When it came to an appetite for ill-gotten gains, James Addison Reavis, the self-proclaimed Baron of Arizona, was in a class by himself.
In the 1880s, Reavis illegally laid claim to more than 18,000 square miles of Arizona land, covering what is today Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, Casa Grande, Florence, Globe and Safford. The 75-mile by 250-mile rectangular tract extended east to rich copper deposits at Globe, San Carlos, Miami, Ray and Morenci, and into New Mexico.
Born in Missouri in 1843, Reavis’ occupation is listed by several sources as an imposter! As an indication of his shiftiness, Reavis fought on both sides of the Civil War, first with the Confederate Army, and later, when the tide had turned, he joined the Union Army. After the war, he eventually settled in St. Louis, dabbling in real estate.
In 1871, opportunity knocked. Reavis met Dr. George Willing, himself somewhat of a scam artist, who said he had purchased a stack of Spanish land deeds from a Mexican, Miguel Peralta, for $1,000. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Spanish deeds to U.S. territorial land were valid, but Reavis had his doubts. After Willing died in 1874, Reavis managed to take control of the deeds, and soon realized the claims were worthless.
That was merely an opportunity for Reavis to burnish his budding reputation as an imposter and forger. In 1880, Reavis spent weeks at the state archives in Mexico City and Guadalajara, studying grants, deeds and maps. He then forged titles and diaries that looked like authentic Spanish records from the 17th and 18th centuries to create a history of the fictitious Peralta claim, including three generations of a fictitious Peralta family of Spanish nobility. At one point in the Baron of Arizona saga, Reavis received an offer from the U.S. Secretary of the Interior for $25 million for his vast claim, but surprisingly he turned it down. Apparently his greedy eye was on a bigger payday.
Reavis arrived in Tucson on Sept. 3, 1882, to stake his claim, but found that the land office was brimming with similar, equally questionable claims. Reavis decided to create a living heiress to the Peralta Grant, marry her, and thus strengthen his claim. He convinced a poor young half-Indian woman in San Bernardino, Calif., that she was the sole surviving member of the once-powerful Peralta clan. She became known as Dona Carmelita Sofia Micaela de Peralta. In short order, they were wed on New Year’s Eve, 1882, and Reavis thus became James de Peralta-Reavis, the Baron of Arizona.
When Reavis returned to Tucson in March 1883, after grooming his bride to the ways of nobility, his initial claim for 2,000 square miles had grown exponentially to more than 18,000 square miles. He demanded that the surveyor general, Joseph Robbins, approve his claims, but Robbins declined. Robbins’ successor, Royal Johnson, undertook an extensive, years-long examination of the Baron’s claims.
In 1885, Reavis, accompanied by his wife, traveled to Spain where he spent several months searching the archives in Madrid and Seville. His purpose was to establish his wife as an heir to the Peralta Grant. Reavis re-submitted his claims in 1888, but in 1889, Johnson submitted his detailed report, declaring Reavis’ claims fake.
Undaunted, Reavis again re-submitted the claims in 1893, this time in Santa Fe, N.M., where he was less known. A land court finally heard the claim in June 1895, and after a month of testimony, Reavis’ claims were denied.
Reavis was promptly arrested spent a year in jail awaiting trial, and was subsequently found guilty of attempting to defraud the federal government out of public lands by establishing what was termed “the fictitious and fraudulent Peralta Grant.” After his conviction, he spent two more years in prison. He was released in 1898, drifted from place to place, and died in 1914.
Reavis was immortalized on the big screen in the 1950 film, “The Baron of Arizona,” which stars Vincent Price as the swindler extraordinaire.
The legend of the Baron of Arizona was kept alive by Norm Sarlat and his late partner, Chuck Shaieb, who operated the Baron Restaurant in Tucson from 1970 to 1995. Baron of Arizona memorabilia adorned the restaurant, and a 30-foot mural depicting Reavis’ life, from his early days as a conductor of a horse-drawn streetcar in St. Louis, hung behind the bar. Sarlat suggests that since the Baron spent a few years behind bars, putting the mural behind the bar was appropriate.
- Don Harris is copy editor and a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times. Photo courtesy of Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records.