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Arroyo Hondo Grant

by Denise Holladay Damico

New Mexico's Taos Valley is one of the longest-settled regions of New Mexico. Its fertile soil and the availability of running water made it an attractive location, first for the Taos Pueblo Indians, and later for other settlers. By the early nineteenth century, these competing interest groups came into conflict over these finite resources. The Arroyo Hondo land grant, located approximately ten miles northwest of Taos in the Taos valley, is illustrative of problems that may be faced in the struggle over land and water in New Mexico. Questions of law, interpretation, and power can also be read in the history of the Arroyo Hondo grant. The original Arroyo Hondo land grant documents contain two copies with differing details. How the U.S. courts interpreted that documentation reveals the underpinnings of cultural conflict in New Mexico. As with other New Mexican land grants, allegations of land grabbing in the Taos Valley abound and in respect to the Arroyo Hondo Grant, the claimants, mostly Hispano farmers, were accused of the land grab and Anglo miners and land speculators were the accusers. The Spanish, Mexican, and American legal documents concerning the Arroyo Hondo grant reveal the degree to which the different groups including Taos Pueblo Indians, Hispano vecinos, and Anglo miners, competed for the grant resources of land, water, and minerals.

The Arroyo Hondo grant is one of many land grants that originated in the Taos Valley in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In this time period, the Hispano population of the area was growing rapidly and local officials were eager to promote Hispano settlement in the Valley and throughout New Mexico. To facilitate this growth, they issued a decree that allowed for those who did not own land to apply for a land grant. Nerio Sisneros, responded with a March 27, 1815, petition for the land that would ultimately become the Arroyo Hondo grant. In a petition addressed to the alcalde mayor José Miguel Tafoya, Sisneros requested that the area known as Rio Hondo be granted to him and “various associates” so that they could support their families.

To strengthen his request, Sisneros wrote that approving the grant would “not injure anyone, as it is distant from the league of the Indians and is suitable for the formation of a town” since “pasture, water, firewood and timber [were] abundant.” “The league of the Indians” Sisneros referred to was the four square leagues of land that Spanish law granted to each pueblo, usually measured from the cross in the center of each pueblo's cemetery to the four cardinal directions. It was important for Sisneros to establish that the land grant which he sought would not infringe upon Indian land because “paternalistic Spanish legislation protected [Indian lands] from encroachment by outsiders” (see G. Emlen Hall and David Weber). Sisneros' proviso that “pasture, water, firewood and timber [were] abundant” reflects his knowledge of the requirements used by Spanish colonial officials when approving land grants. Officials refused requests for land grants that did not guarantee enough water and other natural resources to sustain the proposed community. Communities who lacked basic resources inevitably failed and depleted valuable resources in the process.

Following the usual procedure, the alcalde, José Miguel Tafoya, forwarded Sisneros' petition to the governor, Alberto Maynez. Tafoya recommended that Maynez approve the grant since “it appears to me, it [would] work no injury to anyone.” Governor Maynez followed Tafoya's advice and approved the grant on April 2, 1815, on the conditions that: “no damage be done to third parties;” that no settler receive more than he/she can cultivate, that each settler fence his/her land, “to avoid damages” from grazing livestock; that “the commons remain public for the pasturage of the stock of all;” and that “the small stock graze at a distance so that they may not disturb the growing crops...” These conditions, fairly typical of Spanish land grants in New Mexico, established the Arroyo Hondo grant as a community grant. Each settler received an individual allotment of land, ranging in size from forty to three hundred square varas. Most settlers received either fifty or one hundred varas. The settlers would use the common lands to graze their livestock. One hundred varas of land were also set aside as a plaza which eventually became the village of Arroyo Hondo.

Shortly after Governor Maynez’s approval of the grant, Taos alcalde, Pedro Martín, went through the formal act of possession for the grant. The original documentation for the act of possession is not extant. When those who lived on the Arroyo Hondo grant petitioned for the grant to be confirmed by the U.S. Government in the late nineteenth century, they submitted two different copies of the act of possession, one copy made on July 23, 1820, and one made thirteen years later, on March 19, 1833. There were discrepancies between the two copies of the Act of Possession, including differences in the lists of names of the settlers of the Arroyo Hondo grant.

