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La Vara: New Mexico’s Yardstick
By Michael Miller
On December 27, 1888 the Surveyor General for the Territory of New Mexico, George Julian, publicly proclaimed that, “ninety per cent of the land entries in the territory were fraudulent.” A land title study conducted by the New Mexico State Planning Office in 1971 uncovered evidence showing numerous problems with land titles. This study concluded that two out of three land title transfers in the northern counties of the state were in need of either a quiet title suit or other corrective work. New Mexico has long been known for its unorthodox land history and has been plagued in modern times by “land problems” which can be traced to different philosophies in land tenure and the systems of measurement used in the past.
The first people to inhabit New Mexico were hunters and gatherers. They knew no boundaries as we know them today. Indigenous people learned to domesticate animals; some groups became sedentary and agriculture began to play a more important role in their daily lives. Many of these ancient people settled in the fertile valleys of the Rio Grande and they became our Pueblo culture. Boundaries became more defined so that hunting, gathering, timber and other land usage was for the benefit of all members of the pueblo. Ownership of agricultural lands could be held by the clan or family and the customs of possession varied from pueblo to pueblo.
The arrival of the Spanish to Nuevo México and the Southwest brought European methods of measurement and land ownership. Many initial units of measurement were based on the length of un brazo (an arm) or una pierna (a leg) or the distance a man could walk in a specific length of time. At the dawn of Europe’s New World discovery period in the late 15th century, nearly every kingdom in Spain had an independent system of measurement that was not standardized, and only vaguely resembled the official standards in Castile. In the late 16th century, some order was introduced by royal decree and this official system was brought to the New World by Spanish officials and the settlers who eventually entered New Mexico.
When Juan de Oñate arrived in New Mexico in 1598, he brought with him 129 soldier-colonists with the primary mission to colonize and create permanent settlements in New Mexico. To accomplish this task, Oñate and other Spanish officials relied on the system of measurement governed by royal decree.
First called the vara of Burgos, the system was developed by an inter-communal association of foresters called Hermandad de los Pinares (Brotherhood of the Pines). The meetings of the association were held in the village of Canicosa in the province of Burgos in Spain. It was attended by elected officials called procuradores from each village in the association. The organization harvested and marketed the timber in the forests within the province of Burgos. By the year 1480, the vecinos in this communal organization and their families had accumulated substantial wealth which was shared equally among the members of the association. Later their system of measurement became more widely accepted and the name was shortened to “vara.” The vara provided a system of linear measurement for Spanish officials to measure and distribute lands, lay out buildings and towns and conduct other official duties.
The vara was the equivalent of 32.909 inches by today’s standards. The vara itself was made of heavy oak and was divided accurately into four sections by brass studs. These sections represented the reach of extended fingers and thumb or the hand’s breadth. The extreme right section was again divided into two spaces roughly equivalent to the breadth of two‑fingers. These lengths may be compared, in general, to the yard, foot and inch of today.
Large distances such as land grants were measured using the legua (league). The legua was approximately 5,000 varas or 2.59699 miles in length. An additional unit — the cordel (cord) — measured a variety of lineal distances and terrains. The cordel represented several different measurements in the Spanish system ranging from an estadio cordel (69 varas) to a cordel of fifty varas as well as the cordel estadal of 10 varas.
The Spanish government issued grants of land to its citizens, encouraging settlement and colonization of the frontiers. Grants were also issued to many of the Pueblos. To understand the land tenure system implemented by the Spaniards. In the Spanish system, land was held in a complex form of tenure involving individual and community rights. Individuals owned farm plots, but they were often incorporated into a cooperative system, especially in the management of irrigation waters. Community needs had to be considered in all land transfers. This system provided for community subsistence and all these factors were applied to the use and value of the land. Although the Spanish government issued private grants to individuals who agreed to cultivate the land, raise livestock, and attract settlers, justification for individual grants usually included recognition for specific services performed on behalf of the crown.
A third class of landholding known as small-holdings claims were also issued. These parcels were usually not conveyed by a formal grant but instead, were given by oral agreement with little or no official documentation. About one third of the population in colonial New Mexico resided on these small tracts of land which were primarily used for small scale farming. Lacking today’s land measurement standards, officials relied on the use of actual landmarks on the surface of the earth, as well as established boundaries of adjoining land held by others to define the periphery of designated areas. For this reason, descriptions of land often read as follows:
A certain tract of land bounded on the south by Ojo del Cuervo, following its cordillera to Ojo de Chico, on the east by Cerro de Pedernal, on the north by Ojo del Cibolo, and on the west by la altura de la Sierra.
