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Anton Chico Grant

by J. J. Bowden

Manuel Rivera, on behalf of himself and thirty-six others, petitioned the Ayuntamiento of San Miguel del Vado for a grant covering a tract of land situated about 30 miles south of San Miguel del Vado on the Pecos River, which was known as Anton Chico. The President of the Ayuntamiento, Manuel Baca, notified the petitioners that the Ayuntamiento did not have authority to issue the grant since the requested lands were located beyond its jurisdiction, but he had referred the matter to the Provincial Deputation of New Mexico for further action. The Provincial Deputation apparently approved the request and referred the matter to Governor Facundo Melgares for his consent. On May 2, 1822, Melgares granted the land to petitioners and directed Baca, who was also an Alcalde, to place them in possession of the grant. In compliance with the Governor’s instruction, Baca immediately went to the town of Anton Chico and proceeded to survey the grant which was described as being bounded:

 On the north, by the Antonio Ortiz Grant; on the east, by the Salino Spring, with the Alto de los Esteros, where the river forms a canyon below where the men were killed; on the south, by the ridge of Piedra Pintada and the little table land of Guadalupe; and on the west, by the Cuesta and Bernal Hill which is the boundary of San Miguel del Vado Grant.

Following the completion of the survey, Baca gave the grantees legal possession of the premises subject to the conditions that the grant be held in common for the benefit of the grantees and all future settlers who might move to Anton Chico, that each colonist equip himself with fire‑arms and arrows for the defense of the colony and be able to pass muster before settling upon the grant, and that each settler must perform his share of any labors necessary for the general welfare of the community, such as digging ditches.1]

The Indians attacked the settlers so fiercely and frequently that the colonists were finally forced to abandon the grant in 1827 or 1828; however, the settlement was reestablished in about 1834. On March 8,1834, the Acting Alcalde of Anton Chico distributed individual farm tracts ranging in size from two hundred varas down to fifty varas to the thirteen settlers who had re‑established the Colony, two of which were original grantees[2].  Anton Chico was a typical isolated frontier town at the time the United States acquired jurisdiction over the area. The town was located in a beautiful valley and protected by the surrounding high table lands from the cold stormy winds. Since the town was off a “beaten track,” commerce could reach the town only by a circuitous route from Santa Fe. The chief occupation of its inhabitants was sheep raising and their homes were all constructed of adobe without the smallest pretention of beauty without a convenience within. The space between the houses and the Pecos River was laid out in gardens and maize fields, which required irrigation. However, the environs were too little favored by nature for agriculture ever to become extensive. The town had a population of about 500 persons, a church, and one fandango saloon.]

David Steward, for himself and in behalf of the heirs and legal representatives of the original grantees and then ten inhabitants of the town of Anton Chico, filed a claim on April 10, 1859 in Surveyor General William Pelham’s office seeking the confirmation of the grant. The claim was contested by the heirs of Preston Beck, Jr. insofar as it conflicted with the Ojito de las Gallinas Grant. The contestants called attention to the fact that the grant was made by Melgares, a Spanish official, after Mexico had declared its independence, and, therefore, the grant was invalid due to a lack of authority in the granting official. Two highly reputable witnesses for the claimants, Juan Bautista Vigil y Alarid and Donaciano Vigil, testified the officials in New Mexico did not receive word of the Declaration of Independence until December 21, 1822, and that the Mexican Government approved all of the public acts performed by Spanish officials from the date of the declaration up to the time the declaration was promulgated or published in New Mexico.[4]

In a decision dated July 15, 1859, Pelham held:

The instructions to this office provide that the existence of a town when the United States took possession of the country being proven, is to be taken as prima facie evidence of a grant to said town; and as it is proven to have been in existence in 1839, and up to 1846, with the knowledge and tacit consent of the Mexican government, and was recognized as a town by that government, it is believed to be a good and valid grant, and the land claimed severed from the public domain. It is therefore approved, and ordered to be transmitted to Congress for its action in the premises.[5]

Congress, by act approved June 21, 1860,[6] confirmed the grant as recommended by Pelham.