On the day after Deputy Alcalde Martin went through the act of possession with the Arroyo Hondo settlers, the governor of Taos Pueblo, Josef Francisco Luján, wrote a petition to Alcalde José Miguel Tafoya protesting the encroachment of Hispano settlers onto the Taos Pueblo's four-league grant. The Hispano population boom had led to increased tensions between the Taos Pueblo Indians and Hispanos, as evidenced by Luján's petition. Governor Maynez, in his response to the petition, ordered that the Taos alcalde arrange some compromise between the Hispano settlers and the Indians as long as the compromise did no harm to the Indians.

The fact that the Taos Pueblo submitted their petition the day after the Arroyo Hondo land was granted to Hispano settlers suggests that the grant was cause for concern. Further evidence that the Arroyo Hondo grant was of particular concern comes from Governor Maynez's note at the end of the decree concerning the petition. “If the damages which the Indians of Taos have described to me result from the planting permitted to the residents in the cienega (wet or marshy place) of Arroyo Hondo, they cannot plant. The alcalde shall settle this point in the most just and advantageous way,” he wrote.

The Arroyo Hondo grant was in fact, outside of the Pueblo's league grant, as Alcalde Martin (who had gone through the formal act of possession on the Arroyo Hondo grant) reported to the governor on May 3, 1815. Though other Hispano settlements (approximately 190 families), were within the Taos Pueblo four square leagues of land, the Arroyo Hondo grant was not among them. “...the settlement at Arroyo Hondo does not injure either the Indians or the residents,” he wrote, “because they are more than ten thousand varas distant from the league.”

In 1821, Mexico became independent from Spain. Unlike the Spanish government, the Mexican government allowed New Mexicans to carry on trade with the U.S. and other countries. This laissez-faire attitude led to the opening of the Santa Fe Trail later that same year. The opening of the Santa Fe Trail brought French and American fur trappers, traders, and merchants to the Taos Valley. Among these was Simeon Turley, who, at some point in the early 1830's, built a “two story adobe flour mill beside the Rio Hondo” after purchasing land from Juan de Jesus Valdes and David Waldo for forty reales.

A decade later, the United States and Mexico were at war. By September of 1846, the US occupied New Mexico. A few months later, in January 1847, Simeon Turley, along with several others, including the first American governor of New Mexico, was killed by a group of Taos Pueblo Indians and Hispanos in an incident known as the Taos Rebellion.

The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican War. Mexico ceded New Mexico, along with the rest of the American Southwest, to the US. Arroyo Hondo residents filed some title papers in the US Surveyor General's office on June 17, 1861, and others on July 21, 1881, but did not petition for the confirmation of the Arroyo Hondo grant until 1887. On December 9 of that year, seventy-three claimants filed a petition seeking confirmation of the grant.

The U.S. Surveyor General, George Julian, heard the Arroyo Hondo case in March of 1888. Julian recommended to Congress that the Arroyo Hondo grant be confirmed. Julian wrote that he relied on both the grantees' testimony and the grant documents filed by the claimants, to come to his decision. Though the claimants had not produced the original grant and Act of Possession, Julian wrote that the 1833 copy was “a faithful and legal copy of a like copy taken from the original by the Alcalde Juan Dios Peña, dated May 12th 1820...” In Julian's opinion, the grantees' testimony showed that “the grantees took possession of their particular allotments, and that they and their heirs and legal representatives have ever since held continuous and peaceable possession of their lands.” Julian's summary of the original grant papers indicates his understanding of the nature of the Arroyo Hondo grant as a communal one, with small, individual tracts for each family, a commons area for grazing livestock, and a community plaza.

As was the case with many of New Mexico's land grants, Congress did not confirm the Arroyo Hondo grant despite Julian's recommendation. It was not until 1891 that Congress attempted to resolve the huge backlog of unconfirmed grants by creating the Court of Private Land Claims (CPLC). On March 31, 1892, Julian A. Martínez, Juan C. Rael and Nemecio Abilo filed a petition with the CPLC to confirm the Arroyo Hondo grant on their behalf and that of “other claimants.”

The CPLC heard the case in November of 1892 and in its decree of December 17, 1892, stated that the “title and claim” of the Arroyo Hondo grant were “good and valid.” Judge Reed decreed that the grant encompassed a total of 24,000 acres, or eleven square leagues.

There were problems with the survey of the Arroyo Hondo grant almost immediately. On March 22, 1894, Deputy Surveyor General Sherrard Coleman reported that he found it “impossible to make a survey of the Arroyo Hondo tract according to [the Surveyor General's] instructions.” None of the landmarks specified in the Court's decree, confirming the grant, corresponded with the actual lay of the land.

