The folllowing is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In.
While it is technically true that Spain, followed by Mexico, owned California until America conquered it in 1850, history shows that American businessmen had been after the land for years before it became officially America, and that it was American businessmen who took land ownership, commodification, and exploitation to the most extreme levels of intensity that California had ever seen.
The more I read about American history, the more I become convinced that the defining trait of America is not freedom or democracy, but rather a frighteningly efficient business savvy.
American companies like Bryant, Sturgis and Co. and ambitions merchants like Abel Stearns were already gobbling up most of the commodities markets before America got the notion that it was its "manifest destiny" to own North America all the way to the Pacific.
So we started sending troops into California. In Orange County Through Four Centuries, Leo J. Friis writes, "The Mexican War came to southern California when John C. Fremont landed with his battallion at San Diego on July 26, 1846."
To convince the American public that "we take nothing by conquest," the US government cooked up some excuse involving a border dispute, and then sent in its full military power to take the land by conquest. Why would the government do this? It seems pretty clear that it was the businessmen who were doing the real legislating, as they still do today.
The Mexican War ended with the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, which gave the US California and other prime real estate in exchange for a token amount of money, so it would not look like we were stealing.
Under the terms of the treaty, Mexican citizens were guaranteed their property rights, so it looked like we were being fair. However, as Friis points out, "The spirit of this treaty was violated by a law enacted by Congress in 1851 which established a commission of three persons to "acertain and setle private land claims." What this lesser-known law did was to put the power of land ownership in the hands of US Land Commissioners, who often denied Mexican citizens their land rights based on some minor bureaucratic detail, like not having an original map of the property. This is a good example of what I would call "conquest by bureaucracy."
The newly-formed state of California lost no time in creating a legislature and dividing the state into 27 counties, which could be further subdivided and sold for maximum profit.