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Chaca Mesa Grant

by J. J. Bowden

Early in the month of January, 1768, Ignacio Chaves, Tomas Chaves, Miguel Antonio Chaves, Antonio Chaves and Domingo de Luna, all residents of the Town of Artrisco, appeared before Governor Pedro Fermin de Mendinueta and registered a tract of vacant land which they estimated to be one and a quarter leagues square, situated on the “slopes of the Navajo country” and described as being bounded:

On the north, by a white mesa; on the east, by the lands of Captain Jose Garcia, Santiago Montoya and Miguel Montoya; on the south, by the lands of Diego Antonio Chaves and Felipe Tafoya; and on the west, by a black mesa.

The petitioners called the governor’s attention to the fact that their ancestors had been prominent in the affairs of the province having participated in its reconquest, and, while they were anxious to follow in their footsteps, it was impossible for them to do so since there were insufficient unoccupied lands, in the Atrisco Valley for the pasturing of their livestock. Therefore, in order to support their families with “some facility” and at the same time be of service to the province, they prayed that such lands be granted unto them. Noting that the petitioners were “good militiamen, supplied with horses and arms, and ever ready in the service of the king.”

Mendinueta granted them the requested lands on January 20, 1768 for the pasturing of their animals. It was made upon the express condition that they were not to dispossess the Apache or Navajo Indians who were living upon the lands but, on the contrary, were to “treat them with love and Christian sincerity, endeavoring to attract them to a knowledge of our holy faith and bring them under the control of” the sovereign. The grant was also expressly made subject to the grantees settling upon the property within the time prescribed by law. The granting decree also directed Bartolome Fernandez, Alcalde of the Queros Nation, to deliver possession of the premises to the grantees. In response to the governor’s command, Fernandez together with the grantees went to the grant on February 17, 1768 where the formalities of delivery of royal possession were duly performed. Fernandez designated the following natural objects as the boundaries of the grant:

On the north, a white tableland, commonly called Chaca Mesa; on the east, the lands of Jose Garcia, Miguel and Santiago Montoya; on the south, the point of the mountain; and on the west, the lands of Felipe Tafoya, Diego Antonio Chaves, and Pedro Chaves.

He estimated that the tract contained “four leagues, somewhat more.”[1]

Samuel Ellison, as attorney for the legal representatives of the original grantees, presented their claim for the lands described in the Act of Possession to Surveyor General James K. Proudfit for investigation on October 5, 1874. Since the grant papers were contained in the archives and undoubtedly were genuine, Proudfit, without further examination, announced on December 14, 1874:

Believing that this grant is legal and genuine, and that it is submitted by the present owners in good faith, I respectfully recommend that it be confirmed by Congress to the legal representatives of the five persons named in the Act of Possession.[2]

A preliminary survey of the grant was made by Deputy Sur­veyors Pradt & Watts in 1879 for 243,036.43 acres. Their survey depicted the grant as a roughly rectangular tract fifteen miles from north to south and twenty-five miles wide.

The claim was referred to the House of Representatives Committee on Private Land Claims which, on February 23, 1882, requested the Secretary of the interior to give his views upon the merits of the claim. The request was referred to the Commissioner of the General Land Office, N. C. McFarland, who stated:

It will be observed that the Surveyor General’s decision in favor of the validity of the grant, and I have no reason to doubt its correctness in the particular. He also recommends the confirmation of the grant to the “legal representatives of the five persons named in the Act of Possession, which appears to be in accordance with the following paragraph of the instructions of this office of August 21, 1854, approved by the department on the 25th of the same month and year, under said act, viz: “When the claim may be presented by a party as ‘present claimant,’ in right of another, you might be satisfied that the deraignment of title is complete; otherwise the entry and your decision should be in favor of the ‘legal representatives’ of the original grantees.” I very seriously doubt the justice and propriety of the above instructions in their application to this case, and cannot, therefore, concur in the recommendation made pursuant thereof. The record does not contain any proof that the original grantees had or have legal representatives, and for want of such the land may have reverted to the government.… It would seem reasonable that confirmation in cases of this kind can only be demanded by the government by parties designated by name or style, and who can show at least equitable right thereto by proof.[3]

As a result of McFarland’s report, the Committee allowed the owners of the grant to present their deeds and other title documents necessary to connect themselves to the original grantees or their legal representatives. Upon the conclusion of the investigation, the Committee recommended the passage of a relief bill which would confirm the grant.[4] A similar recommendation was made in 1883 and 1886.[5] However, for some unexplained reason, Congress failed to pass any of these bills.

Pursuant to instructions[6] from Commissioner of the General Land Office, William A. J. Sparks, dated December 11, 1885, Surveyor General George W. Julian reexamined the claim. In a Supplemental Report[7] dated June 17, 1886, Julian stated that he had several questions concerning the claim. The first involved the quantity of land which had been granted. He noted that the applicants estimated that the requested tract contained two and a quarter leagues, or 9,963 acres; that the Act of Possession estimated that it contained four leagues or 17,712 acres; and the preliminary survey covered 243,036.43 acres. These discrepancies led Julian to the conclusion that the survey was erroneous and covered more then ten times the quantity of land granted. Next, he questioned as to whether the evidence which had been submitted vested any title to the land in the claimants. He pointed out that the granting decree contained a provision which required the grantee to “settle upon the grant within the time prescribed by law.” He pointed out that Spanish law[8] required the recipients of pastoral grants to settle upon and stock them “within a limited time.” Since there was no evidence that the grantees had ever occupied or used the land, he was of the opinion that it had not been satisfactorily proven that the Spanish Government had itself title to the land. Based upon these conclusions, Julian held the claim to be invalid and recommended its rejection.