Certain individuals and groups from the Arroyo Hondo area were ready and eager to exploit the resulting confusion to their own advantage. A closer look at who was involved in the various objections to the Surveyor General's office and the Court of Private Land Claims decisions, illustrates the growing power of Anglo land speculators and miners in New Mexico at the end of the nineteenth century, and the effects of that power on the processes of land grant confirmations. Objections to the CPLC's decree of the Arroyo Hondo grant's boundaries came from Anglo miners who were interested in the mountainous and potentially mineral-rich area under dispute.

The Hispano claimants and the U.S. government went through several rounds of appeals. In the end, the CPLC decided in February of 1898 that its original December 1892 decree confirming the Arroyo Hondo Grant had been “erroneous but not void.” The decree had been erroneous in that it confirmed the common lands of the grant, which, according to later court decisions, were in fact public domain, not owned by the grant claimants. The court also decided that the U.S. government's claim that the grant boundaries were incorrectly stated in the final decree, and that the U.S. Government's objections to the boundaries, though filed after the appeal period had expired, had been filed in the “regular course of procedure.” This decision reduced the size of the Arroyo Hondo grant from 30,674 acres as originally claimed to just over 20,000 acres.

After several years of quibbling over who would pay the surveyor's bill, N.B. Laughlin, the attorney for the claimants of the Arroyo Hondo Grant, finally received the patent for the grant on April 20, 1908.

The long history of the Arroyo Hondo grant illustrates the struggles by those who lived on or near the grant to obtain and maintain rights to the various natural resources available on the grant. These resources, according to the original grantees of 1815, included “pasture, water, firewood and timber;” “fields for planting;” “pasturage for livestock;” and the potential mineral resources so coveted by mining interests in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Ultimately, the Arroyo Hondo grant proved not to contain the vast quantities of gold, silver, and copper the miners had hoped for. Conflict over land, water and land grants continues today.


March-April 1815: Nerio Sisneros and others petition for the Arroyo Hondo land grant; Governor Maynez approves the grant and Alcalde Pedro Martín grants formal Act of Possession. Governor of Taos Pueblo, Josef Francisco Luján, protests Hispanic encroachment onto Taos Pueblo's four-league grant. Governor Maynez decrees that the alcalde should determine if Taos Pueblo will be damaged by the Arroyo Hondo settlers. Alcalde Martín reports that the Arroyo Hondo grant is outside of the Pueblo's league.

23 July 1820: First copy of the Act of Possession.

1821: Mexico becomes independent from Spain; opening of the Santa Fe Trail.

1830s: Simeon Turley builds a mill on the grant.

19 March 1833: Second copy of the Act of Possession.

1846-1848: US and Mexico at war.

January 1847: Taos revolt; Simeon Turley killed and Turley's mill destroyed.

17 June 1861: Arroyo Hondo residents file some title papers in the Surveyor General's office.

21 July 1881: Additional title papers filed in Surveyor General's office.

December 1887 - March 1888: Arroyo Hondo grant claimants petition for confirmation of the grant; Surveyor General George Julian hears the Arroyo Hondo case; Julian recommends confirmation of the Arroyo Hondo grant.

1891: Court of Private Land Claims established.

March – December 1892: Julian A. Martínez, Juan C. Rael and Nemecio Abilo file petition with the CPLC to confirm the Arroyo Hondo grant, on their behalf and that of “other claimants”; CPLC hears Arroyo Hondo case; CPLC decrees that the “title and claim” of the Arroyo Hondo grant were “good and valid.”

1893-1898: Various interests, including mining companies, contest the grant's boundaries before the CPLC.

February 1898: CPLC decrees that the grant is in fact valid but reduces its size from over 30,000 to 20,000 acres.

20 April 1908: Patent received by Arroyo Hondo claimants' attorney.

Sources Used

Surveyor General Report 159, State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Court of Private Land Claims Case File Number 5, State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Baxter, John O. Spanish Irrigation in the Taos Valley (Santa Fe: New Mexico State Engineer's Office, 1990).

Bowden, J. J. "Private Land Claims in the Southwest," 6 vols. (Master's thesis, Southern Methodist University, 1969.

Hall, G. Emlen, and David J. Weber, “Mexican Liberals and the Pueblo Indians, 1821-1829,” New Mexico Historical Review 59:1, 5-31.

Jenkins, Myra Ellen. “Taos Pueblo and Its Neighbors,” New Mexico Historical Review 41: 2 (April 1966).