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Cristobal de la Serna Grant

by J. J. Bowden

Having resigned his commission as captain in the army and position as commander of the garrison at Santa Fe in order to accept limited duty by performing the functions of a sergeant, Cristobal de la Serna needed an independent source of income to support his large family. Therefore, he petitioned the Governor of New Mexico, Joseph Chacon Medina Salazar y Vilisenor, Marquis of Penuela, requesting a grant covering the rancho located in the Taos Valley, which, prior to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, had belonged to Captain Fernando de Chaves. On April 28, 1710 Salazar granted him the requested tract, About this same time the Apaches migrated westward and began harassing the settlements along the northeastern frontier of New Mexico. The increased military activity resulted in Serna’s being recalled into active military service and prevented his settling upon the grant. By 1715 the Apache problems had somewhat abated and Serna was discharged from the Army. He finally was in a position to move to the grant. However, his previous failure to occupy the grant promptly caused Serna no little concern over the validity of his title. Therefore, he petitioned Governor Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollon on May 31, 1715 seeking the revalidation of the grant and delivery or royal possession, Serna expressly requested that the Indian officials of the Pueblo of Taos be notified of the grant and invited to attend the surveying of its boundaries so that they would have an opportunity to voice any objections that they might have thereto. In response to Serna’s petition Mogollon, on the same date, confirmed the grant and directed the lieutenant of the Chief Alcalde of Taos, Juan do la Mora Pineda, to deliver royal possession of the grant. Pineda was also instructed to summon the Governor, Caciques and War Chief of the Pueblo of Taos in order that they might accompany him in the performance of his duties in connection with the concession, Lieutenant Alcalde Pineda met with all of the interested parties at the Pueblo of Taos on June 15, 1715 and explained the grant to the representatives of the pueblo who advised Pineda that the lands covered thereby did not belong to them and the grant would in no way he prejudicial to their rights. While the Indians had planted a few plots of beans on the grant, they agreed not to replant such fields if they were allowed to harvest the growing corps. Finding no opposition to the grant, Pineda and all interested parties then proceeded to the grant and commenced the survey. The field notes of the survey described a tract of land bounded:

On the north, by an old landmark; on the east, by the Ojo Caliente; on the south, by the mountains; and on the west, by the middle road.

Following the completion of the survey, Pineda performed the formal ceremonies necessary to deliver royal possession of the grant to Serna.[1]

The grantee promptly settled upon the premises and therafter continuously occupied and used the land until his death, which occurred in about 1724. His sons, Juan and Sebastian, sold the grant to Diego Romero on August 5, 1724 In order to assure himself that he was acquiring a good title, Romero presented the testimonio of the grant to Juan Paez Hurtado, Inspector General of New Mexico, and requested him to pass on the validity of the grant. In a certificate dated November 24, 1724 Hurtado approved the grant and declared the title thereto to be good and sufficient.[2] Under Romero’s will,[3] which was dated June 13, 1742, the grant was devised to his three children, Andres, Francisco and Ana Maria. In 1796 the Don Fernando de Taos Grant was made. Since this grant conflicted with the northern portion of the Cristobal de la Serna Grant, the heirs and descendants of Andres, Francisco and Aria Maria consented to the issuance of the Don Fernando­ de Taos Grant and relinquished their claim to any lands lying between the Rio Don Fernando and La Cruz Alta.[4] Between 1796 and 1876 the lineal descendants of Andres, Francisco, and Ana Maria Romero or their assigns continuously claimed all of the balance of the lands within the grant. By 1876 the grant had a population of approximately 1500 inhabitants and was owned by more than 300 persons, All of the owners except 29 actually resided upon the premises, The owners cultivated the individual parcels which they occupied, About one-half of the claimants were descendants of children of Diego Romero and the other half had acquired their interests by purchase from such descendants.[5]

On January 17, 1876 the owners of the grant petitioned[6] Surveyor General Henry M. Atkinson, seeking the confirmation of the claim. For some unknown reason, no action was taken on the claim until after the owners filed a supplemental petition. This supplemental petition was filed on December 12, 1887 and listed the names of 302 claimants and stated, in more detail, the basis of their claim. Surveyor General George W. Julian carefully investigated the claim and was of the opinion that the signatures of Governor Mogollon and the other officials connected with the concession were genuine. Therefore, in his report dated March 5, 1888, he recommended the grant be confirmed by Congress “subject to the rights of the United States to any minerals[7] found in the land, leaving its owners to adjust their respective rights according to their own wishes and convenience”.

Notwithstanding Julian’s favorable report, Congress failed to act upon the claim prior to the transfer of jurisdiction over the confirmation of land grants to the Court of Private Land Claims. On July 18, 1892 Juan de Dios Romero, for himself and all other heirs, successors and legal representatives of Cristobal de la Serna, filed suit[8] against the United States in that tribunal. The United States Attorney, having no special defense, filed a general answer which merely put the plaintiff’s allegations in issue. Following the trial of the action, the Court, in its decision[9] dated August 30, 1892, found the grant to be complete and perfect and, therefore, confirmed title thereto in the heirs, successors and assigns and legal representatives of Cristobal de la Serna.

Deputy Surveyor John H. Walker surveyed the grant in April, 1894 and his work showed that it contained 22,232.57 acres. A patent for such amount was issued on January 19. 1903.[10]

[1] Archive No. 830 (Mss., Records of the A.N.M.).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Archive No. 759 (Mss., Records of the A.N.M.).

[4] S. Exec, Doc. No. 125, 50th Cong, 2d Sess., 4‑5 (1889).

[5] Ibid., 23‑24

[6] The Cristobal de la Serna Grant, No.158 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[7] Under Spanish and Mexican law all minerals were re­served as a prerogative of the sovereign. Mining rights could be acquired by miners under the Royal Mining Ordinance of May 22, 1783. Rockwell, Spanish and Mexican Land Law, 50 (1851). Section 4 of the Act of July 22, 1854 provided that “none of the provisions of this Act shall extend to mineral ... or lands settled on and occupied for purposes of trade and commerce and not for agriculture.…” 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, 10 Stat. 308 (1854). Julian undoubtedly interpreted this provision as a limitation of his authority to recommend the relinquishment of any mineral rights under Section 8 of that Act.

[8] Romero v. United States, No, 21 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[9] Journal 43‑45 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[10] The Cristobal de la Serna Grant, No 158 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).