Ignacio de Babocomari land grant pitted him against Dr. Edward B. Perrin and his attorney, Senator John T. Morgan, both of Alabama. In 1877, Perrin, an ex-Confederate soldier residing in Riverside, California, had purchased all rights to the Babocomari from George Hill Howard and others. Flipper alleged that Perrin tried to bribe him through a black barber in Riverside, who wrote Flipper that Perrin had spoken highly of Flipper's ability and would be only too glad to advise him on how to make a fortune. Flipper turned the letters over to Matt Reynolds. The pair drafted a response but were unable to obtain any direct evidence against Perrin.

When Perrin's case came before the Supreme Court, Senator Morgan ignored Flipper's work and hired a State Department clerk to translate the title papers. When the Justice Department asked Flipper to examine the transcript, he responded "that it was as poor a translation as he ever saw." He proceeded to point out many errors, whereupon Morgan withdrew his translation. Nevertheless, Perrin's attorneys fought bitterly, charging that Flipper had received $1,500 from the Mexican government while he was in Sonora. They also claimed that Flipper got drunk when he returned to Nogales and remained drunk until all the money was gone. "These charges were investigated," Flipper wrote, "but every man, woman and child in Nogales knew I never drank liquor and proved the charges false in every particular."32

The land court rejected Perrin's claim because of the uncertain description of the property in the expediente. In 1898, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment and remanded the case back to the Court of Private Land Claims. When the case reopened, Perrin bragged that the land he owned included all of Nogales.33 In a split decision, the court awarded him 33,792.20 acres, considerably less than the 123,068.87 acres that he claimed.

Perhaps Flipper's cleanest land grant case involved John Slaughter's San Bernardino ranch. In 1820, Ignacio de Pérez proposed to establish a buffer zone against the Apaches. In petitioning for a grant, he explained his intention to persuade the Apaches to settle down to a peaceful life of farming. With enough cattle to qualify for four sitios, he purchased the property at an auction at Arizpe in May of 1822. A record of the grant was filed, but Pérez never received title. Nevertheless, he grazed thousands of cattle and horses on the land until Apaches drove him off.

In 1884 Slaughter, an ex-Confederate from Texas, acquired the San Bernardino land on both sides of the border. As sheriff of Cochise County from 1887 to 1890, he cleaned out the rustlers and bandits and acquired a reputation for seldom bringing back a live prisoner. Judge Will H. Barnes, who had staunchly defended Flipper during the Nogales post-office scandal, served as Slaughter's attorney. Although the original copy of the San Bernardino grant was never found, Flipper did locate an expediente. He translated the grant papers and surveyed the entire area. Arthur Fisher, Slaughter's foreman, showed Flipper the monuments, which he found to be of proper construction.34

Legend has it that when Flipper and his assistant, Bob Leatherwood, arrived at the ranch, Flipper was told to eat in the kitchen with Slaughter's ex-slaves. Meanwhile, the barely literate Leatherwood dined with the Slaughter family. As an unreconstructed Rebel, Slaughter would never have broken bread with a black man.

Flipper and the court confirmed only 2,366 acres of the 13,476 acres that Slaughter claimed on the American side of the international boundary. Perhaps feeling vindicated for the dinner snub, Flipper wrote a congratulatory note to Slaughter, who made no further appeals.35

Throughout his life, Flipper remained the aristocratic Southern military man. While in Washington on business with and the land grant cases in 1891, he received a social invitation from Mary Church Terrell, the most prominent black woman at the turn of the century, and her husband. At Sunday dinner with the Terrells and Mrs. Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the principal talk turned to women's suffrage. Abruptly, the three hosts stood up and announce that they were going to church. They did not invite Flipper to join them, and it seemed plain that they wanted him to leave. "I was impressed with the ordinariness of the dinner, especially the lettuce salad that was all wilted and appeared to have been prepared two or three hours before it was served or was a left over," he later recalled. "I worried quite a bit over the incident and reached the conclusion that they had invited me merely to see what Lieut. Flipper looked like and to size him up and the result had been unsatisfactory to them."36

