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Las Animas Grant

by J. J. Bowden

Cornelio Vigil and Ceran St. Vrain, two of the most prominent residents of Taos, petitioned the Governor of New Mexico, Manuel Armijo, on December 8, 1843 stating that they desired:

to encourage the agriculture of the country to such a degree as to establish its flourishing condition, and finding ourselves with but little land to accomplish the object, we have examined and registered with great care the land embraced within the Huerfano, Cucharas, Apishapa Rivers to their junction with the Arkansas and Las Animas Rivers, and finding sufficient fertile land for cultivation, an abundance of pasture and water, and all that is required for a flourishing establishment, and for raising cattle and sheep, and being satisfied therewith, and certain that it is public land, we have not hesitated to apply to your excellency, praying you to be pleased, by an act of justice, to grant to each one of us a tract of land in the above mentioned locality, protesting that in the coming spring we will commence operations, which will be continued until the colony shall be established and settled...

On the following day Armijo, in an order written in the margin of the petition, directed the Alcalde of Taos to deliver possession of the above described premises to the petitioners and stated that the grant was being made by the government pursuant to its program of fostering and encouraging agriculture and the arts.[1] Vigil and St. Vrain appeared before Alcalde Jose Miguel Sanchez, on Christmas Day, 1843, and requested him to place them in legal possession of the grant pursuant to the governor’s decree and to give them a document evidencing the delivery of such possession in order to complete and perfect their title. Sanchez, on the following day, posted public notice of his plans to deliver possession of the grant to the petitioners. Since no one protested, Sanchez, together with the grantees and his official witness, proceeded to the grant on January 2, 1844, where he established and monumented the boundaries of the grant. The field notes describe the grant as:

Commencing on the line (north of the lands of Beaubien and Miranda) at one league east of the Las Animas River a mound was erected thence following on a direct line to the Arkansas River, one league below the junction of the Las Animas and the Arkansas, the second mound was erected on the banks of said Arkansas River; and following up the Arkansas to one and one-half leagues below the junction of the San Carlos River, a third mound was erected; thence following in a direct line to the south, until it reaches the foot of the first mountain, two leagues west of the Huerfano River, the fourth mound was erected: and continuing on a direct line to the top of the mountain to the source of the aforementioned Huerfano, the fifth mound was erected; and following the summit of said mountain in an easterly direction until it intersects the line of the lands of Miranda and Beaubien, the sixth mound was erected; from thence following the dividing line of the lands of Miranda and Beaubien in an easterly direction, I came to the first mound which was erected.

Following the completion of the survey, Sanchez performed the customary ceremonies necessary to deliver legal possession of the above described land to the grantees.[2]

The Las Animas Grant was the most significant of a series of frontier grants made by the last governor of New Mexico to insulate the interior settlements from intrusions by the gringos and hostile Indians. It took real courage to settle upon the distant and unprotected frontiers New Mexico. Only a policy of liberal land grants could lure settlers into taking the risk. The Santa Fe Trail — the solitary communication link between the United States and Mexico — entered the grant after crossing the Arkansas River at Bent’s Fort, which was the most important trading post on the trail. Bent’s Fort had been established in 1832 by Bent and St. Vrain. This vast tract of well‑watered grass land located on the principal trade route and adjacent to its chief trading post made it a prize possession. The true import of the grant is evidenced by the fact that less than two months after the delivery of possession, an undivided two thirds interest in the grant was conveyed to Charles Bent a partner of St. Vrain; Eugene Leitensdorfer, a prominent Santa Fe trader and merchant; Manuel Armijo, Governor of New Mexico and the granting official; and Donaciano Vigil, Territorial Secretary under Armijo. This combination of the most important political and commercial leaders in New Mexico indicates the potential value of the concession.[3]

The owners of the grant promptly put the lands to use. From 1844 to 1847, livestock numbering from fifteen to sixteen hundred head were being pastured on the grant. In the spring of 1847, William Bent and a number of his employees settled on the Purgatoire River which is also known as the Las Animas River and opened a number of fields. However, before the crops could be harvested, the Indians forced the colonists to abandon their improvements. With the permission of St. Vrain, Richard L. Wooten attempted to form a second colony on the Huerfano River in 1852, but this endeavor also failed in the spring of 1854 when the Indians killed seven or eight of the inhabitants and drove the balance off the land.[4]

After the change of sovereignty, the American Government instructed the owners of Spanish and Mexican land grants to present their claims to the Surveyor General’s Office for investigation. Since Cornelio Vigil had been killed during the Taos Revolt of 1847 his heirs joined with St. Vrain, on June 4, 1857, in a petition[5] to the Sur­veyor General seeking the confirmation of the Las Animas Grant. On September 17, 1857, Surveyor General William. Pelham approved the grant and recommended its confirmation by Congress.[6]

Pelham’s reports on fourteen New Mexico land grants, including the Las Animas Grant, were referred to the House’s Committee on Private Land Claims during the first session of the Thirty Sixth Congress for its recommendations in connection with House Bill No. 195, which, if passed, would confirm such grants. Chairman Sandidge, on April 2, 1860, reported that it had given the claims the best examination it could but:

