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John Scolly Grant

by J. J. Bowden

John Scolly and ten other persons petitioned Manuel Armijo, Governor of New Mexico, on March 27, 1843, seeking a grant covering a ten square league tract of land located in the valley formed at the junction of the Mora and Sapeyo Rivers. The petitioners stated that they needed the land to pasture flocks of Merino sheep which they proposed to introduce into New Mexico. They also proposed to establish textile mills and other industry on the grant for: 

… weaving wool and cotton, and other useful and necessary arts for the purpose of increasing its growth and wealth, as a population composed of laborious and enterprising men will remove want and misery from their families, an evil which afflicts our country and prevent serious disturbances by the laudable plan of establishing settlements on fertile lands, which will yield a return for the labor bestowed on it; and for this purpose we petition for the land above described. Your petitioners rely upon the justice of this request, as also the colonization law, and the Supreme decree subsequently published, allowing foreigners to acquire real estate in the republic.

 Armijo, without further proceedings, granted the request on the same day, subject to its setting apart of all pastures and watering places on the grant as commons. He then directed the Alcaldes of both Las Vegas and Mora to survey the grant and deliver possession thereof to the grantees. The grant was made subject to the express condition that if the grantees should fail to occupy and open the premises for cultivation within eighteen months, they would forfeit all their rights.

Due to the confusion created by the invasion of New Mexico by the Texas‑Santa Fe Expedition and the suspension of several grants of a similar nature which had been made by Armijo, Scolly and his associates were unable to secure legal possession of the land and, therefore, failed to occupy the grant within the prescribed eighteen month period. On December 4, 1844, Scolly and five of the original grantees petitioned Governor Mariano Martinez, who had succeeded Armijo, for the confirmation of the grant and advised the governor that they had ordered the livestock and equipment necessary to stock and develop the land and were ready to proceed with its colonization. Martinez referred the petition to the Prefect of the District of Santa Fe on December 5, 1844, for his recommendations concerning the advisability of granting the request. Prefect Antonio Sena returned the proceedings to the governor on December 18, 1844, recommending that the grant be revalidated. No further action appears to have been taken in the case until May 7, 1846, when Scolly and his five associates re-petitioned Armijo, who in the meantime had succeeded Martinez as governor, requesting the confirmation of the grant and delivery of possession. In order to avoid any difficulties with the inhabitants of the towns of Las Vegas and Mora, the petitioners suggested that the size of the grant be reduced from ten to five square leagues. They also requested that the grant cover all the lands within five leagues of a clump of cottonwood trees located at the junction of the rivers. The boundaries were to be measured in each of the cardinal directions from this central point. Armijo granted the land to the petitioners on the same day and directed the Alcalde of Las Vegas to place them in legal possession of as much land as in his opinion, they could cultivate. The grant was made subject to the following conditions First, the grantees were to occupy the grant and place it under cultivation within five years; second the pastures and watering places were to be set aside as commons; and finally, the pasturing of sheep within one league of the center of the cultivated area was forbidden. The previous grant was expressly nullified. By virtue of Armijo’s instructions, Jose Maria Montoya, the Alcalde of the town of Las Vegas, went to the grant on May 13, 1846, and sur­veyed the grant, which proceedings were described as follows:

I took the measurement stated in the grant made to the petitioners, which contains five square leagues, and having taken the grove of cottonwoods, which is situated on the banks of the Sapeyo, near the junction, as the center, where the selection was made for the settlement, I measured two and one half leagues towards the north, doing the same towards the east, south, and west, establishing as the boundary of the first the foot of the Gallinas Mountains, on the south, the Cejita Dulce, on the west, the Canon de la Jara.

