The descendants of recipients of Spanish and Mexican land grants want state lawmakers to pay them unclaimed royalties from the mineral rights to their ancestral land, which eventually became Texas. The descendants' lawyers estimate the value is at least $200 million.
The 500 descendants want state lawmakers to amend the state Unclaimed Property Act to give them access to unclaimed royalty proceeds from those ancestral lands. The descendants and their legal teams met Sunday in San Antonio to plan their strategy for righting what they regard as an injustice dating back more than a century and a half.
The royalties originally paid by oil companies have been sitting unclaimed in the Texas comptroller's office, the San Antonio Express-News reported in its Sunday edition. Attorneys for descendants say the comptroller has at least $200 million in unclaimed royalties, but information they have obtained through the state Freedom of Information Act show more than $561 million is unclaimed, the newspaper reported.
The ancestors of hundreds of families in Starr, Hidalgo, Jim Wells and other South Texas counties received the land grants on what is now the Texas side of the Rio Grande.
Owners of the original accounts didn't specify heirs in their wills before they died, La Porte lawyer Eileen McKenzie Fowler told the newspaper.
Fowler, who represents families in the quest, said oil companies have not kept records or have disclosed little to no information on royalty payments due the families. So far, no one has received any royalty payments, she said.
Meanwhile, although Texas cannot spend the unclaimed funds, it does keep the interest they generate and places the proceeds in its general fund, she said.
"This whole effort is to provide all these people -- and there are thousands and thousands of them -- a valid mechanism to be able to claim their share of that money," said Don Tomlinson, a consultant to the descendants.
They propose legislation to create a state mechanism for using legal and historical documents, land surveys and genealogical research to identify and qualify descendants of the land grant recipients to receive unclaimed royalty payments.
The legislation would not affect surface or other property rights.
Tomlinson said the money was uncontested. "The money itself is sitting there unclaimed and fundamentally unclaimable," he told the Express-News.
Rights to Spanish and Mexican land grants have long and often been disputed over the years, with some fighting separate legal battles to regain land the contend was stolen from their descendants.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.