The South House. This is the erroneous start to the 1880 Canoa survey

By Scott Dyke / Green Valley News

When you buy a property, there is a title search, seeking the history, and if there are no liens or questions, title insurance is purchased from an insurance company to protect your investment. Buyers (through the insurers) feel comfortable that they are protected from any claims.

What happens if they got it wrong?

Years ago, I was a partner in an abstract company. We would search deed records for liens and deed history. Then we would sell title insurance if the records were “clean,” guaranteeing true title to the buyer.

Well, hello Green Valley, what comes next will stun you!

Frank Abell is a land surveyor. His firm is in Tucson and he lives here. Years ago he walked me through the Canoa Inn massacre site. He alluded back then to a major glitch involving a large tract of land, the San Ignacio De La Canoa land grant from Spain.

The land was granted in 1821 to Tomas Ortiz. It involved 17,000 acres in the Santa Cruz Valley. The parcel was surveyed under the direction of the commander of the Tubac compound. Abell’s research found that the boundary markings were meticulously precise.

Incredible find

He took interest in this tract when he attended a lecture by Dr. Richard Willey in 1978. What Willey found was extraordinary. The lines had been changed. To wit, the boundaries had been moved nearly three miles!

“Willey was barely interested in this,” Abell said. His real interest was locating the famous Tucson Comet that landed here, somewhere, and was never found, giving rise to a mystery that still exists, a la New Mexico aliens.

Maybe Willey’s discovery meant little to the good doctor, but it surely sparked Abell’s interest.
His take? “It is the biggest survey blunder in the history of Arizona.”


Tomas and Ignacio Ortiz received the land grant from Spain. Their father settled there in 1812 and made claim for the tract. Ignacio was killed in 1857 by the Papago Indians.
Tomas Ortiz sold his grant to two gringos, Frederick Maish and Tom Driscoll. Tomas died the following year at age 85. Maish and Driscoll then petitioned the federal government to grant them ownership of a tract that was much larger than the original.
Eventually the size of their request was reduced, but more importantly, the position of the grant was altered. Dramatically. Maish and Driscoll heavily influenced a new U.S. government survey in 1880. They were granted title. Frank Abell researched the notes of surveyor John Harris.

“He was rife with arrogance and sloppy,” Abell found. New lines were drawn.

So, to what purpose? Well, one benefit of the erroneously redrawn lines was the addition to the north, which had mining claim potential. Bingo. Another was that the new lines now encompassed the east side of the Santa Cruz River, which contained the rich soils for farming. (By 1880, the Apache “problem” had greatly diminished). Abell picked up on the error.

Error still stands

The original Spanish starting point was “The Canoa,” a water reservoir. Harris, no doubt in haste and probably “guided” by Maish and Driscoll, moved the “Canoa” to a small old house, which significantly altered the original grant.

Maish eventually sold the property, built the first hotel in Tucson and became the mayor in 1890. The erroneous 1880 survey was recognized by the United States in 1899. Maish died in Tucson in 1913, untouched by the land scandal. Much of the 1880 U.S. grant eventually turned into a retirement draw for the Midwest.

Abell was not done. “Another mistake that Harris made was he did not start his survey at the ‘spine’ of the tract, but rather took to the outside boundaries.”

Abell’s goal was to set things right. When he approached several lawyers, their advice was adamant. “Don’t do it!!” The mess would be overwhelmingly broad.

So here we have it. A too-often common confluence of greed and arrogance remained buried for nearly 100 years.

Take heart, though, if your property lies within the old bounds (Spanish grant) or the altered new bounds (U.S. survey), it is highly doubtful anything will change. After all, the omnipotent force of the U.S. government would stand behind its official deeds of 1880, come hell or low water.

The ironic nature of this scam is that it came to light because of an extraterrestrial fireball that could not be found, proving one more time that politics can defy the gods.


Scott Dyke is a Wyatt Earp historian, Western writer, lecturer and researcher. He can be contacted at Article published at the Green Valley News and is republished here with the author’s permission.