Spanish methods of the time lacked the accuracy of more technical systems of recording. The procedure to obtain a Spanish or Mexican grant required a written petition to the governor describing the area. This was followed by an investigation by the local alcalde (mayor) who reported his findings to the governor. If the governor was satisfied with the results of the report, a title of possession was drawn up stating the limits of the land granted.
A ceremony of possession followed this procedure. The alcalde with two witnesses accompanied the grantees to the site of the land grant. The grantees performed ceremonial acts of possession such as pulling up weeds, scattering earth, throwing stones and other acts, all the while giving thanks to God and the King. The completion of the ceremony resulted in the issuance of a written document that described the method of delivery, the boundaries of the grant and the sovereign’s reason for giving the land. In order to obtain title the grantee was required to live on the land and develop it for approximately four years. If these conditions were met, the alcalde issued the final papers. Unfortunately for the heirs of many land grants in New Mexico, the submission of final papers was often ignored.
There are several intriguing examples in New Mexico’s land conveyance history illustrating the use of Spanish measurement techniques and include the use of the vara, legua, and cordel. These incidents are preserved in the Spanish archives of New Mexico and serve to illustrate the importance of measurements in the daily life of colonial New Mexico and provide insight into the use of standard procedures that were followed at the time.
Once such incident took place in 1818, when Juan de Aguilar petitioned the Governor of New Mexico, Don Facundo Melgares, for a legal hearing. Aguilar charged that Don Vincente Villanueva, the alcalde of El Vado, made certain measurements at the Pueblo of Pecos in violation of accepted rules. The petition stated that Villanueva began measurements at the edge of town, instead of at the cross in the center of the cemetery, which was the custom followed at the time. Aguilar also accused Villanueva of using a cordel of 100 varas in length instead of the standard fifty. This, Aguilar insisted, resulted in the extension of the boundaries of the Pueblo legua into the property owned by the plaintiff and his neighbors. Aguilar asked the governor to rule on the correct procedure for making measurements of this nature. Villanueva defended his action to the Governor as follows:
He stated that no injury had resulted to anyone from the use of the 100 vara cord, because he had dampened it and stretched it out between two stakes, to offset what shrinkage it may have suffered while it had been coiled. In his testimony Villanueva related that he had presented the cordel to Aguilar and his sons who had again stretched it until it broke. Villanueva justified the use of the 100 vara cordel claiming that if he had used a shorter one it would have been unjust to the Indians because of the irregular and broken character of the ground. Concerning the proper location to begin the measurements, the alcalde stated that he knew it was the custom to begin a survey at the cross in the cemetery, but this he claimed was not a fixed rule. Villanueva’s reason for beginning the measurement at the edge of town was due to the location of the church. In all pueblos except Pecos, the church was located in the center of the village. Unfortunately for future generations of land grant heirs, the governor took no action on this case.
In a similar case at the Pueblo of Jemez, the alcalde Salvador Montoya measured a full league at the request of Rafael Garcia. He began the measurement at the church measuring the legua with a hair rope of 50 varas. Garcia protested the measurement because the legua extended into his property 100 varas. The rope was examined and it was discovered that it had stretched almost a vara. The pueblo agreed that 50 varas of the overlap of 100 should be allowed to Garcia. Afterwards, a question arose between the alcalde and the parties involved concerning payment. Garcia was not satisfied and demanded that the 5,000 varas in question be measured with poles instead of a rope. The Native Americans insisted that the rope measurement was accurate. The alcalde petitioned the governor for an opinion. The governor responded that it was none of his business and added that Montoya should consult an attorney and follow the schedule of fees in force in his district. Once again, no decision was made by the governor.
