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Embudo Grant

by J. J. Bowden

Juan Marquis, Francisco Martin, and Lozaro de Cordova had an audience with Governor Juan Domingo de Bustamante on July 17, 1725 during which they presented their petition for a grant covering a triangular tract of land at Embudo de Picuris. In this petition, the petitioners stated that they were poor and needed the land to meet their obligations to their families. The tract which they requested was described as being situated about three leagues west of the Pueblo of Picuris and bounded:          

On the east, by a dry arroyo; on the south, by the Sebastian Martin Grant, and on the northwest, by the Rio Bravo del Norte.

Bustamante, being sympathetic to the plight of the applicants, granted their request and directed the Alcalde of Santa Fe to examine the land and if the grant would not prejudice the rights of any third party to deliver royal possession of the premises to the grantees. In obedience to the governor’s order, Alcalde Jose Miguel de la Vega y Coca met with the grantees and the representatives of the Indians of the Pueblo of Picuris on July 19, 1725. The Indians protested the issuance of the grant on the grounds that they used the lands as a pasturage for their horses and had cultivated a portion of the grant. After carefully examining the grant, Vega held that the protest was not supported by the evidence. Whereupon, the Indians became very arrogant and clearly manifested that the protest had not been made in good faith but merely to prevent the settlement of the lands by Spaniards. Having overruled the protest, Vega proceeded to place the grantees in legal possession of the grant. They promptly settled upon the grant, formed the settlement of Embudo, and constructed round watch towers at the corners of the settlement to prevent surprise Indian attacks.

The heirs of Francisco Martin appeared before Jose Campo Redondo, Alcalde of Santa Cruz, on May 2, 1786 and requested him to give them a certified copy of their titulo since the original had become torn and dilapidated through the ravages of time and ill use. In accordance with the custom of the time, Alcalde Redondo unhesitatingly complied with the request. This instrument was filed[1] in the Surveyor General’s Office on May 5, 1863, but for some unexplained reason, the owners of the grant did not request an investigation into the validity of the claim at that time.

Antonio Griego, on behalf of himself and the other claimants of the grant, filed suit[2] in the Court of Private Land Claims against the United States on March 2, 1893, for the recognition of their title to the estimated 25,000 acres covered by the grant. The United States raised no special defenses and, in its answer, merely put the allegations contained in the petition into issue. The case came up for trial on June 10, 1898, at which time Griego offered the certified copy of the titulo in evidence. The government’s attorney objected on the grounds that an alcalde had no authority to “perpetuate evidence against the crown.” The court permitted the introduction of the instrument subject to the government’s objection. Griego then offered oral evidence pertaining to the location of the boundaries of the grant and the continuous occupation of the settlement of Embudo for over a century.

On July 5, 1898, the court in its majority opinion[3] held that the plaintiff’s muniment of title was regular in form and, if admissible in evidence, would form the basis of a claim which it would confirm. However, since an alcalde was not the legal custodian of the archives in which expedientes were usually deposited, he had no power to perpetuate evidence of title nor was such a certified copy evidence that a valid grant had in fact been made. While recognizing that it was a common practice in New Mexico for alcaldes to make copies of old legal instruments, the court held that such instruments were not admissible as evidence. In closing, the court stated that since the plaintiffs had failed to produce either the expediente or testimonio of the grant, it was obligated, under the doctrine of the Hayes case[4] to reject the claim. Chief Justice Joseph R. Reed and Judge Wilbur F. Stone dissented on the grounds that the court had confirmed the Town of Bernalillo Grant on “substantially the same character of evidence which the court now rejects.”

Griego appealed the decision to the Supreme Court which dismissed[5] it on March 19, 1900 because he had failed to have the cause docketed in conformity with the rules of the court.

[1] The Embudo Grant, No. F-91 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[2] Griego v. United States, No. 173 (Mss. Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[3] 4 Journal 14 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. CI.).

[4] Hayes v. United States, 170 U.S. 637 (1898). This case held that the act creating the Court of Private Land Claims prohibited the court from allowing any claim which did not “appear to be upon a title lawfully and regularly derived from the government of Spain or Mexico …” This manifest limitation upon the power of the court in passing upon the validity of an alleged complete grant requires that the court shall not adjudge in favor of validity unless satisfied from the inherent evidence contained in the grant, or otherwise, of an essential prerequisite of validity, viz., that the authority of the granting officer or body to convey the public domain.

[5] Griego v. United States, 20 S. Ct. 1027; 44 L. Ed. 1221 (1900) (mem.).