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Arroyo de San Lorenzo Grant

by J. J. Bowden

Antonio Chaves, a resident of the town of Belen, New Mexico, petitioned the Provincial Deputation of New Mexico on February 16, 1825, asking that a tract of land known as Arroyo de San Lorenzo be granted to him. Chaves stated in his petition that the crowded conditions at Belen had prevented the expansion of his agricultural and ranching operations and, therefore, he needed a new site with greater capacity. Contemplating the enlargement of both businesses, he had selected the following described tract of vacant land which he felt would satisfy his needs:

 Bounded on the north by the little table land called Alamillo; on the east, by the Rio Grande; on the south, by Pablo Garcia’s ranch; and on the west, by the Ojo de la Jara.

 He also pointed out that a new settlement at this location would be beneficial to the inhabitants of the area for it would tend to prevent the frequent incursions of the hostile Indians.

The petition was referred by the Provincial Deputation to the Governor on February 16, 1825, with the request that he investigate and report whether or not the land requested by Chaves conflicted with the lands belonging to the towns of Socorro and Sevilleta and if it did, could the concession be made without injuring any third party. In reply to this request, Governor Bartolome Baca reported, on February 25, 1825, that a portion of the lands which had been requested by Chaves encroached upon both the Socorro and Sevilleta Grants but that the issuance of the proposed grant would not be detrimental to either town.[1] The Governor was of the opinion that the issuance of the grant to Chaves would result in the following benefits to Socorro and Sevilleta: (1) A new settlement at the Arroyo de San Lorenzo would cut off one of the avenues used by the savages in attacking Socorro and Sevilleta. (2) The inhabitants of Socorro and Sevilleta. notwithstanding the granting of a portion of their lands to Chaves, would have ample land for pastures, fields and other uses. (3) The development of the grant by Chaves might stimulate the settlement of the vacant: lands at Bosque del Apache and San Pascual by persons in positions similar to Chaves, and (4) The agricultural and ranching activities to be conducted on the grant by Chaves would afford jobs for many of the unemployed inhabitants of the two towns, The Governor also emphasized that in his opinion Chaves’ request was motivated by necessity rather than by reasons of covetousness, He also noted that since the Navajos had stolen the greater portion of Chaves’ livestock, new and more productive lands were necessary in order to enable him to reestablish his herds. In concluding his report, Baca stated that based upon his personal knowledge of the matter, he could find no valid objection to the issuance of the grant and, in view of the many benefits which would be derived therefrom, he recommended the lands which had been requested be granted to Chaves.

The Provincial Deputation considered the Governor’s favorable report at a public session held on March 3, 1825, and decided to grant the requested lands to Chaves. This decree also directed the Secretary of the Provincial Deputation to issue Chaves a testimonio to serve as his title and instructed the Alcalde of Socorro to place Chaves in legal possession of the land. Possession was delivered to Chaves by Juan Francisco Baca, Alcalde of Socorro, on April 20, 1825.[2]

Thereafter, Chaves resided upon, used and claimed the lands covered by the grant as his private property until his death. His widow similarly possessed and occupied the land until October 26, 1850, when she sold the property to Rafael Luna, Anastacio Garcia, and Ramon Luna.[3]

On August 15, 1873, the three owners of the Arroyo de San Lorenzo Grant filed a petition in the Surveyor General’s Office seeking the confirmation of their title, Surveyor General James K. Proudfit in a report dated January 5, 1874, while expressing no opinion directly concerning the genuineness of the title papers filed in this case, recommended the confirmation of the grant to the legal representatives of Antonio Chaves.[4]  Proudfit’s report was transmitted to Congress, and on April 15, 1882, the whole matter was referred by the House committee on Private Land Claims to the Secretary of Interior for his opinion. The Secretary of Interior in turn referred the matter to the Commissioner of the General Land Office on May 9, 1882. After giving a brief history of the case, Commissioner N. C. McFarland, in a report dated May 9, 1882, found:

 The grant is valid and legal, inasmuch as it was made by a legally constituted body ‑ the Provincial Deputation ‑ with the approval of the Governor or Gefe Politico, the highest civil authority of the province. The proceedings had in relation thereto were a part of the regular business transacted by the Provincial Deputation in open session February 16 and March 3, 1825, and were duly recorded in the proper book of record of the Deputation, as appears by the two certificates of the Secretary attached to the original papers in the case and which constitutes a part of them.[5]

Meanwhile, an official survey of the grant was made under the direction of Surveyor General Henry M. Atkinson. The owners of the grant protested the approval of this survey on the ground that it did not embrace the entire tract which had been granted to Antonio Chaves in 1825. Another survey, ordered by the Interior Department, was by Deputy Surveyors Sawyer & White in June, 1878. This survey showed that the grant contained a total of 130,138.98 acres was approved by Surveyor General Atkinson on August 10, 1878.[6]

Shortly after Surveyor General George W. Julian took office, he proceeded to review each unconfirmed grant which had been approved by his predecessors. In a supplemental opinion dated November 5, 1886, concerning the Arroyo de San Lorenzo Grant, he found that the grant had been made under the Mexican Colonization Law of August 18, 1824 [7] and therefore could not exceed a square league of land or a fraction over 4,340 acres, He pointed out that the Sawyer & White Survey had been made based upon information which they had obtained from interested parties and that the government had not been afforded an opportunity to cross‑examine the witnesses. He also called attention to the fact that personal profit incentives might have influenced the surveyors and caused them to extend the boundaries of the grant to the furthest possible limits. Such facts in Julian’s opinion, excited suspicion and distrust as to the entire transaction. He concluded by recommending the rejection of the entire claim by Congress.[8]