… I must say this examination has been confined entirely to what seems to be the principal papers in each case; having no time to scrutinize the evidence and the application as made by the Surveyor General of the Spanish and Mexican laws and usages to each of them in detail. Nor will I ever be in the power hereafter of any committee of this House to make such an examination as will be entirely satisfactory, should these claims be allowed to accumulate before Congress. It is now ten years since the Territory of New Mexico was acquired and nearly four years since the Surveyor General of the Territory was authorized to examine and report to us the private land claims of its people; and although protected as is supposed by treaty, in the enjoyment of their property no man in that Territory, without some action by Congress, can say that his title, however acquired, would hold against any claimants which might purchase his lands from the Government.

In view of such action, the people of New Mexico are not at all pleased to he compelled by law to submit their muniments of title to one man, whose fitness for surveying is not supposed to qualify him particularly for discharging the duties of a judge, and. yet whose opinions are expected to control to a great extent the final action of Congress upon their claims.

Because of this, and that Congress, if it shall reserve the right itself of passing judgment, must rely upon the report of ... (the examination authority) … .

Of the fourteen claims proposed to be confirmed by the bill herewith reported, the area, of but five of them are either stated or estimated. They are for one league, four leagues, five leagues, seven thousand six hundred acres and about twenty thousand acres.

Whether the other claims embrace a less or greater amount is and cannot be made known from the documentary evidence of title forwarded by the Surveyor General.

The grant in each case refers to some stream, hill, mountain, valley or other known natural object for boundary.

In conclusion the Committee recommended the passage of the bill but suggested the formation of a three‑man commission to investigate and pass upon all other pending private land claims in New Mexico.[7] However, the grant did not receive such favorable treatment at the hands of the Senate’s Committee on Private Land Claims. In a report dated May 19, 1860, Chairman Judah P. Benjamin recommended the confirmation of each of the grants with two exceptions. In regard to the vigil and St. Vrain Grant, he wrote:[8]

The second exception made by your Committee is in relation to Claim No. 17, which the Surveyor General recommends in favor of Cornelio Vigil and Ceran St. Vrain for the full extent embraced in a survey annexed to the papers. The quantity of land embraced in the survey does not appear; but by a close examination of some of the distances shown, and a rough calculation of the others, there cannot be less than one hundred square leagues, and possibly much more ... . If this demarcation of boundaries by the Justice of the Peace had been afterwards brought to the notice of the Governor, and approved by him, a grave question would still remain as to his power to concede entire districts of country without the authorization of the provincial assembly or the Mexican Congress; but your committee finds no proof in the papers of approval of this action by any officer superior to the Justice of the Peace, and as his power clearly could not go beyond the execution of the Governor’s orders, your committee cannot concur in the recommendation of the Surveyor General that this grant be confirmed for the full extent claimed. It is, however, plain that these parties are entitled to have their title confirmed to some extent ... . Under the Mexican Colonization Law of 1824 and the regulations of 1828, the extreme quantity allowed to be granted by the Governor to any colonist was eleven square leagues. In the absence of any other guide, your committee suggests that a restriction of the confirmation to an extent of eleven square leagues to each claimant would he the utmost they could fairly expect … .

The claimants vigorously protested this strict interpretation of the law, pointing out that New Mexican grants were made by Mexican authorities as being bounded by certain natural objects without regard to any specified quantity of land and that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed to inviolably protect the property rights of former Mexican citizens and, therefore, Congress had no authority to reduce the size of the grant to twenty-two square leagues. Senator Benjamin remained adamant in his stand to limit the grant to twenty-two leagues, but the claimants finally were able to secure an agreement from Benjamin that if they were able to show that the Act of Possession had been approved by Armijo a confirmation of the grant to the extent of twenty-two square leagues would not stop them from seeking the confirmation of the balance of the grant. This agreement also provided that any act of confirmation would provide that the twenty-two leagues to be selected by the claimants would be in addition to any tracts which the claimants had previously sold to bona fide settlers. It seems that such tracts aggregated more than twenty-two leagues and unless this proviso was incorporated in the act, the claimants would have nothing left to remunerate them for their expenditures in connection with the settlement and improvement of the grant.[9] Of course, these agreements were not binding upon Congress. Congress confirmed the grant to the extent of twenty-two leagues by Act[10] approved June 21, 1860; however, in so approving the grant Congress failed to include either of the above agreements. The claimants promptly called the omission to Congress’ attention and submitted a “recently discovered Document” signed by Donaciano Vigil which purported to show that Armijo had been purported officially notified of the Act of Possession and had approved same. This document was presented to fulfill the primary agreement with Senator Benjamin and in an effort to secure the confirmation of the balance of the grant. The claimants also contended that the Las Animas Grant was an empresario grant and such grants were not subject to the eleven square league limitation. They also filed a survey of the grant which had been made by Thomas Means. This survey showed that the grant contained 922 square leagues or 4,096,345 acres. Unfortunately for the claimants of the grant, the outbreak of the Civil War put an end to further Congressional consideration of the matter.[11]

On February 25, 1869 Congress passed an Amendatory Act[12] which excluded all of the claims held by the homesteaders and purchasers from the twenty-two square league tract, but no action was taken to confirm the approximately four million additional acres claimed to have been contained in the original grant. Congress’ failure to confirm the balance of the grant was undoubtedly a disappointment to the owners of the grant. Notwithstanding the patenting of the twenty-two leagues or 97,514.53 acres which the owners of the grant had selected within the exterior boundaries of the grant, they persistently sought Congressional confirmation of all of the remaining land covered by the original concession. However, for nearly a quarter of a century, their plea fell on deaf ears.

