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Canon de Chama Grant

by J. J. Bowden

Francisco Salazar, together with his two brothers and twenty-eight poor and needy citizens, petitioned Joaquin Alancaster, the governor of New Mexico, seeking a grant covering a tract of vacant land situated on the Chama River for agricultural and pastoral purposes. Alencaster, under date of July 6, 1806, ordered the Alcalde of Santa Cruz to personally examine the lands solicited by the petitioners and give him a full report on the property before acting upon the request. In response to Alencaster’s order, Alcalde Manuel Garcia de la Mora inspected the area and, on July 14, 1806, reported that the requested tract was unoccupied and situated:

… one league from the last grant (that of the Martinez’s), to the side on which the sun rises, and that thence to the western boundary, which divides the said Chama River Canon from the Gallina River, there are about two leagues, some­what more or less, of cultivable lands, and, the town being placed in the center, the thirty-one families applying for it may be accommodated, and land enough remain for the increase that they may have in the way of children and sons-in-law and the section of the country is a very desirable one, and the settlers may therefore proceed with their building, and for the other two boundaries there is assigned them on the north and on the south one league for pastures, for on these two sides no injury can result, as there is neither a settlement nor a grant now made … and the said Canon is distant from Abiquiu about five leagues.

After carefully studying the report, Alencaster granted. the land to the petitioners on August 1, 1806, and ordered Garcia to place the colonists in possession of the grant and allocate to each of the settlers a lot of land capable of growing three cuartillas of wheat, three almudes of corn, another three of beans, and having a site for a small house and garden. On March 1, 1808, Garcia placed Salazar and the twenty-four other colonists, who finally elected to participate in the project, in legal possession of the grant and allocated an individual farm tract to each of them except Salazar, who received a double allotment. A town site was also set aside and named San Joaquin del Rio de Chama. The following natural objects were designated as the exterior boundaries of the grant:

On the north, the Cebola Valley; on the east, the boundaries of the Martinez Grant; on the south, the Capulin River; and on the west, the Segita Blanca.[1]

In 1832 Juan de Jesus de Chacon filed a petition in Governor Antonio Chaves’ office asking him to enjoin the Alcalde of the Town of Abiquiu from evicting them from the lands upon which they had settled in 1830. It seems that Alcalde Jose Maria Ortiz had allocated and placed Chacon and two associates in possession of certain tracts located within the Canon de Chama Grant as colonists under the Colonization Law. However, the original grantees had protested and the then Alcalde of the Town of Abiquiu, Juan Antonio Gallago, had taken the position that such action was illegal and that they were trespassers and intruders. The question was referred by the governor to the attorney general of New Mexico, Antonio Barreiro, who made an extensive investigation into the matter, and, on May 6, 1832, held that the Canon de Chama Grant was valid and that distributions made by Alcalde Ortiz should be annulled.[2]

The grantees continuously occupied and used the grant except for a number of occasions when it was temporarily abandoned due to Indian hostilities. In spite of the immense size of the grant, only a narrow strip of land lying within the Canon de Chama was cultivated but livestock was pastured upon the adjoining mesas. By 1861 the grant was owned by more than four hundred persons who claimed under and through the original grantees. On January 3, 1861, the claimants submitted a petition[3] to the Surveyor General seeking the confirmation of their title to the 184,320 acres which they estimated to be embraced within the boundaries of the grant. Surveyor General James K. Proudfit, after carefully considering the record, recommended[4] to Congress on December 17, 1872, that the grant be recognized and confirmed as a community grant. A preliminary survey of the grant was made by Deputy Surveyor Stephen McElroy in May, 1878. The McElroy Survey, to the surprise of everyone, showed that 472,736.95 acres were embraced within the boundaries set forth in the grant papers.[5]

A bill was presented during the last session of the 46th Congress for the confirmation of the grant. This bill was referred to the House Committee on Private Land Claims for its recommendations. The Committee, in turn, requested the Secretary of Interior to furnish it with more information concerning the grant. In a letter[6] dated May 20, 1880, Commissioner J. A. Williamson traced the history of the grant and concluded by recommending that it be confirmed subject only to the reservation of mineral rights.

No further action was taken on the grant until June 28, 1886, when Surveyor General George W. Julian submitted a Supplemental Report[7] to Congress. He found that the grantees had failed to establish a legal title to the grant and, if they had acquired an equitable title, it was limited to the individual allotments located within the Chama River Canyon, which covered only 166.22 acres. Next, Julian viciously attacked McElroy stating that his survey was manifestly and shockingly incorrect. He asserted that the surveyor had “no right to wander out of the canyon from ten to fifteen miles in search of the natural objects named as the boundaries of the tract but should have sought them within the canyon.”

Meanwhile, the original village of San Joaquin had been abandoned and most of the inhabitants of the grant had moved to Abiquiu, Santa Cruz, or Tierra Amarilla. Speculators and “earth hungry monopolists” quietly began to purchase scores of outstanding interests under the Chama Grant. After the formation of the Court of Private Land Claims, the new owners instituted suit[8] in that forum for the confirmation of their title. After receiving a great deal of oral and documentary evidence, the court, on September 24, 1894, held the grant to be valid but covered only the individual farm tracts situated in the Chama River Canyon which had been allotted to the settlers prior to the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The plaintiffs promptly appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court which, based on its decision in the Sandoval Case,[9] held[10] that the grant was a community grant and all unallotted lands within its exterior boundaries belonged to the government. A resurvey of the grant was made in accordance with the Supreme Court’s decree in September, 1901, by Deputy Surveyor Joseph F. Thomas. His survey showed that the grant covered only a narrow strip of land containing only 1,422.62 acres, of land situated in the bottom of the Chama River Canyon. A Patent based on the Thomas Survey was issued on May 5, 1905.[11]

While the Supreme Court’s opinion undoubtedly disappointed the owners of the grant, it was accepted as finally fixing the boundaries of the grant. However, on October 17, 1966, the members of an organization called the Federal Alliance of Land Grants took over the rest camp in the Kit Carson National Forest, which is located within the boundaries of the grant set out in the Act of Possession, and established the Pueblo Republican de San Joaquin del Rio de Chama. The leader of the group, Reies Tijerina, claimed that the 500,000 acres covered by the national forest belonged to the “Republic” since it was located on the Canon de Chama Grant under which members of the organization claimed an interest. Tijerina contended that the government was obligated under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to protect the property rights of Spanish Americans and the members of his organization were willing to shed their blood to defend their rights. The organization is attempting to raise enough “furor to get their case before the U. S. Supreme Court.”[12]


[1] S. Exec. Doc. No. 45, 42d Cong., 3d Sess., 5‑8 (1873).

[2] The Canon de Chama Grant, No. 71 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[3] Ibid.

[4] S. Exec. Doc. No. 45, 42d Cong., 3d Sess., 9‑13 (1873).

[5] The Canon de Chama Grant, No. 71 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[6] H. R. Report No. 131, 47th Cong. 1st Sess., 1‑2 (1882). Since the Canon de Chama Grant was made during the Spanish Colonial Period, it was not bound by the eleven league limitation placed on Mexican Grants, but would not cover minerals, which after 1783 were reserved as a prerogative of the sovereign.

[7] S. Exec. Doc. No. 21, 50th Cong., 1st Sess., 26 (1887).

[8] Rio Arriba Land & Cattle Company v. United States, No. 107 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[9] United States v. Sandoval, 167 U.S. 278 (1897).

[10] Rio Arriba Land & Cattle Company v. United States, 167 U.S. 298 (1897).

[11] The Canon de Chama Grant, No. 71 Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[12] The Houston Post, October 17, 1966.