Flipper enjoyed female companionship. On September 10, 1891, he entered into a marriage contract with Luisa Montoya. Until 1959, Arizona's miscegenation laws prohibited persons of different races from marrying, which perhaps is why he never mentions Luisa in any of his writings. Still, Flipper evidently cared enough about her to want to give her the benefit of marriage. In front of witnesses George Christ and Henry M. Stanley, both prominent Nogales citizens, the couple made a "declaration of marriage" and agreed to live together "as husband and wife." The unusual document took pains to point out "that their marriage has not been solemnized, but this declaration of marriage is made in lieu of such Solemnization." Tucson and Nogales newspapers respected the couple's privacy and remained silent37

Evidently, the "marriage" did not last long. Less than a year later, Henry wrote to his brother Festus from Yuma:

...You and [brother] Joe are both now Benedicts and I am still a bachelor and will probably remain so, so far as I can now see. I shall certainly not marry anyone I have ever seen out here. There is a nice lady in El Paso that would make a fine wife for any one, but she is now married to a splendid gentleman, and "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife." I have never seen any other woman out this way, colored, white or Mexican, that I would give a fin for as a wife. All the nice girls are back east where you are. 38

By now Flipper, at age thirty-six, had put on a little weight and was sporting glasses. In another letter to Festus, he enclosed pictures of himself for the family. He described times as hard in Nogales, with tramps everywhere begging for something to eat or for some work. Flipper blamed the Democrats and demonitization of silver for the hard times, and described himself as a Republican "first, last, and all the time." Referring to the photographs, he warned Festus: "Don't tell me I look like a Jew as Joe did when I sent him one, nor that I look like a dude because I wear glasses. I wear them because I couldn't see across the room if I didn't.39

By his own admission, Flipper helped fix an election when Arizona was trying for statehood in 1893. Electoral skulduggery was an accepted and popular Arizona sport. In this case, D. D. Altschul, chairman of the local Republican committee, was running for delegate to the Arizona Constitutional Convention and had tickets printed up with his name at the top. On election day, Flipper, Jesse Grant, and James J. Chatham, editor of the Nogales Sunday Herald, were in the office of the justice of the peace, plotting to defeat Altschul "just for the fun of it." At first, they proposed to print up their own tickets. Flipper, however, came up with a better strategy. He and Grant set out in opposite directions to collect Altschul's election slips. The first man Flipper met was Altschul, who gave him a "big bunch" of tickets. Back in the office, the conspirators scratched out Altschul's name and wrote in Chatham's. Chatham won, and Altschul was so humiliated that he sold his Nogales property and moved to South America to raise sugar. 40

While Chatham was serving his term as delegate to the constitutional convention, he appointed Flipper to fill in as editor of the Nogales Sunday Herald. Flipper thus became the first black editor of a white newspaper in Arizona. Moreover, he "had a lot of fun doing it." Unfortunately, none of the issues Flipper edited have survived. Nevertheless, the Herald took note of his accomplishment, when it noted his employment in 1895 as an engineer for the Sonora Land Company, headquartered in Chicago. "Lt. Flipper will be remembered as the gentleman who ably edited the Nogales Herald during the absence of Mr. Chatham last spring," it reminded readers. 41

In December of 1895, Flipper surveyed the lines of the corporation limits of Nogales, after Congress passed a law that prohibited businesses and houses within sixty feet of the international boundary. Not a few Nogales residents were thoroughly discouraged to discover that the line ran right through their homes, including that of Mayor Fred Herrera. The city council paid Flipper $20 in gold for his survey, which he completed by January 11, 1896.42

Besides his work for the Court of Private Land Claims, Flipper spent much of 1896 surveying roads in Mexico. James Walters of Saric, Sonora, criticized one of Flipper's proposals, asserting that he knew a better route that would cost less. Flipper also received notice in January of his appointment as deputy U.S. mineral surveyor. He took out an advertisement in the Nogales Oasis:

Henry O. Flipper--U.S. Deputy Mineral Surveyor. Mine and Land Surveys in United States or Mexico. Thorough acquaintance with Mexican and Land and Mining Laws. Translations in English and Spanish. Notary Public." 43

The government required that Flipper post a $20,000 bond. The Oasis assured its readers that the money was "simply to guarantee that he will not survey your ore body over into the adjoining claim owned by someone else." 44

On one of his many trips to Tucson, Flipper ran into Robert D. Read, a former West Point classmate who was now a captain commanding a company of the Tenth Cavalry, Flipper's old regiment. When Flipper sat down to dinner at the San Xavier Hotel, Read promptly got up and left without eating." 45 Also during this period, Flipper designed and patented an improved tent made from a single piece of material that could be "expeditiously and conveniently erected." It was light enough to be carried by two men and provided shelter for four. 46