An official survey of the grant was made by Deputy Surveyors William Pelham and Reuben E. Clements during the months of September and October, 1860. Although this survey was approved by Surveyor General A. P. Wilbar on December 14, 1860, it was subsequently rejected when it was discovered that it failed to close by a large variance. The grant was resurveyed in June and July of 1878, by Deputy Surveyors John T. Elkins and Robert G. Marmon. Their survey showed that the grant contained 378,537.5 acres.7]

On August 30, 1881, Rivera requested the grant be patented to him individually. By a decision dated August 30, 1881, N. C. McFarland, Commissioner of the General Land office, held that the grant had been confirmed to the several grantees and inhabitants of the Town of Anton Chico, and, therefore, it could not be patented to Rivera individually. Pursuant to this decision a patent was issued on March 27, 1883, to “Manuel Rivera and others, being the thirty-six men to whom the grant was made.”[8] Since the patent was ambiguous and it was not clear whether title was vested in the thirty-seven original grantees or in all of the inhabitants of the grant as a community grant, an ejectment suit was brought in the United States District Court of New Mexico to settle the question. The trial court held for the defendant and the plaintiff appealed. Upon appeal, the Circuit Court of Appeals held that the character of the grant must be determined from the confirmatory act and that the court was precluded from going behind the act. The Court stated that the act should prevail over the patent in the event there was a conflict between the two. It then proceeded to explore the nature of the title represented by the act and concluded that it confirmed title as a community grant and not as an individual grant to the thirty-seven grantees.[9]This decision cast a cloud on title to the unallocated lands within the grant. To remove this obstacle, the New Mexico Legislature passed an act which provided that a person who by purchase or lease had acquired an interest in a particular tract or parcel of land within the grant would not thereby acquire any interest in the commons or unallocated lands.[10] This statute cleared the way for the general management of the commons of the Anton Chico Grant by a Board of Trustees under the statute relating to the supervision of community grants.11]

In 1876, a suit was commenced in San Miguel County, New Mexico for the partitioning of the Preston Beck, Jr. Grant. The Board of Trustees of the Anton Chico Grant intervened in this suit in 1907, claiming title to approximately 120,000 acres of land which were embraced within the Anton Chico Grant as patented but conflicted with the Preston Beck, Jr. Grant as patented. Based on the precedent established in the Jones Case,[12] the trial court held for the intervenors since the Anton Chico Grant was the senior grant. The owners of the Preston Beck, Jr. Grant appealed to the Supreme Court of New Mexico which reversed and remanded the case to the trial court for dismissal. The New Mexico Supreme Court’s opinion was based on the theory that since the Anton Chico Grant was a community grant, the unallocated lands covered thereby, which included among others, all of the lands in dispute, remained the property of the Mexican government and passed to the United States when it acquired New Mexico. There­fore, the act of June 21, 1860[13] insofar as it confirmed title to the portion of the Anton Chico Grant in dispute amounted to a grant de novo or “American Titled Lands.” Therefore, on June 21, 1860,[14] the titles to the lands in question were confirmed to the respective grantees on a co‑equal basis. However, since the owners of the Preston Beck, Jr. Grant secured a survey and patent prior to the date of the survey and patent of the Anton Chico Grant, it became the senior grant. Thus, title to the lands in the overlap area was recognized as being vested in the owners of the Preston Beck, Jr. Grant.15]

[1] H. R. Exec. Doc. No. 14, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., 143‑144 (1860).

[2] Ibid., 145.

[3] Stanley, The Anton Chico Story, 3 (n.d.).

[4] H. R. Exec. Doc. No. 14, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., 146‑149 (1860).

[5] Ibid., 150‑151.

[6] An act to confirm certain private land claims in the Territory of New Mexico, Chap. 167, 12 Stat. 71 (1860).

[7] The Anton Chico Grant, No. 29 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Reilly v. Shipman, 266 F. 852 (8th Cir. 1920).

[10] 2 New Mexico Statutes 337 (1954).

[11] 2 New Mexico Statutes 328 (1954).

[12] Jones v. St. Louis Land & Cattle Company, 232 U.S. 355 (1912).

[13] Supra note 6.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Board of Trustees of the Anton Chico Grant v. Brown, 33 N.M. 398, 269 P. 51 (1928).