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Bowden’s Research on the Tierra Amarilla Grant

by J. J. Bowden

Manuel Martinez, on behalf of himself, his eight sons and all other persons who might accompany him, petitioned the governor of New Mexico on April 23, 1832 for a grant covering a tract of land called Tierra Amarilla which was situated on the Chama River. He requested that the grant be made for agricultural and ranching purposes and cover all of the lands within the following boundaries:

On the north, the Navajo River; on the east, a range of mountains; on the south, the Nutrias River; and on the west, the mouth of the Laguna de los Caballos.

Martinez pointed out that while he had a small tract of land at the Town of Abiquiu, it had been depleted by years of constant cultivation. Therefore, in order that he and others in a similar position might continue to support their families, he requested that he and his associates be given the requested tract of fertile land which was located some seven leagues north of the Town of Abiquiu. The petition was referred by Santiago Abreu, the governor of New Mexico, on April 25, 1832, to the Provincial Deputation for its consideration. On the same day, the Provincial Deputation requested the officials of the Town of Abiquiu to fully advise it concerning the propriety of issuing the grant. In compliance with this request, the officials of the Town of Abiquiu on May 15, 1832, reported that the lands which had been solicited by Martinez were of an excellent quality, had an abundance of water and wood, and could support at least five hundred families. However, they recommended that the pastures and watering places located within the requested tract be reserved as a commons for the benefit of the inhabitants of the Town of Abiquiu. Upon learning of the contents, of this report, Martinez protested on the grounds that it would be unjust and work a hardship upon the grantees to exclude the very lands which were so essential to their earning a livelihood on the frontier. He pointed out that such an exception would unquestionably cause endless disputes and difficulties between the grantees and the inhabitants of the Town of Abiquiu. On July 20, 1832, the Provincial Deputation granted Manuel Martinez and his associates the tract of land described in Martinez’ petition subject, however, to the express reservation of the pastures, watering places and roads located thereon for the benefit of the general public. The Provincial Deputation also ordered the Alcalde of the Town of Abiquiu to deliver possession of the grant to Martinez and all other persons who associated with him in the formation of the proposed new settlement. The alcalde was further instructed to allot to each of the grantees an individual tract of land sufficient in size to grow four or five fanegas of wheat. Due to the hostility of the Indians and the dangers which would be incurred in going to the grant, the alcalde refused to go to Tierra Amarillo and formally deliver legal possession of the grant to the grantees as instructed. However, Martinez moved to the grant and continued to live there during the periods when the Indians were peaceful. After his death, Martinez’ children continued to occupy and use the grant up until about 1854.[1]

On August 25, 1856, Francisco Martinez, one of the heirs of Manuel Martinez, filed a petition[2] in the Surveyor General’s Office seeking the confirmation of the Tierra Amarillo Grant, which he alleged contained approximately 24 square leagues, or 106,312 acres of land. Surveyor General William Pelham promptly investigated the claim and in a decision[3] dated September 25, 1856, held that he was satisfied that the Provincial Deputation had authority under the laws of Mexico to make donations of land to individuals, that the title papers evidencing the grant had been proven to be genuine, and that the failure of the Alcalde of the Town of Abiquiu to deliver possession to Martinez did not invalidate the grant since such failure had been satisfactorily explained. He concluded by holding the grant to be good and valid and recommended its confirmation by Congress to Francisco Martinez. The grant was confirmed as Private Land Claim No. 3 by an act of Congress approved June 21, 1860.[4]

On June 30, 1875, John M. Isaacs, one of the then owners of the grant, requested the Surveyor General to survey the grant in order that a patent might be issued. In response to his request, the Commissioner of the General Land Office authorized the Surveyor General to make the survey provided the owners would select eleven leagues out of the grant as full satisfaction of their claim. The Commissioner contended that since the area and location of the boundaries of the grant were unknown when Congress confirmed the claim, it should be presumed that it had no intention to confirm title to an amount of land in excess of eleven leagues, which was the maximum which could be granted to an individual under the Colonization Law of 1824.[5] Elias Borvoort, attorney for the owners of the grant, by letter[6] dated May 13, 1876, notified the Surveyor General that his clients would not accept any survey which did not conform with the description contained in the grant. As a result of the decision of the Colorado Supreme Court in the Tameling Case,[7] which had just held that the Act of June 21, 1860,[8] confirmed a number of grants to the full extent of their exterior boundaries, the Commissioner dropped this contention. The grant was surveyed by Deputy Surveyors Sawyer & McBroom in July, 1876. This survey showed that the grant contained a total of 594,515.55 acres, a part of which was located within the State of Colorado.[9] The grant was patented to Francisco Martinez on February 21, 1881.[10] While the patent was in the conventional form it contained a recitation in one of the prefatory clauses stating the pastures, watering places and roads were to be free according to the custom of every settlement. This caused the residents living on the grant to believe that it was a community grant with unrestricted pasturing and wood gathering privileges on the unallocated lands being guaranteed to all of the inhabitants of the grant. This erroneous belief has led to a myriad of litigation. Both the State and Federal Courts have consistently held that the actions of Congress confirming a grant are not subject to judicial review and that regardless of whether or not the grant was a private or community grant, the confirmation of a grant as a private grant by Congress and the patent issued in pursuance thereto vested in the patentee an absolute title to all common and unallocated lands.[11]

Having failed to find satisfaction in the courts, many of the inhabitants of the grant have joined an organization of Spanish Americans known as the “Blackhands,” which is using violence to press their claims. The Blackhands are employing guerilla tactics as a protest against the ranchers who have purchased the commons and unallocated lands within the grant. Homes are being burned, machinery riddled with gunfire, cattle killed, and fences cut.[12] These incidents point out that the land problems of New Mexico have not been fully solved even of this late date.


[1] H. Exec. Doc. No. 1, 34th Cong., 3d Sess., 478-492 (1856).

[2] The Tierra Amarillo Grant, No. 3 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[3] Ibid.

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

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

[6] The Tierra Amarilla Grant, No. 3 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[7] Tameling v. United States Freehold and Emigration Company, 2 Colo. 411 (1874).

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

[9] The Tierra Amarilla Grant, No. 3 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[10] 17 Deed Records 162 (Mss., Records of the County Clerk’s Office, Santa Fe, New Mexico).

[11] H.N.D. Land Co. v. Suazo, 44 N.M. 547, 105 P.2d 744 (1940); Flores v. Bouesselback, 149 F. 2d 616 (3d Cir., 1945); Martinez v. Rivera, 196 F. 2d 192 (10th Cir., 1952); Martinez v. Mundy, 61 N.M. 87, 295 P. 2d 209 (1956); and Rayne Land & Livestock Co. v. Archuleta, 180 F. SUPP. 651 (D.N.M.,1960).

[12] Knowlton “Causes of Land Loss among the Spanish Americans in Northern New Mexico,” 1 Rocky Mountain Social Science Journal 201‑211 (1966).