Following the completion of the survey, Montoya delivered formal possession of the land to the six grantees.[1]

The grantees promptly moved to the grant and built a number of temporary shelters near the junction of the two rivers. After the Sapeyo River had been dammed and an irrigation system constructed, they placed a tract of some seventy-five to one hundred acres under cultivation. They also pastured and granted permission to Joab Houghton to pasture his stock on the grant. Later the grantees selected and established their individual ranchos upon different parts of the twenty-five league tract.[2]

On December 26, 1856, John Scolly and the other grantees petitioned the Surveyor General for the confirmation of the five league square tract of land described in the Act of Possession. Surveyor General William Pelham in a decision dated August 15, 1857, noted that the first petition asked for a grant of ten square leagues but in the third petition the quantity was reduced to five square leagues. Continuing, he pointed out while the grantees had requested only five square leagues they had been put in possession of five leagues square, which might appear to be more than they had requested or expected to receive. However, he called attention to the fact that several reliable and disinterested witnesses had testified that in New Mexico the terms “five square leagues” and “five leagues square” were synonymous. Notwithstanding all the confusion surrounding this issue, Pelham held: 

This point, however, is not material in deciding upon the case, as it will be seen, by reference to the grant made in 1846, that the Justice of the Peace is required to place the parties in possession of as much land “as, in their opinion, they can cultivate,” leaving the amount of land they were to receive entirely to their option. The Justice of the Peace, in accordance with the above order, measured off and placed the parties in possession of five leagues square of land ... and as there is no evidence to show that any objection was made, it is to be presumed that the action of the Justice of the Peace was approved, and that it was the intention to grant them five leagues square.

Pelham concluded the decision by finding the grant to be valid and made in accordance with the laws of Mexico. He, therefore, recommended its confirmation to the six original grantees—John Scolly, Augustin Duran, William Smith, James Giddings, Gregario Trujillo, and Francisco Romero.[3]

Upon receipt of Surveyor General Pelham’s decision, Congress referred the matter to the Senate’s Committee on Private Land Claims which carefully re‑examined the evidence. The committee interpreted the term cinco leguas cuadrados in the testimonio to mean five square leagues and not five leagues square. It further noted that while the grantees were put in possession of five leagues square or twenty-five square leagues, such possession was given by a local magistrate just two years before the acquisition of the territory by the United States. Therefore, the committee was of the opinion that the claim should be restricted to five square leagues.[4]

Congress accepted the recommendations of the Senate’s Committee on Private Land Claims and, by an Act approved on June 21, 1860,[5] confirmed the grant to the extent of five square leagues and authorized the grantees to locate the premises as a square body of land anywhere within the twenty-five square league tract.

In 1876 the Surveyor General was instructed by the General Land Office to survey the out boundaries the twenty-five league tract and instruct the owners of the John Scolly Grant to select their land. The grantees promptly filed a protest in which they denied the authority of Congress to limit the size of the grant and insisted that Congress reconsider the Act of Confirmation. Thereafter, the owners of the grant consistently refused to acquiesce in the reduction and contended that the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo protected their interest to the full extent of the grant.

In 1892, Frank Springer was retained to represent the owners of the grant. On April 7, 1892, he wrote to the Land Department and pointed out that the grantees had established their ranchos in different parts of the grant and that while the total area actually improved and occupied covered approximately five square leagues, it would be impossible to locate the five square leagues in a square tract which would embrace all the ranchos As a possible solution, he suggested that if the sons of one of the grantees filed a number of desert land entries covering their fathers’ ranchos, all of the other ranchos would fall within a square five league selection. By decision dated June 4, 1892, Secretary of Interior John W. Noble held that the grantees right to select a tract within the larger area was a privilege, and, if they had not selected their land by the time the government was ready to proceed with the survey, the grant should be treated as a “float” whose location could be established and fixed by the government’s surveyor after giving due regard to the character of the land and “improvements of the grantees.”[6] In response to the decision, the owners of the grant on September 13, 1892, selected the following described tract: 

A square containing five square leagues, located upon a center which shall be one mile east and three-fourths of a mile north of the point taken for the center of said grant in the U.S. Government survey heretofore made of the out boundaries of the twenty-five league tract, said last mentioned point being a certain cottonwood tree within a grove of cottonwoods about one and a half mile above the junction of the Mora and Sapello Rivers.

A patent covering this 25,000 acre tract was issued to the heirs and legal representatives of the original grantees on February 3, 1893.[7]


[1] H. R. Report No. 457, 35th Cong., 1st Sess., 168-173 (1858).

[2] H. R. Report No. 321, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., 174-179 (1860).

[3] The John Scolly Grant, No. 9 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[4] S. Report No. 228, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., 1 (1860).

[5] An act to confirm certain private land claims in the Territory of New Mexico, Chap. 167, 12 Stat. 71 (1860).

[6] The John Scolly Grant, No. 9 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[7] Ibid.