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Introduction:
Land Grants and Lawsuits
in Northern New Mexico

Excerpted from Land Grants and Lawsuits in Northern New Mexico © 1994, 2008 Malcolm Ebright. Original edition, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 1994. More Information about the book. For definitions of terms used see Glossary.

In the late 1960s when I first began to study the history of New Mexico land grants, the subject of land grants and the fairness of their adjudication had received international attention because of the courthouse raid in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico.1 During that period land grant activists spoke repeatedly about the loss of land grant land, but anyone interested in the facts of land grant history in New Mexico had little published material to consult. Government attention focused on the subject of land titles within New Mexico land grants when the State of New Mexico sponsored the Land Title Study in the early 1970s.2 As a co-author of that study I interviewed scholars, attorneys, government officials, and anyone else with knowledge in the field to determine what was known about New Mexico's land grants.3 Although much pioneering work had been done,4 it was apparent then that little was known about New Mexico's land grants. Twenty years later, though much work remains to be done, land grant studies has become a recognized academic discipline and much new research has been published. 5

The essays that make up this book follow a pattern of inquiry that mirrors my own quest to research and write some of the history of New Mexico land grants. They are written in such a way that any one of them can be read independently of the others, if for example the reader is interested in a specific land grant, but the chapters are also arranged in a logical progression, and tied together by an overall theme. In order to understand the background of land grants in New Mexico one needs to look at land tenure and law in Spain and Mexico, since many laws, customs, and procedures relating to land followed in New Mexico had their origin in those countries. Therefore chapter one traces the antecedents of New Mexico's land grants back to Spain and Mexico. It then reviews the obligations assumed by the United States under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in regard to land grants in the Southwest and follows the history and adjudication of these grants in New Mexico.

The evidence strongly suggests that U.S. courts and Congress did not fairly meet the obligations assumed by the United States under the Guadalupe Hidalgo treaty.6 The main reason for this was that the land grants were established under one legal system and adjudicated by another. The Anglo common law system did not sufficiently take into account important elements of the Hispanic civil law system such as customary law, which drove the legal system in New Mexico when the land grants were made. Hispanic customary law was poorly understood in late nineteenth century New Mexico because the lawsuits and governmental actions that defined and comprised customary law had not been documented in any detail at that time. As today's lawsuits continue to adjudicate land and water rights often originating in New Mexico's land grants it is important that New Mexico's Hispanic legal system be better understood.

To understand this system one must study specific lawsuits as they were fought out in New Mexico before the United States invasion. Chapter two reviews some of these lawsuits against the background of New Mexico's legal system during the Spanish and Mexican periods and briefly compares this Hispanic system with the Anglo-American common law system that replaced it. Whereas chapter one deals with abstract law and land tenure, chapter two treats the lawsuits themselves.

A lawsuit over water rights in Abiquíu brought by Manuel Martinez, who was later to request the Tierra Amarilla community land grant that was the subject of the courthouse raid 135 years later, is the subject of chapter three.

This detailed examination of a specific lawsuit reveals how custom became the means of deciding the case and how specific customs were proven in the course of the lawsuit. In addition, we see how the political relationship between the governor in Santa Fe and the local government council (ayuntamiento) was of major importance in determining the outcome of the litigation.

Political considerations also had a great deal to do with the outcome of Spanish and Mexican period lawsuits over the Santa Fe Ciénega, a public tract of land northeast of the Santa Fe plaza, dealt with in chapter four. The governor who decided these cases had to balance competing interests, and he often found a way to make both sides happy by giving each part of what they wanted. One of these interests was the municipality of Santa Fe which was trying to protect its ownership of the Cienega. Though the city fathers were unsuccessful in holding on to the Cienega, the institution of propios property used for municipal purposes and customs such as stubble grazing documented through these lawsuits, bring into focus another part of the mosaic of customary law.

Chapter five examines the institution of common land ownership as it existed prior to the United States' invasion of New Mexico and compares that with common land ownership as erroneously decided by the United States Supreme Court in the adjudication of the San Joaquin grant. This landmark decision was responsible for the loss of more land grant land than any other by an American court adjudicating land grants under the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The pattern followed in this essay and in those dealing with the Ramon Vigil, Las Trampas, Embudo, Las Vegas, and Jacona grants is to trace the history of the settlement of the land grant under the laws and customs of New Mexico prior to the 1846 United States invasion, and then to examine the adjudication of that grant by the U. S. In the Las Vegas and Jacona chapters, the legal history of the grants after adjudication is also studied because the loss of the Las Trampas grant's common lands and the retention of the Jacona grant's common lands were results of activities that took place after the grants were confirmed.

The adjudication of the Embudo grant by the Court of Private Land Claims was another mistaken decision that failed to recognize the system of customary law followed in Hispanic New Mexico. There the Land Claims Court rejected the grant because an official called an escribano did not make the copy of the grant offered to the court, even though such officials were not present in New Mexico at the time the copy was made. Chapter six examines some of the reasons why the Anglo-American legal system did not fairly decide land grant issues that arose under the Hispanic system.

