More to Explore

Canon del Rio Colorado

by J. J. Bowden

Jose Antonio Laforte presented[1] the Canon del Rio Colorado Grant to Surveyor General T. Rush Spencer on February 10, 1872 for investigation under the eighth section of the act of July 22, 1854.[2] In support of his claim, Laforte filed the testimonio of certain proceedings had in connection with the grant in 1836. It showed that on June 12, 1836 Antonio Elias Armenta, Jose Victor Sanches, and Jose Manuel Sanches petitioned the Alcalde of Taos, Antonio Jose Ortiz “praying for a tract of land in grant for our livestock” at the place known as the Canon del Rio Colorado from the mouth of the canon to the source of the river and bounded on the north by the Ridge of the Rito del Cabrosto. Ortiz, who was the presiding officer of the Ayuntamiento of Taos, presented the request to that body for its consideration during its June 23, 1836 session. After a full discussion, the Ayuntamiento “decided to make the parties the grant", however, it limited the size of the concession to an area extending from the mouth of the canon to the first little valley east of the lake. Spencer took no action on the claim but his successor, James K. Proudfit, received a considerable amount of oral testimony concerning the grant between May 22 and June 30, 1874. This testimony tended to prove that the signatures on the Ayuntamiento’s decree were genuine, that the signing parties were the corporate officials of Taos on June 23, 1836, the grantees and their successors had held peaceful and bona fide possession of the premises at all times after 1836, and one witness, Donaciano Vigil, stated:

 It was the custom and usage, and was such in accordance with the seven laws, known as the Siete Leyes, and under that authority the governors, prefects, and alcaldes, in conjunction with the Ayuntamientos, had authority to make grants of land. This law of the Siete Leyes was promulgated by one of the national governments of Mexico. The law was enacted in 1836 and remained in force till 1838, when, another government coming in, it was repealed.[3]

In a short opinion dated June 30, 1874 3 Surveyor General Proudfit recommended that the grant be confirmed to the original grantees and their legal representatives according to the boundaries set forth in the decree of June 23, 1836. A preliminary survey was made by Deputy Surveyors Griffin & McMullan in October, 1877, in which the claim was shown as containing 42,936.21 acres of land. This represented quite a reduction from the 115,030 acres which Laforte had estimated on the plat attached to his petition.[4]

Since Congress had not acted upon Proudfit’s report, the Canon del Rio Colorado was one of the claims which Surveyor General George W. Julian was instructed to re-examine following his taking office. On April 10, 1886, he submitted a Supplemental Report[5] in which he pointed out that Proudfit had not mentioned the basis on which he had assumed that the Ayuntamiento had authority to issue a valid grant and, in view of the repeated court decisions to the contrary, the self-serving statements by the claimant’s witness, Donaciano Vigil, could hardly be considered evidence of such authority. Continuing, he pointed out that the Colonization Law of 1824[6] and Regulations of 1828,[7] which were the only laws in effect in New Mexico in 1836 pertaining to the granting of the land, authorized an Ayuntamiento to grant small tracts or lots, not to exceed 50 varas, within the limits of its community grant. Under those laws, it was clear that only the governor could make a valid grant covering a portion of the public domain. Since there was no pretense that the lands covered by the Canon del Rio Colorado Grant belonged to the Town of Taos, Julian recommended the grant be rejected. In addition to a complete lack of authority to make the grant, Julian pointed out that the claim lacked two elements essential for its recognition as a valid grant. First, since there was no record of the grant in the archives of New Mexico, the grant under the doctrine of the Peralta Case[8] could not be recognized. Second, a grant was not final, and complete until the grantee had been placed in possession of the land, and there was no evidence that possession of the Canon del Rio Colorado had ever been delivered.

