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Elena Gallegos Grant

by J. J. Bowden

Two hundred and forty-four persons, claiming to be the owners of a tract of land known as the Ranchos de Albuquerque Grant, petitioned[1] Surveyor General George W. Julian on July 30, 1887 requesting him to examine and recommend their claim to Congress for confirmation. While the petitioners could not produce any evidence of a grant from the sovereign, they offered twenty-two ancient documents, running back as far as the year 1724. Most of these instruments were disconnected deeds and wills, but one was a confirmation of Juan Griego’s title to a tract of land within the grant by Governor Juan Domingo de Bustamante in November, 1724. All of the claimants were descendants of thirteen persons mentioned in one or more of the documents, and who apparently were the original grantees. The claimants asserted that the grant covered all of the lands embraced within the following boundaries:

On the north, the Lomita de Luis Garcia, which also marks the south boundary of the Town of Alameda Grant; on the east, the Sandia Mountains; on the south, three stones, placed as land marks by the Judicial Authorities in 1845; and on the west, the Rio Grande.

The entire tract was subdivided into small narrow strips of land, many of which were only a few varas wide, and ran from the river to the mountains. These small holdings had been held and occupied by the claimants and their ancestors for generations.

After considering the documentary evidence and taking a considerable amount of oral testimony, Julian, On December 27, 1887, reported[2] to Congress that the claimants were the descendants of the thirteen parties named in the ancient documents, and they resided in six settlements or ranchos which had been located on the grant “as far back towards the year 1724 as memory and tradition can track them.” He noted that the claimants were very poor, and were scarcely able to raise the small assessment which they had levied upon themselves to pay the expenses of prosecuting their claim. He also pointed out that it would be impossible for the claimants to find any relief in the homestead or pre‑emption laws of the United States. Therefore, in order to protect these bona fide settlers from further expense and possible intrusion by “homesteaders,” he heartily recommended the confirmation of the grant to the petitioners, subject to a reservation of mineral rights by the United States. He closed his report with a self-serving statement that “Spain and Mexico would have undoubtedly confirmed it, for both these sovereignties recognized it in fact.”

Since Congress had not acted upon Julian’s approval and recommendation, Thomas C. Gutierrez, for himself and on behalf of the more than three hundred heads of families living on the grant and claiming interests in said lands as heirs and lineal descendants of the parties named in their title papers, filed suit in the Court of Private Land Claims on February 17, 1893,[3] seeking the confirmation of the grant, which allegedly was based upon a royal grant made sometime prior to 1724, and covered approximately 40,000 acres.

Meanwhile, Donaciano Gurule filed a suit in the Court of Private Land Claims[4] on November 28, 1892, seeking the confirmation of the Elena Gallegos Grant. The claim was based upon an original Spanish document, which showed that a royal grant had been made to Diego Montoya by Governor Diego de Vargas in 1694. Montoya lost the title papers to the grant, and, in order to avoid future problems, his son Antonio Montoya applied to Governor Jose Chacon Medina Salazar y Villaseñor in 1712 for the reissuance of the grant, which was done. Shortly thereafter juridical possession of the premises was given to Diego Montoya by Juan Gonzales, Alcalde of the Villa of Albuquerque. Diego Montoya presented his title papers to Governor Felix Martinez in 1716 for his examination. Martinez, who was passing through tire area on a routine visit, approved his title, and Gonzales redelivered possession to Diego Montoya on October 10, 1716. The Act of Possession described the grant as being bounded:

On the north, by a small ruin; on the east, by the Sandia Mountains; on the south, by some lagoons which are contiguous to the walls of Jorge; and on the west, by the Rio Grande.

Sometime thereafter the grant was conveyed by Antonio Montoya to Elena Gallegos, who died testate in 1731, and under her will devised the grant to her son, Antonio Gurule. Antonio Gurule died testate in 1761; he left the grant to his nine children. The plaintiff claimed an interest in the grant as one of the legal representatives of Diego Montoya, and estimated that the grant contained 70,000 acres. Since the two suits obviously covered the same land and obviously were based upon the same title, the court consolidated them on November 27, 1893.[5]

The consolidated case came up for trial on November 28, 1893 at which time the plaintiffs introduced their title papers and oral testimony, showing the possession and occupation of portions of the grant by the plaintiffs and their ancestors from “time out of mind.” The government conceded that the plaintiffs’ documentary evidence was genuine and the bona fides of their possession, however, it had a serious question concerning the location of the east boundary of the grant. It contended that the line should be located at the foot of the Sandia Mountain, while the plaintiffs argued that it should be fixed at the top of the mountain. Since the 30,000 acres of land embraced within the disputed area were covered with timber, it was extremely valuable.

In its Opinion dated December 1, 1893,[6] the court called attention to the fact that the question involved in this suit was of no small importance since many of the grants pending before it contained similar calls. It also pointed out that this was a case of first impression insofar as boundaries of Spanish and Mexican grants were concerned. Continuing, it noted that it would be difficult to fix the exact point which marked the bottom or foot of a mountain, but it would be no problem to locate its crest. Thus, it seemed more likely that the granting authorities, who undoubtedly intended for the description to be definite and unambiguous, meant the crest when they designated a mountain or a hill as a boundary. The court relied heavily on the decision of the California Supreme Court in the Ornbaum Case,[7] where the description in a homestead declaration calling for a mountain was objected to as being indefinite.

 The California Court, in upholding the description, held:

It would be a novel proposition of law in this state that a mountain or range of mountains is not a definite boundary of land. It is as much so as a tree, a rock, or a stream a half mile wide, in which the boundary would go ad medium filum aquae. The boundaries usually go to the middle of the natural object named, except in the case of a range of mountains, when it goes to the comb or dividing line of the ridge.

The Court of Private Land Claims was also impressed with the fact that the principal meaning of the word ‘sierra’ is a saw. In closing, the court held:

The term may be applied, in common parlance, to entire mountains, smoothly rounded, as to those with rugged ridges, but when employed in relation to a boundary point or line, there can be no room for doubt that the “cumbria,” apex or summit is intended as the true and precise definition of the land mark.

The government appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court, but, on February 1, 1897, moved for and secured its dismissal.[8]

Once the Court of Private Land Claims’ decision became final, a contract was awarded to Deputy Surveyor George H. Pradt for the surveying of the grant. The survey, which was made between the eleventh and twentieth of May, 1898, covered 35,048.78 acres. A patent covering such land was issued on February 25, 1909 to the heirs, legal representatives, successors in interest and assigns of Diego Montoya and Elena Gallegos, his vendee, as against the United States of America.[9]



[1] The Ranchos de Albuquerque Grant, No. 156 (Mss. Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[2] S. Exec. Doc. No. 1, 50th Cong., 2nd Sess., 1‑61 (1888).

[3] Gutierrez v. United States, No. 106 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[4] Gurule v. United States, No. 51 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. I. Cl.).

[5] 2 Journal 27 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[6] 3 Journal 159 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[7] Ornbaum v. His Creditors, 61 Calif. 455 (1882).

[8] United States v. Gurule, 17 S. Ct. 1001, 41 L. Ed. 1185 (1897) mem.)

[9] (Stet.)