Congress failed to pass upon the validity of the grant prior to the establishment of the Court of Private Land Claims, Therefore, Martin B. Hays, who, in the meantime, had acquired the premises through mesne conveyances from its former owners, instituted suit against the United States in that court on September 24, 1892, seeking the confirmation of his title to the entire tract.[9]

At the trial of this case, the government asserted three special defenses. First, it contended that the grant was void for want of authority in the granting official. The government contended that upon the overthrow of Emperor Iturbide in 1823. all of his laws had been repealed, including the Colonization Law of January 7, 1823,[10]  and, thus, no authority existed in any of the Provincial or Territorial officials of New Mexico to dispose of public lands prior to the promulgation of the Regulations of November 21, 1828.[11]  Counsel for the plaintiff rebutted arguing that the grant had been issued under a law of the Spanish Cortes dated January 4, 1813 [12]  which allegedly empowered the Provincial Deputation to grant surplus lands. The government answered this argument by pointing out that the Law of January 4, 1813 did not actually give the Provincial Deputation authority to make grants but merely required it to report to the Cortes as to the time and manner of carrying out the provisions of the law. Continuing its rebuttal, the government asserted that even if it should be found that the Provincial Deputation had authority to issue grants under the Law of January 4, 1813, it was well established[13] that the law was inoperative in Mexico after the enactment of the colonization Law of August 18, 1824.[14] The plaintiff rejoined by pointing out that the genuineness of the grant papers were not being questioned by the government and arguing that the custom or practice in New Mexico between 1824 and 1828 was for the Provincial Deputation to grant land with the concurrence of the Governor or Political Chief. In support of this proposition, the plaintiff called the court’s attention to the Preston Beck and Pablo Montoyo grants which had been made under a similar procedure by the same authorities and both had been confirmed by Congress. Plaintiff alleged that this custom coupled with nearly three quarters of a century of peaceful possession by himself and his predecessors created an equitable title to at least eleven square leagues of land which should be recognized by the United States. The government answered this latter argument by contending that the Court of Private Land Claims did not have authority to confirm equitable titles The government’s second defense was that the La Jara Spring which was referred to in the grant papers as fixing the western boundary of the grant, actually was located near the center of the tract surveyed by Sawyer & White and was then known as Ojo Areviche, The government’s final defense was that Garcia, prior to the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, had not complied with the conditions of occupancy, settlement, and cultivation required by Mexican law and therefore was not entitled to a confirmation of his claim. The testimony concerning the last two of the government’s defenses was hopelessly conflicting. On December 4, 1893, a majority of the court rendered a decision which sustained the governments first defense and totally rejected the Arroyo de San Lorenzo Grant.[15] The plaintiff appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court, which on May 23, 1898, affirmed the decision of the Court of Private Land Claims.[16] In his report to the Attorney General concerning this case, United States Attorney Matthew G. Reynolds stated:

 I deem this case one of the most important I have tried, as it settles the legal status of quite a number of other claims in the Territory that are pending before this Court, that is, that from April, 1823, to November 21, 1828, there was no authority vested in any Provincial official or body to dispose of the public lands of the Republic.[17]

[1] In order to secure water for his operations, it was necessary that Chaves obtain some land fronting upon the river. Since the immense grants to Socorro and Sevilleta had previously appropriated all of the lands adjacent to the river, it was necessary that a small portion of each grant be taken for Chaves’ benefit. Governor Baca stated that the inhabitants of these two grants would not object to the inclusion of a minor portion of their grants within the lands to be given to Chaves

…unless some peevish person or other enemy of the welfare of his fellow creatures should unjustly‑‑‑persuade… them to protest against the issuance of the proposed grant to Chaves. Vroom, Grant of the Arroyo de San Lorenzo, 7, 21 (1887).

[2] H. R. Exec, Doc. No. 149, 43d Cong., 1st Sess., 6‑10 (1874).

[3] Deed Records 132 (Mss., Records of the County Clerk’s Office, Socorro, New Mexico).

[4] The Arroyo de. San Lorenzo Grant, No. 79 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[5] H. R. Report No. 1501, 47th Cong., 1st Sess., 1‑3 (1882).

[6] The Arroyo de San Lorenzo Grant, No. 79 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[7] Reynolds, Spanish and Mexican Land Laws, 121 (1895).

[8] The Arroyo do San Lorenzo Grant, No. 79 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[9] Hays v United States, No. 7 (Mss., Records of the Ct Pvt. L,. Cl.).

[10] 7 Gammel. The Laws of Texas 27‑30 (18983).

[11] Reynolds, Spanish and Mexican Land Laws, 141 (1895).

[12] Ibid., 83.

[13] United States v. Vallejo, 1 Black (66 U.S.) 541 (1861).

[14] 7 Gammel, The Laws of Texas, 98‑98 (1898).

[15] 2 Journal 44 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[16] Hayes v. United States, 170 U.S. 637 (1898).

[17] Report of the United States Attorney dated February 19, 1894 in the case, Martin B. Hayes v. United States (Mss. Records of the General Services Administration, National Archives, Washington, D. C.), Record Group 60, Year File 9865‑92.