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Las Lagunitas Grant

 by J. J. Bowden

On March 21, 1887 Francisco Griego and fourteen other applicants petitioned[1] Surveyor General George W. Julian seeking the confirmation of the Las Lagunitas Grant under which they claimed, in severalty, title to twenty individual tracts. The tract was described as being bounded:

On the north, the Town of Albuquerque Grant; on the east, the sand hills; on the south, the land of the heirs of Baird; and on the west, the Rio Grande.

 The individual tracts extended from the river to the sand hills, and had from 62 to 700 varas of frontage on the Rio Grande. The oral and documentary evidence offered by the applicants in support of the claim showed that Antonio Sandoval had purchased portions of the tract from a number of people between 1807 and 1815, and had occupied and held undisputed possession of the land up to the date of his death in 1862; and, thereafter, his heirs partitioned the grant into twenty tracts. The claimants acquired their interest by inheritance or by purchase from his heirs. In an effort to account for their failure to produce any documentary evidence of a grant to Sandoval’s predecessors and their deeds to him, the claimant’s witnesses testified that three or four years after the conquest of New Mexico by the Americans, a group of musicians from the American military band stationed at Albuquerque broke into Sandoval’s house while he was away, assaulted his major domo looted the premises, and, upon leaving, set the place afire. Many of his valuable papers, including all of his title documents to the Las Lagunitas Grant, were destroyed as a result of this foul deed.

Julian, by decision[2] dated August 5, 1887, stated he believed the filing of the claim had been prompted by previous action by the Surveyor General’s office, which recognized the right of small tract holders to secure the confirmation of their interests on the strength of mere occupancy and uninterrupted possession under the laws and usages of Spain and Mexico.[3] However, he held that although Sandoval had resided upon and occupied a portion of the lands in question for years prior to the time the United States acquired jurisdiction over New Mexico, it could not be presumed that he claimed the several thousand acres covered by the tract by prescription, especially in view of the testimony showing that he had purchased the lands from a number of persons, and that his title papers were destroyed in 1858 or 1859 by robbers. Julian was further disturbed by the fact that only a few of the claimants actually resided upon the grant, and even their claims conflicted with the rights of third parties who were residing on the premises and claiming title to certain individual tracts situated within the borders of the grant under the public land laws of the United States. In closing, Julian stated:

It is unfortunate that the loss of Sandoval’s title papers (if they were lost) and the uncertainty which has prevailed for years past touching the ownership of the land have led to litigation and strife between the parties claiming under Sandoval on the one hand and those claiming the land as a part of the public domain on the other. But this cannot justify this office in recognizing any right in the claimants or any of them under the laws of Spain and Mexico. The controversy is one for the General Land Office and the courts to determine and, therefore, I do not deem it necessary to sift the evidence in detail or to scrutinize the deeds and other papers which are relied on by the claimants. So, regarding the question, I do not think it incumbent upon me to copy in triplicate and forward to the Land Department the voluminous papers and testimony in the case for the reason that they afford no warrant whatever for the reservation of the land in dispute. If it did not appear perfectly clear to me that the claim is based upon a palpable misconception of the rights of the petitioners, and if I could see other grounds whatever for a doubt as to the soundness of my opinion, I would submit the question to the final judgment of Congress.

Thus, Julian, by usurping the prerogative of Congress, blocked the claim and quashed all hope of securing the recognition of one of the most valuable private land claims in the Southwest.

[1] The Las Lagunitas Grant, No. 154 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Section 8 of the Act of July 22, 1854 [an Act to establish the office of Surveyor General of New Mexico, Kansas and Nebraska, to grant donations to actual settlers therein, and for other purposes. Chap. 103, Sec. 8, 10 Stat. 308, (1854)] required the Surveyor General to report on the validity or invalidity of each claim presented to him “under the laws, usages, and customs of the country before its cession to the United States…” The Sur­veyor General’s office had recognized that a title by prescription could be perfected, even against the sovereign, by forty years’ peaceful possession of a tract under the laws, usages and customs of Spain and Mexico.