In 1883, an aristocratic-looking man suddenly appeared in Phoenix, Arizona, and calmly announced that thanks to his possession of the Spanish titles of Baron de Arizonaca and Caballero de los Colorados, he owned the entire city and an area surrounding it that amounted to nearly eleven million acres. The territory included not only the state’s capital city, but the Silver King mine, a treasure in copper, gold, and silver ore, and, oh, yes, the right of way of the Southern Pacific Railway.
James Addison Reavis had just proclaimed himself the Baron of Arizona.
Reavis’ astonishing rise to fortune began when he was a soldier in the Confederate Army, when he accidentally discovered that he had a remarkable talent for forging passes of leave for himself and his friends. Having an intelligence and ambition to match this unexpected gift for criminality, he naturally began to think of exercising his abilities on a larger scale.
After his discharge from the army, he made his way to St. Louis, where he became a real estate agent. His skill in forgery came in handy, as it allowed him to “discover” property titles and other paperwork that served the interests of his clients.
In 1871, he met George Willing, who alleged he had bought a large Spanish land grant in Arizona from a Miguel Peralta, although his documentation was extremely shaky and informal. Reavis and Willing eventually formed a partnership to promote this claim. In 1874, Willing went to Prescott, Arizona to file his claim, but the very next morning, he died suddenly. The cause of his death was unknown, but—especially in the light of later events—many dark rumors spread about his convenient exit from the scene. Reavis eventually gained possession of Willing’s papers relating to the Peralta grant, got Willing’s widow to sell him her interest in the claim, and began to dream. If he was going to go to all the trouble of pressing Willing’s questionable grant, why not make it for something really worth owning?
Reavis concocted an eighteenth-century grandee, Miguel de Peralta, a leading ornament of the court of King Ferdinand of Spain, and a long list of Peralta ancestors and descendants. And then he gave them all a place in history. Literally. Incredible though it may seem, he managed to tour archives in places ranging from Mexico to Spain to Portugal, where he deposited for the benefit of skeptics his forged historical documents providing a legal record of the Peralta clan. Reavis then established his link to the Peraltas by concocting documentation that "proved" George Willing had, for a trifle, bought from Miguel Peralta—who just happened to be a direct descendant of the original Miguel de Peralta—the ownership of the enormous Peralta land grant that King Ferdinand had bestowed upon the family.
How could anyone doubt the truth of Reavis’ story? He had all the papers to prove it!
The new Baron brought his impressive stack of aged documents to the government’s surveyor general, along with a petition to be declared owner of the great Peralta grant. He also posted public notices all over Phoenix warning all the “trespassers” on his land to make acceptable financial settlements with him.
This caused, as one might imagine, a good deal of disquiet among the citizens of Arizona, and a positive panic in the board rooms of the Southern Pacific, the Silver King mine, and all the other companies within the new Peralta empire. The businessmen screamed for their lawyers, who painstakingly examined Reavis’ documentation and announced in no uncertain terms that…Reavis had them over a barrel. They advised their clients that the easiest way to deal with the interloper was to settle with Reavis as quickly and inexpensively as they could. The Southern Pacific gave him $50,000, the Silver King $25,000. Meanwhile, Reavis began negotiating with the federal government a settlement of a cool $25 million. The new Baron radiated such self-assurance that he was able to secure the financial and moral support of some of the most important men of his day, such as Robert G. Ingersoll, the San Francisco millionaire John W. Mackay, Charles Crocker, and Senator Roscoe Conkling.
Reavis decided to cement his claim to the grant by linking his lot with someone he could pass off as the real Peralta heir. He found a suitable candidate in a young house servant, Sophia Treadway. He informed the girl that she was no penniless orphan, but heiress to a large fortune in Arizona, and, after concocting the necessary documentation that rechristened her “Doña Sophia Michaela Maso Reavis y Peralta de la Córdoba,” married her.
|The Baroness of Arizona|
The new Baroness must have felt like Cinderella on the big party night. Reavis bought her a suitably aristocratic wardrobe and saw to it that a convent school taught her how to be a great lady. He changed his name to Don James Addison de Peralta-Reavis, and asserted a secondary claim on his Arizona land on behalf of his wife and children, the true blood kin of the once-mighty Peraltas.
Reavis began living less like a Baron and more like a feudal king. He formed lumber and mining companies and began developing his new empire. The citizens of a good chunk of Arizona—who were now essentially his serfs—paid him in return for quitclaim deeds to what they once thought were their properties. Many others simply abandoned their homes and properties rather than fight what was being presented as an unassailable claim. If the Southern Pacific caved in to this man, what chance did these humble individuals have? At Reavis' peak, he was pulling in some $300,000 a year. He owned mansions in St. Louis, Washington D. C., Madrid, and Mexico. His wife and sons dressed in the style of Spanish royalty.
It is difficult to believe that Reavis, deep down, thought this could last forever, but his empire, amazingly, was allowed to flourish until 1890, when the surveyor general finally completed his investigation into Reavis’ claims. In short, he stated flatly that Reavis had sold everyone a pup.
Reavis responded by filing a lawsuit against the government for damages and continued on his merry way until the next year, when the U.S. Court of Private Land Grant Claims was established. Practically their first order of business was to take a very, very close look at the Baron of Arizona. Their agents followed the trail of documents Reavis had deposited from California to Spain, and subjected them all to expert forensic examination. They soon realized that they were looking at the most ingenious, audacious, extensive, and beautifully crafted fakes any of them had ever witnessed.
Unfortunately for the Baron, by the time his claim came up for review before the Land Grant Court in January of 1895, he had spent all his new-found fortune as fast as it came in. He did not even have money left for legal representation. The government had no problem whatsoever proving that Reavis was a forger on a truly epic scale, with the imagination of the most prolific novelist. As one of the Land Grant investigators later put it, “In all the annals of crime there is no parallel. This monstrous edifice of forgery, perjury, and subornation was the work of one man. No plan was ever more ingeniously devised; none ever carried out with greater patience, industry, skill, and effrontery.”
It all makes one wonder what Reavis could have accomplished in the world if he hadn’t been such a dyed-in-the-wool skunk.
The “wholly fictitious and fraudulent” Peralta claim was dismissed, and Reavis then found himself facing criminal charges of forgery and conspiracy to defraud the government. The ex-Baron was inevitably found guilty and sentenced to two years in jail, which frankly seems like a light sentence considering the incredible havoc he had caused.
|The ex-Baron turned jailbird.|
After his release, Reavis made efforts to launch new development plans for Arizona, but unsurprisingly failed to find any backers. As he was apparently unable to imagine any way to make an honest dollar, this once-dynamic con man quickly slid into complete poverty. His wife divorced him in 1902 on the grounds of nonsupport.
Reavis died in a poor house in Denver, Colorado, on November 20, 1914. According to some reports, he consoled himself during his last years by haunting public libraries, where he could read old newspaper stories about himself and relive the days when he was heir to one of America’s richest land grants.