Inasmuch as Congress had failed to act upon the claim prior to the creation of the Court of Private Land Claims, Clarence P. Elder, who in the meantime had acquired title to the entire grant, filed suit[9] against the United States on March 3, 1893. Elder originally based his cause of action on the 1836 grant from the Ayuntamiento, but, in an effort to overcome the objections raised in Julian’s Supplemental Report, he filed an amended petition on November 19, 1896, in which he sought to sustain his claim on a theory that it was an allotment by the Ayuntamiento under a community grant made in 1815. In support of this contention, he attached a translation of Archive No. 801[10] which showed that Pedro Martin, pursuant to a grant and instructions from Governor Alberta Maynez, placed fifty families in possession of the lands at Rio Colorado on December 23, 1815. Thus, if there was a valid community grant, the Ayuntamiento could, under the Colonization Law of 1824[11] and Regulations of 1828,[12] make an allotment or distribution of a portion of the grant to three of its original or subsequent inhabitants. This, he asserted, was the substance of the proceeding had in 1836. If the court would accept this theory it would overcome the objections raised by Julian concerning “the authority of the granting official” and a lack of archive evidence of the grant. Elder contended that the third and final defect raised in Julian’s Supplemental Report, which pertained to the lack of a formal delivery of possession, was cured by certain proceedings held in 1842. Such proceedings were also a part of Archive No. 801, and, according to Elder, amounted to an Act of Possession covering the lands at San Antonio del Rio Colorado as well as a recognition of the previous allotment made in 1836 at the Canon del Rio Colorado. Archive 801 shows that Antonio Elias Armenta, Rafael Archuleta, and Miguel Montoya petitioned Prefect Juan Andres Archuleta for additional allotments of land on January 8, 1842. The prefect, on the same day, granted the request and directed Alcalde Juan Antonio Martin to place them in possession of the requested land. Eleven days later Martin went to the grant and placed thirty-five persons in possession of the following described land:

On the north, by the Ojito de los Pinabetes and the point of Guadalupe Hill; on the east, by the mountains; on the south, by the questa or brow of the Rio Colorado; and on the west, by the little canyon where the point of Guadalupe Hill joins the Rio Colorado.

On February 22, 1842 the Governor requested the Prefect to report to him concerning the foregoing proceedings. Archuleta immediately complied with the Governor’s request. His answer must have satisfied the Governor, for just two days later the Secretary of the province, Jorge Ramirez, directed the Prefect not to disturb the allottees pending the receipt of further instructions from the Junta.[13]

The Government’s attorney contended that the claim could not have been an allotment under a community grant made in 1815, or any other date, for the reason that the parties had not been allotted any lands nor were they placed in possession of any lands. He asserted that all of the documentary evidence presented by the plaintiff disclosed, on its face, that the “allotments” were purely and simply licenses to use the lands for pasture purposes in common with all other residents of the Town of Rio Colorado. In the alternative, the Government argued that the plaintiff had wholly failed to show that the proceedings in 1815 had any relation to the subsequent proceedings of 1836 and 1842, and that if there was no community grant, then there could be no valid allotments, In conclusion, the Government asserted that the 1842 Act of Possession if it were such, had been repudiated by the Governor, and therefore, the plaintiff’s predecessors in title had never been placed in legal possession of the land in question.

On November 30, 1896,[14] the Court announced its decision rejecting the claim on the grounds that the Governor had repudiated the Act of Possession but had ordered the parties not to be disturbed pending the further action of the Junta. And, since there was no further action thereon by the Junta, the claim, insofar as the rights of the plaintiff were concerned, rested solely upon the actions of the Prefect. Therefore, the most that could be said for the claim was that it was simply a grant by a Prefect, which the Courts had repeatedly and consistently held to be invalid for a want of authority.

Elder appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court. However, the appeal was dismissed[15] by that Court on January 18, 1898 pursuant to a stipulation by counsel for the respective parties.


[1] The Canon del Rio Colorado Grant, No. 93 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[2] An act to establish the Office of Surveyor General of New Mexico, Kansas and Nebraska, to grant donations to actual settlers therein, and for other purposes, Chap. 103, Sect. 81, 10 Stat. 308 (1854).

[3] S. Exec. Doc. No. 2, 43rd Cong., 2d Sess., 5‑9 (1874). A considerable amount of testimony was given concerning the Town of Canon del Rio Colorado. This testimony was not pertinent to this grant since the settlement was not located upon the grant, but was located on the Town of San Antonio del Rio Colorado Grant. Proudfit apparently was unaware of this fact, for, in his opinion, he placed considerable stress on the fact that it was occupied at the time of the American occupation and in 1874 was inhabited by at least one hundred families.

[4] The Canon del Rio Colorado Grant, No. 93 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[5] Ibid.

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

[7] Ibid., 141.

[8] Peralta v. United States, 3 Wall. (70 U.S.) 434 (1865).

[9] Elder v. United States, No. 166 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[10] Archive No. 801 (Mss., Records of the A.N.M.).

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

[12] Ibid., 141.

[13] Archive No. 801 (Mss., Records of the A.N.M.). These were the proceedings which formed the basis of the San Antonio del Rio Colorado Grant which was rejected by the Court of Private Land Claims in Montoya v. United States, No. 4 Ct. Pvt. L. Cl. (1893).

[14] 3 Journal 148 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[15] Elder v. United States, 18 S. Ct. 943, 42 L. Ed. 1216 (1898) (mem.).