by Elle Seybold
on Thursday, March 4th, 2021 at 1:33pm.
Another interesting yet contentious element of New Mexican history are the Spanish and Mexican land grants. Land grants were made both to individuals and communities during the Spanish (1598–1821) and Mexican (1821–1846) periods of New Mexico's history.
Nearly all of the Spanish records of land grants prior to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 were destroyed in the revolt. Thus, historians can often only be certain of land grants that were made after the Spanish Reconquest of New Mexico in 1693. There were two major types of land grants: private grants made to individuals, and communal grants made to groups of individuals for the purpose of establishing settlements. Individual grants were invariably huge, some measured hundreds of thousands of acres, especially those on the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains or in other less mountainous areas.
Communal land grants were also made to Pueblos for the lands they inhabited. A Pueblo grant was measured as three leagues from the corners of the church that sat in the plaza. Traditionally, a league was the distance a man could walk in an hour, or 3-4 miles.
At the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, New Mexico and Old Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and this area became U.S. territory. The United States annexed what had been the Mexican Department of New Mexico, and as it did, it absorbed millions of acres of agro-pastoral land whose parcels had been under a communal system of ownership by Mexican citizen-villagers. The subsequent American system of adjudicating ownership of these traditional properties has proven very contentious. The land-grant “war” has gone through various forms of collective action including clandestine violence, protest confrontation, legal strategies, and political lobbying.
But let’s go back to the beginning. The U.S. Surveyor General in New Mexico began his work in 1854 to review claims and make recommendations to Congress. The Surveyor General immediately faced complications. Land tenure and ownership patterns were very different in Mexico and the United States – making straightforward adjudication difficult. The American system used grids, and cartography and surveying. Land was defined by range, township and section numbers. By contrast, the Mexican and Spanish systems were based on a rural, community-based system of land holding prevalent in medieval Europe. Land was viewed more in its relationship to the community, although parcels could be sold to individuals after the land had been used and inhabited for a certain number of years. Land was used primarily to provide sustenance to the local population, rather than as a commodity that could be exchanged or sold in a competitive market.
The Surveyor General found that many boundaries could no longer be found, some grants overlapped and owners had lost their original papers. Ultimately the Surveyor General, and later the Court of Private Land Claims, ruled on 282 grants totaling 34.6 million acres and rejecting most of the claims. Today, New Mexico has 22 land grants of 200,000 acres.
In our area, a local grant of particular interest is the Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca Grant. It serves as an example of the process the grants have gone through. In 1821, Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca petitioned the Spanish governor for land on the Gallinas River at Las Vegas and received approval in 1826. He built a house on the river and grazed livestock on the land. But in 1835, the Town of Las Vegas was granted the same land. In 1855, after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo, the Baca heirs asked the New Mexico Surveyor General to settle their claim to the land. The case reached the U.S. Congress, which decreed that the Town of Las Vegas be upheld in their right to the original claim. The Baca family agreed to select five separate tracts of land, each of around 99,000 acres (roughly the equivalent of the Las Vegas Grant) in exchange. One of those tracts, in the Jemez Mountains, became known as Baca Location No. 1. In the last transfer of title in 2015, “the Baca” became the Valles Caldera National Preserve, now a part of Bandelier National Monument.
If you haven’t visited the Valles Caldera, you should. It is stunning. I knew the previous owners and was lucky enough to grow up riding horses on the Baca. In fact, a friend took a wild horse from the ranch and trained him to be an amazing horse loved for many years. Now, it is wonderful to see the land preserved for the community as a National Park. Indeed, many visitors enjoy its splendors every year – which again I would strongly suggest you join.
I hope this little glimpse into New Mexican history was an enjoyable discovery for you and will lead you to wonderful adventures.