Since Congress had not acted upon the grant, William P. Miller, who in the meantime by mesne conveyances had acquired the interests of all of the descendants of the five original grantees, filed suit[9] in the Court of Private Land Claims on August 15, 1892 against the United States for its recognition. He contended that even if a perfect grant had not been made in 1768, a valid limitation title had been perfected by the more than forty years of peaceable adverse possession of the tract which he and his predecessors had held since the United States had acquired Mexico. The government, on the other hand, argued that the plaintiff’s title papers showed that only a usufructuary right of pasture had been granted and not a fee title. If this was true, the grantees had nothing more than a license to use and occupy the land, and, upon the change of sovereignty, legal title to the premises passed to the United States under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In the alternative, it contended that the grant was imperfect since the Act of Possession had not been confirmed by the governor and fiscal as required by the Royal Cedula of October 15, 1754,[10] and, therefore, under the limitation contained in Section 13(7) of the Act of March 3, 1891,[11] could not be confirmed for more than eleven square leagues.

The court, in its decision[12] dated February 6, 1895, held that the grant was more than a mere usufruct, but the Pradt & Watts Survey was erroneous. The evidence showed that the north boundary of the Felipe Tafoya Grant was located at “a point of a white mesa,” and if the north boundary of the Chaca Mesa Grant was located at this white mesa, the grant would measure about one and a quarter leagues in length or about three and three fourths miles instead of the fifteen miles shown by the survey. The court stated that it could not ignore these striking circumstances of description and distance, notwithstanding the fact that the Act of Possession called for the northern boundary to be located at Chaca Mesa and the survey correctly located that mesa, which was the only one in the region by that name. In this connection, the Court also noted that Fernandez was also the Alcalde who placed Felipe Tafoya in possession of his grant and undoubtedly was familiar with the white mesa which marked its northern boundary. He may have thought that this white mesa was also named Chaca Mesa. Even if Fernandez had designated Chaca Mesa as the northern boundary of the grant, such action would not be binding upon the Spanish government until it was approved by the governor and the fiscal. In connection with the plaintiff’s argument that a limitation title to the land had been projected, the court pointed out that the evidence of possession on the grant was very meager and history indicated that its possession was un­doubtedly interrupted for lengthy periods of time. Since there was no presumption favoring titles by prescription but such title had to be affirmatively proven, the court held that the plaintiff had failed to establish such a title. The plaintiff objected to this line of argument on the grounds that the failure of the United States to pass upon the claim promptly had deprived him of the ability to present evidence establishing a prescriptive title. In answer to this argument, the court stated that “lost evidence is no evidence” and the “best way to preserve one’s rights is to look after them.” It said it tried to be fair and reasonable but could not confirm any claim which was not established by full legal proof. Therefore, the court confirmed the grant and fixed its northern boundary as the white mesa which marked the northern boundary of the Felipe Tafoya Grant. On October 30, 1895, the government’s attorney filed a motion seeking a modification of the decree on the ground that the court had found that the northern boundary should be located at the point of the mesa but through error the decree fixed it as the mesa. This would move the boundary about two miles north of the point of the mesa. The court granted the government’s motion on August 24, 1896.[13]

The grant was surveyed pursuant to Section 10 of the Act of March 3, 1891[14] by Deputy Surveyor Albert F. Easley in May and July of 1895 for 47,258.71 acres. The grant was patented on March 14, 1899.[15]


[1] Archive No. 200 (Mss., Records of the A.N.M.).

[2] H. R. Exec. Doc. No. 62, 43d Cong., 2d Sess., 9‑15 (1875).

[3] H. R. Report No. 935, 47th Cong., 1st Sess., 8‑9 (1882).

[4] Ibid., 1, 10.

[5] H. R. Report No. 1833, 47th Cong., 2d Sess., 1 (1883); and H. R. Report No. 186, 49th Cong., 1st Sess., 1 (1886).

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

[7] S. Exec. Doc. No. 10, 50th Cong., 1st Sess., 2-3 (1887).

[8] Law 3, Title 6, Book 4 of Recopilación de Leyes de los Reynos de Los Indios (1841).

[9] Miller v. United States, No. 34 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[10] Reynolds, Spanish and Mexican Land Laws, 50 (1895).

[11] Court of Private Land Claims Act, Chap. 539, Sec. 13(7) , 26 Stat. 854 (1891).

[12] 2 Journal 285 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[13] 3 Journal 60 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[14] Court of Private Land Claims Act, Chap. 539, Sec. 10, 26 Stat. 854 (1891).

[15] The Chaca Mesa Grant, No. 96 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).