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Bowden’s Research on the Juan Bautista Valdez Grant

by J. J. Bowden

Sometime during the month of January or February, 1807, Juan Bautista Valdez, a loyal Spanish subject and resident of the Town of Abiquiu, presented a petition to the Alcalde of the Town of Abiquiu, Manuel Garcia, requesting that a grant be issued to him and seven companions covering the tract of “perhaps more than two thousand varas of land in the Canon de los Pedernales which they had cleared.” Garcia forwarded the petition to Governor Joaquin de Real Alencaster on February 12, 1807, with a recommendation that the requested grant be made. On December 16, 1807, Alencaster issued the concession and directed Garcia to place Valdez in possession of “the piece of land which the petition of applicant treats.” In response to the governor’s decree, a party consisting of Garcia, his attending witnesses, Valdez and his nine companions went to the Canon de Pedernales where the alcalde inspected the premises and, after finding that it contained about one league of land, which could be cultivated and that the grant did not conflict with the vested rights of any third party, he designated the following natural objects as its boundaries:

On the north, the boundaries of the Martinez lands; on the east, the Pedernales River which reaches the boundary of the Polvadera; on the south, the source of the Pedernales; and on the west, a white mesa.

 Following the completion of the survey, Garcia delivered royal possession of the grant to the ten colonists.[1]

On July 5, 1814, the grantees appeared before the Alcalde of the Town of Abiquiu, Pedro Ignacio Gallegos, and asked him to partition the grant amongst its inhabitants. In response to their request, Gallegos went to the grant, surveyed the occupied tracts, and issued a hijuela or certificates of possession to each of the interested parties covering the tract which he had been using. Valdez was allotted a tract known as the Encinas Tract, which was described as being bounded:

On the north, by some permanent stones; on the east, by a mound in the puertecita which faces towards La Joya; on the south, by the tops of the mountains; and on the west, by a small mountain in the Canada de los Corrales.

The nine other interested parties were in turn given individual lots measuring 550 varas in width along the river northwest of the Encinas Tract. The alcalde noted that in order to give the colonists sufficient lands to support their families, it was necessary to extend the limits of the grant to include some wild lands along the upper part of the grant.[2]

 At the time the United States acquired New Mexico, there were two small settlements located on the grant. The first was known as the Town of Cañones, and the other was the Rancho del Encinas.

The heirs of Juan Bautista Valdez petitioned[3] Surveyor General T. Rush Spencer on June 12, 1871, seeking the recognition of their title to the Encinas Tract, which they estimated to contain 20,500 acres of land. In support of their petition, they filed the hijuela which had been given to Juan Bautista Valdez by Gallegos on July 5, 1814. They contended that the hijuela was an Act of Possession, which evidenced the delivery of possession in connection with the issuance of the grant mentioned therein. Luis Valdez, one of the petitioners, gave an affidavit in which he stated that he had made a diligent search for the expediente of the grant but he had been unable to locate it. Thus, in order to explain the petitioners’ failure to produce any evidence that a grant had been made, he contended that it probably had been either mislaid, lost or destroyed. At the hearing on the matter, a number of witnesses offered testimony to the effect that Valdezes had claimed and occupied the tract since 1807. After considering the petition and proof for some four months, Surveyor General Spencer issued a report[4], dated November 16, 1871, in which he held that in view of the long continuous possession and occupancy of the Encinas Tract by Juan Bautista Valdez, his heirs and successors, “it must be concluded that there was a grant, and that they claimed and held the land thereunder.” Surveyor General Spencer concluded his report by holding the claim to be good and valid and recommending its confirmationby Congress. A preliminary survey of the Encinas Tract, which was made in April, 1879, by Deputy Surveyors Sawyer & McBroom, indicated that it covered only 6,583.29 acres.[5]

The claim was still pending before Congress when Surveyor General George W. Julian took office. In response to the Special Instructions[6] from the Commissioner of the General Land Office dated December 11, 1885, Julian proceeded to conduct a re‑examination into the validity of the grant. By supplemental Opinion[7] dated June 22, 1886, he pointed out that the only evidence indicating that a grant had been made covering the lands in question was a vague recital in the hijuela and that it would be highly unusual to presume that a valid grant had been made based upon such scanty and indefinite evidence. Therefore, he found that the petitioners had failed to establish either a legal or equitable interest in the land and recommended that the claim be rejected by Congress.

