Petitions to Validate the Cañon del Rio Colorado Land Grant

As with many of these early private land claims, the U.S. Land office was hesitant to confirm the grants because of the vague wording of the grants. Because the Spanish thought land was not valuable, their land grants were made in large quantities and natural objects and landmarks, which disappeared over time, were provided as boundaries (see original grant for Rio Colorado on p. 41).

An 1896 small holdings claim map of Questa. Once the land grant petitions for Rio Colorado were rejected, the citizens had to obtain title to their land through small holdings claims and the Homestead Act.
(map courtesy of John Rael)

Surveyors took advantage of these vague boundaries and expanded the bounds of grants even further. And unscrupulous land speculators took advantage of all of this in attempts to defraud the U.S. government of public lands. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), the U.S. government was to respect the validity of these grants if they had been valid under the laws of Spain and Mexico. The Office of the Surveyor-General was created in 1854 to determine the validity of the Spanish grants (179).

In 1874, Jose Antonio Laforet, grandson of Antonio Elias Armenta, presented a claim to the Surveyor General’s Office to validate the Cañon grant. The grant was transmitted to the U.S. Congress December 7, 1874, but no action was taken. (180). The Land Office instructions of 1885 required that these cases be referred back to the Surveyor General for re-examination. In the second presentation before the Surveyor General, the claim was rejected by Surveyor General George W. Julian on April 10, 1886.

He cited as grounds for the rejection the following: Jose Antonio Laforet had filed claiming to be the sole owner of the land, but no evidence was presented showing how he gained title to the land; documentary evidence of the original grant was not filed in the public record, there was no evidence of delivery of possession or of occupation; a letter from E.M. Ashley dated March 19, 1874, had been presented saying he had purchased an interest in the grant; the Taos officials had no authority to make the grant because the land did not belong to the Town of Taos. Julian explained that town authorities could only grant up to 50 varas, not the 49,939.21 acres being claimed here; only the Governor had authority to grant such large amounts of land.

A subsequent claim was presented to the Private Land Claims Court on March 3, 1893, by Clarence P. Elder, who had bought up most of the Cañon del Rio Colorado grant. Elder, in his petition, claimed he was the owner of the grant “…by purchase from the heirs and assigns of the said original grantees, and claims a perfect title to the same.” A series of deeds made during 1872–1875 appear to have passed title to the grant to Elder. The Court dismissed this petition for the grant on November 17, 1896. After a series of amended petitions were dismissed the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and on January 18, 1898, it was dismissed (181).

Petitions to Validate the San Antonio del Rio Colorado Land Grant

Beginning in 1854, the people of Rio Colorado sought validation of their grant. A claim was filed with the Surveyor General’s Office on March 11, 1872, and testimony was taken in the case in 1873. On January 6, 1874, the Surveyor General recommended the grant for confirmation by the Congress; the grant was surveyed in September 1879 for a total of 18,955.22 acres. As with the Cañon claim, the case was referred back to the Surveyor General’s Office for re-examination under the Land Office instructions of December 11, 1885.

Surveyor General George W. Julian in 1886 felt that because the land was acquired for the purpose of cultivation and not for the formation of a city, town, or village that “It seems unnecessary to devote further time to discussion of the validity of the grant as it is so manifestly without law to support it. “ However, he felt that the townspeople had made “…a good prima facie case…whether all original proceedings were regular or not….Justice would seem to demand that these people should have the right to select and retain the land that they have actually occupied and improved under the proceedings by which they were placed in possession in 1842….To this extent I recommend a confirmation of the claim to the legal representatives of those who were placed in possession of the land on January 19, 1842…” (182). In his view, the settlers had “…no legal title to the land claimed; but as they were placed in possession thereof by an officer of the Mexican government, they have and equitable claim….”

Julian recommended rejecting the legal title of the claimants but that the grant be approved by Congress, But no further action was taken (183).

Because of the backlog in grant petitions, the Court of Private Land Claims was established in 1891 to settle these claims. The claim was next filed with the Private Land Claims Court in 1892 and the response of this Court was filed on February 5, 1892. The Court ruled that the Justice of the Peace had acted without warrant or authority of law and “those claiming under them are trespassers” (183). The Court also cited grounds that the grant was not a village or community grant, that the amount of land claimed was in excess of that actually used and necessary for subsistence, and that the grant was for agricultural purposes.

A refiling of the claim on August 20, 1892, by prominent attorney Napolean B. Laughlin provided evidence that the Governor had ordered the Prefect to make the grant. “…Juan Andres Archuleta, who made this grant, was a man of prominence and intelligence; that he has held several offices of trust under the Government; that he was acting Governor in the year 1840, and it will not be presumed that he acted without authority, and contrary to the order of his superiors when he made the grant….”

The filing also noted that “The fact that the Governor in 1846 fixed the boundaries of the Cebolla grant as bound on the north by the south boundary of the Rio Colorado grant is of itself sufficient to make the court presume a recognition of the grant in question by the granting powers of the Government then in existence in the country….” Even more important, the argument continued that “The value of the land to plaintiffs consist in their rights to the wood, water, and pasture, much more than in the lands they cultivate, and should they be forced to resort to their rights under the ‘small holders’ act, they would be deprived of their property rights in the wood, water, and pastures.”

The Court dismissed the claim but allowed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on March 18, 1893. There is no record of the appeal in the PLC files, but this must have been dismissed, as the Government Accounting Office (184) lists the grant as being rejected. Citizens of what was now Questa had to file under the Small Holdings Act to gain title to their land (see Figure 26).

While the quest for approval of the Rio Colorado land grants was proceeding, San Antonio del Rio Colorado became Questa. Rio Colorado became Questa on March 12, 1883, when the first postmaster Lee Hamblen (Leander Hamblin) came to town. Not speaking, or spelling, Spanish very well he spelled Cuesta with a Q. The mail came in on the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and was dropped off south of Tres Piedras (185) and picked up by the Arroyo Seco post office. The mail was then brought by stage to Questa. Around 1910, the mail routes were revised and the northern terminus of the mail route was changed to Jaroso. Since Hamblen, Questa has had 15 postmasters, including J.P. Rael (1926–1948).

It was also in the mid-1880s that the present St. Anthony’s church was built; the towers were added in the 1940s. The oral history regarding the Church is described on p. 138.

Notes

179. Ebright, Malcolm. Land Grants and Lawsuits in Northern New Mexico. University of New Mexico, Press, Albuquerque. NM Land Grant Series, John B. Van Ness, Series Editor, 1994; Julian, George W. “Land Stealing in New Mexico.” In The North American Review 145 (368): July 1887.

180. Canon del Rio Colorado land grant, SANMI roll 22:447 SG 93, Surveyor General’s Office. New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe.

181. Canon del Rio Colorado land grant, SANMI roll 49, case 166, Private Land Claims Court. New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe.

182. San Antonio del Rio Colorado land grant, SANMI roll 20:1223 SG 76, Surveyor General’s Office. New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe.

183. San Antonio del Rio Colorado land grant, SANMI roll 33:521 case 4, Private Land Claims Court. New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe.

184. U.S. General Accounting Office. Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Definiton and list of community land grants in New Mexico. Exposure draft, January 2001, GAO-01-330. http://www.gao.gov.

185. White, James W. The history of Taos County post offices. 1997

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