One can only surmise the jubilation which the creation of the Court of Private Land Claims brought to the speculators who, for mere pittances, systematically had purchased the interests of the heirs of the original grantees to this four million acre claim. On November 4, 1892 James Corrigan, who had acquired an undivided interest equivalent to 45,000 acres under the grant, filed suit[13] in the Court of Private Land Claims seeking the confirmation of his interest. Shortly thereafter, four additional suits[14] were filed by other persons asserting claims by purchase from the various heirs of Cornelio Vigil, Ceran St. Vrain, Charles Bent, Donaciano Vigil, Manuel Armijo and Eugene Leitensdorfer. The five suits were consolidated[15] for purposes of trial and heard under Cause No. 154.

The consolidated case came up for hearing on September 27, 1898. At the hearing, the government advanced two principal defenses. The first was that the grant was null and void, because the granting officials and the grantees had entered into a conspiracy to defraud the Mexican Government out of lands covered by the alleged grant. In support of this allegation, the government pointed to the conveyance by the grantees of a one‑third interest in the grant which had been made to Armijo and Secretary Vigil, without consideration, less than two months after the issuance of the concession, which greatly exceeded the maximum amount of land which could be lawfully granted under the colonization laws then in force in New Mexico. The other defense was that the Court of Private Land Claims had no jurisdiction in the case, since Congress on two occasions had considered and passed upon the very grant which formed the basis for the plaintiffs’ claims and Section 13 of the Act[16] of March 3, 1891, provided:

No claim shall be allowed for any land the right to which has hitherto been lawfully acted upon and decided by Congress or under its authority.

The Court issued a decision[17] on October 5, 1898 dismissing the case on the grounds that it lacked jurisdiction. The plaintiffs appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which on December 3, 1900 held[18] that:

The Court of Private Land Claims was specially organized by the Act of March 3, 1891, for the purpose of hearing and determining claims of a particular character specifically pointed out and described in the body of the Act. It has no jurisdiction than that granted by Congress, being confined entirely to claims of the character mentioned in the Act... The history of the action of Congress in relation to this claim ... shows that ... the rights of the claimants ... had been lawfully acted upon and decided by Congress prior to the passage of the Act of 1891. The Act of Congress in the Act of 1860 and as thereafter amended in 1869 was a final adjudication which granted eleven square leagues to each of the two claimants and rejected and refused to confirm the grant for any larger amount ... . The judgment of the Court below was therefore right and must be affirmed.

Thus culminated the grandiose schemes to secure one of the choicest tracts of land in the entire Southwest.

 


[1] The southern portion of the present State of Colorado as far north as the Arkansas River was a part of   New Mexico until 1861, when the Territory of Colorado was created. The boundary between New Mexico and Colorado is located along the thirty-seventh parallel.

[2] H. R. Report No. 321, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., 271‑273 (1860).

[3] Brayer, William Blackmore: The Spanish‑Mexican Land Grants of New Mexico and Colorado 128‑130 (1949).

[4] H.R. Report No. 457, 35th Cong., 1st Sess., 27277 (1858).

[5] The Las Animas Grant, No. 17 (Mss., Records the S.G.N.M.).

[6] H.R. Report No. 457, 35th Cong., 1st Sess., 277‑278 (1858).

[7] Ibid., 1‑2.

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

[9] Brayer, William Blackmore The Spanish and Mexican Land Grants of New Mexico and Colorado, 132 (1949).      

[10] An Act to Confirm Certain Private Land Claims the Territory of New Mexico, Chap. 167, Sec. 2, 12 Stat. 71 (1860).

[11] Brayer, William Blackmore The Spanish and Mexican Land Grants of New Mexico and Colorado, 134 (1949).     

[12] An Act to Amend an act entitled, “An Act to Confirm Certain Private Land Claims in the Territory of New Mexico,” Chap.47, 15 Stat. 275 (1869).

[13] Corrigan v. United States, No. 44 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[14] Allen v. United States, No. 128.: Thompson v. United States, No. 135; Las Animas Land Grant Company v. United States, No. 154; and Purdy v. United States, No. 21.6 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[15] 2 Journal 63 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[16] Court of Private Land Claims Act, Chap. 539, 26 Stat. 854 (1891).

[17] 4 Journal 38 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[18] Las Animas Land Grant Company v. United States, 179 U. 5. 201 (1900).