Meanwhile, the testimonio of the grant was located and Antonio Valdez and other heirs of Juan Bautista Valdez petitioned[8] Surveyor General Henry M. Atkinson on August 10, 1878, for the confirmation of the grant which they referred to as the Canon de los Pedernales Grant. On February 1, 1879, Atkinson rendered an opinion[9] in which he stated that he had compared the signatures of Alencaster and Garcia on the testimonio which had been found in the possession of one of the claimants prior to its being filed in his office, with the signatures of said officials on other documents in the Archives of New Mexico, and was fully convinced that the grant papers were genuine. However, he had a serious question as to the extent of the grant. He pointed out that there was a vast variance between the 2000 varas of land called for in Juan Bautista Valdez’s petition and the approximately 256,000 acres which the claimants contended were contained within the boundaries set forth in the Act of Possession. Atkinson closed by recommending that Congress confirm the grant but concluded (a) that it covered only the lands situated within the Canon de los Pedernales and referred to in Valdez’s petition, since an alcalde had no power to increase the size of a concession; and (b) that it should be confirmed in the name of Juan Bautista Valdez and his heirs and legal representatives in view of the fact that his “companions” were not named in any of the grant papers.

Surveyor General Clarence Pullen executed a contract for the survey of the Canon de Pedernales Grant on June 10, 1885, and forwarded it to the General Land Office for approval. The General Land Office returned the contract unapproved on June 24, 1885, with the suggestion that Pullen’s successor, George W. Julian, cause a most searching inquiry to be made into the validity of the claim. Julian wrote a Supplemental Opinion[10] pertaining to the grant on July 15, 1886, in which he recommended its rejection. Julian stated “a single reading of the unauthenticated title papers can scarcely fail to awaken suspicion and invite scrutiny.” He pointed to the several defects and inconsistencies which were readily apparent from merely reading the record in the case. First was the fact that Valdez and seven companions had petitioned for the grant covering 2,000 varas or a tract of land about a mile in length and bounded on both sides by the walls of the river canon, which they had previously cleared, but Garcia had placed him and his nine companions in possession of a tract covering some four hundred square miles of land. Next, he called attention to the fact that the date on which possession had been delivered was prior to the date of the grant, which was impossible and could not be presumed to be an error. Finally, he noted that Valdez had stated that the land was needed due to his having a large family, while the record disclosed that he only had four children. Julian then discussed what he termed “the more material considerations”. He held that the expansion of the boundaries of the grant by Alcalde Garcia was not only unconscionable and void but

… was an extension of land stealing which would rival the performance of the present day and Surveyor General Atkinson was abundantly justified in branding it in his opinion as “infamous.” The whole story is so superlatively preposterous as to justify the suspicion that both the order of the Governor ad the report of the Alcalde are the inventions of a later time and so clumsily planned as to expose their true characters. It is intrinsically improbably, if not morally impossible, that the circumstances of the case could have occurred as stated.

 Julian concluded his opinion with the statement that he did not feel warranted in recommending confirmation of the claim or any portion thereof and pointed out that its rejection would work no hardship on the claimants, since they were in possession of the land and could prefect their titles under the homestead laws. Julian later publicly attacked the validity of the grant and even went so far as to venomously assert[11] that there had been no grant or delivery of posses­sion and that the title papers were fraudulent and void. Such adverse publicity undoubtedly deterred any further action on the grant by the wily politicians in Washington.

The creation of the Court of Private Land Claims in 1893 afforded the owners of the grant another opportunity to press their claim. On March 2, 1893, suit[12] was filed in that forum praying for the confirmation of the grant based upon the 1807 proceedings. The United States, in its answer, placed all of the allegations in the plaintiffs’ petition in issue.

The case came up for hearing on June 8, 1898, at which time the plaintiffs introduced their title papers and a considerable amount of oral corroborative testimony. The evidence introduced by the United States, while recognizing the validity of the grant, tended to restrict its boundaries to a narrow strip of land in the Canon de los Pedernales. On December 20, 1898, the court announced its decision[13] confirming the grant to the heirs, legal representatives, and assigns of Juan Bautista Valdez insofar as it covered the tract of land originally requested by Valdez in his petition. Neither party appealed from this decision. The grant was surveyed by Deputy Surveyor William McKean in 1899, and his survey showed that the grant contained only 1,468.57 acres. A patent for said amount of land was issued on June 19, 1913.[14]

[1] The Canon de los Pedernales Grant, No. 113 (Mss. Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[2] The Encinas Grant, No. 55 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[3] Ibid.

[4] H. R. Misc. Doc. No. 181, 42d Cong., 2d Sess., 45‑49 (1872).

[5] The Encinas Grant, No. 55 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[6] S. Exec. Doc. No. 113, 49th Cong., 2d Sess., 2 (1887).

[7] S. Exec. Doc. No. 53, 49th Cong., 2d Sess., 3‑4 (1887).

[8] The Canon de los Pedernales Grant, No. 113 (Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid.

[11] Julian, “Land Stealing in New Mexico,” 145 The North American Review, 20 (1887).

[12] Valdez v. United States, No. 179 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[13] 4 Journal 76 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[14] The Encinas Grant, No. 55 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).