Flipper offered his services to the government at the out-break of the Spanish American War in 1898. The President, however, never responded to his telegram. The Washington Post published a long letter suggesting that Flipper would be the logical choice to command a black volunteer regiment that the government was considering organizing. The writer proposed Charles Young, the third black graduate of West Point, as lieutenant colonel. 47

Although Nogales adored Flipper, it did not deter him from reprimanding the Oasis if he thought it necessary. On May 28, 1899, the newspaper published a critical letter from the ex-lieutenant:

The clipping herewith is cut from your paper of the 20th instant in order to call your attention to the fact that article 3 of the act creating the Court of Private Land Claims expressly and specifically exempts from confirmation by that court of any claim to mineral on private land claims except where such mineral was expressly and specifically granted in the grant itself by Spain or Mexico, and our government reserves to itself the making of regulations governing the taking up and working of such claims on confirmed grants. I would suggest that you get out and read the act of March 3, 1891. Grant claimants are fighting for "outer boundaries" in order to control water and crush out small holders. 48

Flipper completed his work with the Court of Private Land Claims in 1901. Shortly thereafter, he received a telegram from the New York manager of the Balvanera Mining Company in Ocampo, Chihuahua, asking Flipper to meet him in El Paso. The company's president, William McAdoo--who later became secretary of the treasury--subsequently appointed Flipper resident engineer. While working in Chihuahua, Flipper frequently visited Nogales and Tucson as late as 1912. In May of that year, stopped over in Tucson to promote the African Land and Irrigation Company. T. C. Jones, the company's president and treasurer, accompanied him. 49

During the Mexican Revolution, Flipper provided reports on conditions in Mexico to Albert Fall, an officer with the Balvanera Mining Company. When Fall became secretary of interior under the Harding administration, he appointed Flipper undersecretary and also assigned him to the Alaskan Railway survey team. Following Fall's resignation in 1923 under cloud of the Teapot Dome scandal, Flipper went to work for William Buckley's Pantepec Oil Company in Venezuela. When the Depression ruined the oil companies, Flipper returned to the United States and lived with his brother Joseph, bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Atlanta. During the last ten years of his life, he tried unsuccessfully to have his military record cleared. On May 3, 1941, Henry Ossian Flipper died unwept and unsung by all except a few. In 1976, through the efforts of Ray MacColl, a Georgia schoolteacher, the army expunged Flipper's dismissal from its records.

Flipper accomplished a great deal after his court-martial, perhaps more than he would have had he remained in a military establishment that was not yet ready for a black officer. Nogales residents would agree that he worked out his most important contribution to Arizona history in the Court of Private Land Claims.


1Henry O. Flipper, The Colored Cadet at West Point: Autobiography of Lt. Henry O. Flipper (New York: Homer Lee, 1878), p. 252.

2Miscellaneous Records, Book 4, p. 459; Book 6, p. 304, Santa Cruz County Recorder's Office [SCCRO], Nogales. Jesse Grant's house still stands on Crawford Street.

3Henry O. Flipper to Festus Flipper, Jr., April 2, 1892, courtesy of Ray MacColl.

4Ray A. Mattison, "Early Spanish and Mexican Settlements in Arizona," New Mexico Historical Review, vol. 21 (October 1946), p. 287.

5In December of 1892, a separate district was established in Tucson to hear only the Arizona claims.

6Nogales Oasis, April 17, 1915.

7Case No. 29. The United States of America Plaintiff vs. Santiago Ainsa Administrator et al. Defendants Los Nogales de Elías Land Grant, microfilm, National Archives [NA].

8Nogales Oasis, September 28, 1893; Case No. 29. U.S. vs. Ainsa.

9Matthew G. Reynolds to Richard Olney, January 25, 1894, Department of Justice Records [DJR], Record Group [RG] 60, NA.

10Olney to Reynolds, November 22, 1893, ibid.

11Flipper expense accounts, 1893-98, in the Matthew G. Reynolds files, ibid.

