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Agua Negra Grant

by J. J. Bowden

Early in the year 1824, Antonio Sandoval, a resident of the town of Los Padillos, New Mexico, petitioned the governor of New Mexico, Bartolome Baca, for a grant covering the four square leagues tract of land surrounding the Ojo del Agua Negra, which he had used as pasturage for his stock for a number of years. Shortly after Sandoval had applied for the grant, he was forced to make an unexpected trip to Durango, Mexico. During his absence, his wife, Ursula Chaves Sandoval, requested Baca on November 5, 1824, to take action upon her husband’s petition. Her petition was forwarded by the governor to the Territorial Deputation of New Mexico for its further action. The petition was taken up for consideration by that august body on November 19, 1824, and referred to the governor with a request that he report upon the merits of the request. Baca replied on the same date and stated that nothing was more important to the welfare of New Mexico than the propagation of the ranching industry and that a liberal policy of granting land to ranchers, who were willing to settle upon the frontiers would be of incalculable benefit to the territory. He felt called upon to point out to the Territorial Deputation that a ring of ranchos on the frontiers tended to protect the interior settlements from the ravages of the hostile Indians. He felt that prejudices which had developed against the granting of land to industrious and influential persons, who alone had the means of developing the frontiers, was impeding progress. He concluded by strongly recommending the granting of the modest request which had been made by Sandoval for “one league square of land.” In almost unbelievably swift action, the Territorial Deputation for a second time considered the matter on that very same day and proceeded to grant the lands at the Ojo del Agua Negra to Sandoval. He also appointed Francisco Sarracino as a Commissioner to deliver legal possession of the grant to Sandoval. On December 5, 1824, Sarracino went to the Ojo del Agua Negra and surveyed the boundaries of the grant. They extended 5,000 Castilian varas in each of the cardinal directions from the spring. Following the completion of the survey, legal possession of the grant was formally delivered to Sandoval. He promptly went into possession of the grant, built certain improvements upon it, and continued to occupy and use its lands until driven off by the hostilities of the Indians.[1]

Antonio Sandoval filed a petition with the Surveyor General on October 21, 1856, praying for the confirmation of his claim. Under the date of September 17, 1857, Surveyor General William Pelham made, as contemplated by the eighth section of the Act of July 22, 1854,[2] a report and recommendation that Sandoval’s claim to the tract of land containing one league square at the place known as Agua Negra be recognized and honored.[3] Congress, by Act of June 21, 1860,[4] confirmed the claim as recommended by Pelham. A survey of the grant was made in February, 1877, by Deputy Surveyors Sawyer & McElroy. The survey showed the grant as containing 17,361.11 acres, or nearly four square leagues.[5]

On July 20, 1886, Surveyor General George W. Julian called attention to the fact that the grant contained within its boundaries, as then surveyed, four times the quantity of land which had been granted and confirmed. He recommended that the Sawyer & McElroy Survey be rejected and a new survey ordered to embrace only one square league of land with the spring at its center. Acting Commissioner of the General Land Office, S. H. Stockslager, on August 13, 1886, concurred with Julian’s recommendations and ordered a resurvey of the grant so that each side would be 5,000 varas in length with the spring at the center and contain 4,433.68 acres. By letter dated January 11, 1887, Julian wrote the Commissioner of the General Land Office that the vara in common use in New Mexico was only 33 inches long and, therefore, the grant should cover only 4,340 acres or 98.40 acres less than mentioned in his instructions. In an interesting and highly informative letter dated March 18, 1887, Acting Commissioner William Dank discussed the length of the vara. He stated that the Castilian vara had been determined to be equal to 33.373 inches in length Mitchell v. United States, 15 Pet. (40 U.S.) 57 (1841), and that the Mexican vara was equal to 33.386 inches Alexander, Dictionary of Weights and Measures (1850). The common vara of 33 inches, which was known as the San Francisco vara, had been used in California between 1852 and 1858, but in 1858, the Castilian vara was adopted as the standard measurement. A 33‑1/3 inch vara was used in Texas United States v. Perat, 98 U.S. 428 (1878). He, therefore, held that Julian was correct and that the smaller Castilian vara should be used in the resurvey of the grant. On July 25, 1888, R. H. Langwell, one of the owners of the grant, strenuously protested the approval of the resurvey on the grounds that it was an unauthorized and arbitrary action. In a decision dated April 5, 1894, Secretary of Interior Hoke Smith held the Surveyor General’s report, upon which the confirmation of the grant was based, could reasonably be construed as recommending the confirmation of the grant as “made to and occupied by the grantee.” While recognizing that a strict interpretation of certain language in the grant might limit it to one square league, he noted that the act of possession gave the grantee four square leagues. Smith was of the opinion that everyone connected with the grant prior to Julian’s letter had interpreted the grant as conveying and the Act of June 21, 1860, as confirming four square leagues of land. He stated that one of the most sacred duties of government was the preservation of vested interests acquired in good faith and the maintenance of the stability of titles. Therefore, he rejected the resurvey of 1888 and ordered the issuance of a patent to the owners of the grant in accordance with the 1877 survey.[6] The grant was patented on October 1, 1900, for 17,361.11 acres.[7]


[1] The Agua Negra Grant, No. 12 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[2] An Act to establish the offices of Surveyor General of New Mexico, Kansas, and Nebraska, to grant donations to actual settlers therein, and for other purposes, Chap. 103, 10 Stat. 308 (1854).

[3] H. R. Report No. 321, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., 194-200 (1860).

[4] An Act to confirm certain Private Land Claims in the Territory of New Mexico, Chap. 167, 12 Stat. 71 (1860).

[5] The Aqua Negra Grant, No. 12 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[6] The Agua Negra Grant, 18 L.D. 876 (1894).

[7] The Aqua Negra Grant, No. 12 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).