Not all land lost from New Mexican land grants was due to the actions of courts set up to adjudicate these grants pursuant to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Chapter seven traces the history of the Las Trampas community land grant from its beginning as one of the earliest grants established in the mountains north of Santa Fe, through the adjudication process and the subsequent loss of common land use rights, to a modern day lawsuit that sought to restore those rights. Evidence submitted in the recent lawsuit revealed that these use-rights were lost because Santa Fe Ring members Alois B. Renehan and Charles Catron tricked the settlers with a secret agreement not submitted to the court in 1913. This case study provides an example of Hispanic land loss due to the machinations of lawyer-speculators.

Another land grant history relevant to a current lawsuit is the Las Vegas grant. There the issue is water rights. The settlement pattern of the grant becomes crucial in determining whether the Pueblo Rights Doctrine applies to the grant (if such a doctrine even existed under Spanish or Mexican law). In the search for the history of settlement in and around Las Vegas, a story of conflict over the control of the common lands emerges, in which governmental officials are inextricably involved in the complicated maneuverings. It illustrates how the government played a critical role in land grant policy in Hispanic New Mexico. Chapter eight tells the story of the Las Vegas grant up until the arrival of General Stephen Watts Kearney in Las Vegas and chapter nine takes the story through the Territorial Period when the battle for the common lands continued until finally the grant was placed under the control of the courts.

In the case of the Ramón Vigil grant discussed in chapter ten, several twists make that story of land grant speculation different from the others. One of those twists is the discovery that the grant documents submitted for confirmation to the surveyor general of New Mexico were forged. Although the grant itself did exist, the question of who forged the documents and why, opens up the larger question of why the surveyor general's office did not discover the forgery. In addition, we see that not all speculators were lawyers and politicians belonging to the Santa Fe Ring. Here we find Father Thomas Acquinas Hayes making a larger profit by buying and selling the Ramon Vigil Grant than Thomas B. Catron ever did in his land grant dealings.

All land grant histories are not tales of land loss, although many of them are. In the case of the Jacona grant discussed in chapter eleven, the grant was able to keep its common lands through a unity of purpose among the grant members, organized by an early land grant activist named Cosme Herrera. The grant residents themselves purchased the land grant after it was partitioned and sold by the lawyer for the grant, Napoleon Bonapart Laughlin. Other land grants have also had success in holding on to their lands, and the Jacona story attempts to find out why some New Mexico land grants have survived in the face of overwhelming odds, while others have been less successful.


1. The following books deal with the courthouse raid and Reies Lopez Tijerina, the best known land grant activist: Patricia Bell Blawis, Tijerina and the Land Grants (New York: International Publishers, 1971); Richard Gardner, Grito: Reies Tijerina and the New Mexico Land Grant War of 1967 (Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1970); Peter Nabokov, Tijerina and the Courthouse Raid (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1969); and "Reflections on the Alianza," New Mexico Quarterly, 37, (Winter 1968), pp. 343-356 Clark S. Knowlton, "Land-Grant Problems Among the State's Spanish-Americans," New Mexico Business , June 1967; "Reies Lopez Tijerina and the Alianza: Some Considerations," unpublished manuscript, and "Reies L. Tijerina and the Alianza Federal de Mercedes: Seekers after Justice," unpublished manuscript.

2. White et al. and State Planning Office, Land Title Study (Santa Fe, 1971).

3. Attorneys Benjamin Phillips and John McCarthy also participated in the interviewing for and the writing of the Land Title Study.

4. A pioneering six volume masters thesis by J.J. Bowden summarizes the history and adjudication of each of the land grants in New Mexico and Arizona, relying primarily on the records of the Surveyor General and the Court of Private Land Claims; Myra Ellen Jenkins, "The Baltazar Baca 'Grant': History of an Encroachment," El Palacio 68 (Spring 1961): 47-64; (Summer 1961): 87-105; Jenkins, "Spanish Land Grants in the Tewa Area," NMHR 47 (April 1972): 113-34; Jenkins, "Taos Pueblo and Its Neighbors, 1540-1847," NMHR 41 (April 1966): 85-114; Jenkins, "New Mexico Land Grants," unpublished manuscript of a paper presented at New Mexico Highlands University, March 4, 1970.

5. The University of New Mexico Press has published four volumes in its New Mexico Land Grant Series and Sunflower University Press has published two volumes, John R. and Christine M. Van Ness, ed., Spanish and Mexican Land Grants in New Mexico and Colorado (1980) and Malcolm Ebright ed., Spanish and Mexican Land Grants and the Law (1989).

6. A recent book which makes this argument in a telling fashion is, Richard Griswold del Castillo, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990); see also, Donald C. Cutter, "The Legacy of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo," NMHR 53 (October 1978): 305-15.

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