Measurements of land were not the only uses for the vara in colonial New Mexico. Architectural measurements were frequent and the Church documented the dimensions of the missions built in the province on a regular basis. In 1776, Fray Francisco Antanasio Dominguez toured the province of Nuevo Mexico and inspected the missions. The Santa Cruz church was the largest he visited and he described it in his report in this way:
The church has adobe walls more than a vara thick and its appellation is the Holy Cross. The main door faces due east. From the door to the mouth of the transept, for there is a real one, it is thirty-three varas long, nine wide, and ten high to the molding. The transept is seven varas from the aforesaid opening to the first step, or riser, of the sanctuary, one hundred and fifty varas wide, and more than a vara higher than the nave because of the clerestory, as described in other places. The ascent to the sanctuary consists of three little stairs made of beams, and they do not encroach on the transept since they are embedded in the well of the sanctuary itself, which is seven varas square.
The vara remained as the primary unit of measurement in New Mexico, but in 1846 the real confusion began. When New Mexico became a territory of the United States, it became necessary to use the American system of measurement. The transition was awkward and in some cases confusing, especially when the measurement involved land conveyance. Many nuevomexicanos of mid-nineteenth century were familiar with the American system of land tenure and the methods of measurement used, but the philosophies were in contrast to the traditional Spanish way.
The United States land tenure system and linear measurement brought west to Spanish, Mexican and Native New Mexico was dependent upon the use of an imaginary grid plotted on paper. The physical features of the land were then correlated by the use of technical processes of surveying, and cartography. Through this system, land became a precisely measurable entity divided into exact parcels which could be located on a map. Precise record keeping and technology were essential to the success of the system. Like its Old World predecessors, the Spanish system was concerned with the social and political aspects of land. Land as a dimension of society was more important than economics.
During the 19th century, the General Land Office of the federal government established a program for surveying and distributing frontier lands to American settlers. In New Mexico, the GLO also created a mechanism for dealing with Spanish and Mexican land grants. Known as the Office of the Surveyor General and later as the Court of Private Land Claims, these judicial bodies ruled on the status of 282 land grants encompassing 34,653,340 claimed acres. The rejection of many of these land grants by the U.S. courts can be traced to the contrasts in Spanish and United States methods of land tenure and measurement. The repercussions and evidence of those contrasts are still present in New Mexico land transfers today.
Although the Territorial Legislature of New Mexico attempted the passage of “An Act for the Adoption, Definition, and Establishment of Standard Weights and Measures for the Territory of New Mexico,” in 1851 the law fell short of its intended purpose. The legislature proceeded to give equivalent American measures for all the Spanish and Mexican units except the vara about which it said nothing. It seemed impossible at the time for officials to merge the two systems.
After more than 160 years of United States occupation, the influence of the Spanish vara can be easily recognized in New Mexico today. The shape of farmlands, for example, is often rectangular as opposed to the square grids in the American system. The fields are long, often three times longer than they are wide, and frequently the plots are adjacent to the water source used for irrigation. Family garden plots are still known as suertes (lands separated by landmarks) which measure 400 by 200 varas.
In 1980, Attorney Em Hall and 10-year-old Kenge Ruiz of Pecos set out with a rope that measured 277 feet in length. Their purpose on that cold Thanksgiving Day was to measure the elusive Spanish league at Pecos Pueblo. After a full day of measuring the rugged and majestic terrain, they arrived at the property of Steve Roybal. Roybal, eyeing this man and boy with the long, strange-looking rope asked in Spanish, “What are you doing?” “Agrimensando,” (surveying) the two replied as they stretched the final 100 varas across his field. On that day in 1980, a man and a boy shot the Pecos Pueblo league for what may be the last time. The next day, for the sake of history, Hall re-measured the 277 foot rope, which was battered, torn, and abraded after its workout the day before. The rope measured 296 feet long. The same measurement that eluded Villanueva many years ago had escaped this modern day pioneer, as well. There is an old New Mexico dicho that is still used today, “peso y medida mantiene en paz la vida.” “Weight and measure keep the peace and make life a pleasure.” So it was for the vara, the yardstick of the Nuevomexicano.
Council of Trujillo, Sept. 22, 1536, AAT, 1-3-78, #1.
Land Records of New Mexico, NMSRCA, Pueblo of Jemez, SG (A), Roll 7.
Land Records of New Mexico, NMSRCA, Pueblo of Pecos, SG (F), Roll 7.
Adams, Eleanor B. & Fray Angelico Chavez, The Missions of New Mexico, 1776. UNM Press, 1956.
Represa, Amando Las comunidades de villa y tierra castellanes: Soria. Celtiberia, #57.
Twitchell, Ralph E. Spanish Archives of New Mexico. Torch Press, 1914.