12 Case No. 29. U.S. vs. Ainsa. In January of 1893, Ainsa--a collateral descendant of the famous Captain Juan Bautista de Anza--announced that he had discovered a document granting over 70,000 acres to the City of Tucson. Had the case been allowed, the federal government would have had to pay Tucson $1.25 per acre, of which Ainsa would receive half. No one besides Ainsa ever saw the papers. Arizona Weekly Citizen (Tucson), January 14, 1893. Ford represented everyone except the Camous. Born about 1860 in St. Louis, he received his law degree from Washington University and moved to Arizona after he developed respiratory problems. He was active in Tucson's First Baptist Church, where he served as deacon and paid for the building's renovation. Casas Adobes Baptist Church Disciple Monthly (March 1990). Howard filed a brief on behalf of the Camou brothers, naming himself as entitled to one-sixth of their claim to one-half of the Elías grant. The Camous, who were in the process of suing for other lands in Arizona, assumed that Howard was working for their attorney, William Herring, and gave Howard access to valuable documents. They sued to get their shares independently of whether Ainsa or Howard won. The Tombstone Prospector, December 23, 1893, described Howard as never having done a worthwhile thing in his worthless life.

13Case No. 129. U.S. vs. Ainsa.

14Nogales Sunday Herald, December 17, 1893. Case No. 129. U.S. vs. Ainsa.

15Nogales Sunday Herald, December 17, 1893.


17Theodore D. Harris, ed., Negro Frontiersman: The Western Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper First Negro Graduate of West Point (El Paso: Texas Western College Press, 1963), pp. 31-32. Flipper never voted because he was always in a territory or foreign country at election time.

18Nogales Oasis, October 19, 1893. First Judicial District Criminal Case Files, Folder 833, Box 9, RG 21, Pacific Southwest Region, NA.

19First Judicial Criminal Case Files, Folder 833, Box 9.

20Nogales Sunday Herald, December 24, 1893.

21John S. Goff, Arizona Territorial Officials. Volume Four: The Secretaries, United States Attorneys, Marshals, Surveyors General and Superintendents of Indian Affairs, 1863-1912 (Cave Creek, Arizona: Black Mountain Press, 1988), pp. 52-54.

22Louis Strother to Charles Bruce, November 7, 1893, JDR, No. 11957, File 233.

23Bruce to W. K. Meade, November 13, 1893, ibid.

24Report on the San Rafael de la Zanja Private Land Claim, Ms. 29, 6C, Ser. 302, Folder 1, Thomas B. Catron Collection [TBCC], Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

25W H. Barnes to U.S. Solicitor General, December 15, 1893, DJR.

26Ainsa vs. US. 868 U.S. 208.

27Will M. Tipton and Henry O. Flipper, Official Report on the Condition of the Archives or Records of the Titles to Land Grants in Arizona, pp. 1-4, TBCC.

28Nogales Oasis, April 9, 1898.

29Ibid., April 17, 1915.

30Camou vs. United States, 171 US. Reports pp. 277-97.

31Arizona Enterprise (Florence), April 5, 1894.

32Harris, ed., Negro Frontiersman, pp. 33-34.

33Undated article, in Edward B. Perrin File, Arizona Historical Society, Tucson.

34San Bernardino Land Grant, Claim No. 1, RG 49, NA.

35Henry O. Flipper to John B. Slaughter, March 12, 1900, ibid.

36Harris, ed., Negro Frontiersman, pp. 41-42.

37Miscellaneous Records, Book 4, page 459, and Book 6, p. 304, SCCRO.

38Henry O. Flipper to Festus Flipper, Jr., April 2, 1892, courtesy of Ray MacColl.

39Ibid., November 24, 1895, Library of Congress.

40Harris, ed., Negro Frontiersman, p. 32.

41Nogales Sunday Herald, September 8, 1895.

42Nogales Oasis, January 11, 1896.

43Ibid., November 21, 1896.

44Ibid., June 11, 1896.

45Harris, ed., Negro Frontiersman, p. 32.

46Patent No. 615,544, U.S. Patent Office, Washington, D.C.

47Quoted in Harris, ed., Negro Frontiersman, p. 43.

48Nogales Oasis, May 27,1899.

49Nogales Border Vidette, May 4, 1912.

Permission to present this electronic version of Henry O. Flipper in the Court of Private Land Claims: The Arizona Career of West Point's First Black Graduate was granted by the author and the Arizona Historical Society. Ms. Eppinga is a Tucson freelance writer, who also has written a biography of Henry Ossian Flipper entitled:Henry Ossian Flipper : West Point's First Black Graduate.

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