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Los Conejos Grant

by J. J. Bowden

In response to a petition presented by Seladon Valdes “and other citizens of New Mexico,” the Governor of New Mexico, Francisco Sarrocino, gave them a colonization grant on the Conejos River in 1833. On account of the hostility of the Indians, which became much more severe shortly after the issuance of this grant, the grantees were unable to take possession of their lands. The Indian War continued unabated until 1841 when the Mexican Government finally forced the Navajos to temporarily seek peace. On February 21, 1842 the grantees addressed a petition to Juan Andres Archuleta, the Prefect of the Northern District of the Department of New Mexico, stating that the Indians had prevented them from establishing their colony and, therefore, requested that the grant he revalidated and they be given permission to proceed with its settlement. Archuleta, notwithstanding the fact that the “petitioners had certainly lost their rights under the law, having abandoned the lands granted to them,” granted their prayer on February 23, 1842 and directed Cornelio Vigil, Alcalde of the Pueblo of Taos, to place them in legal possession of the premises. Vigil accompanied by the grantees went to the grant on October 12, 1842, where they proceeded to survey the land. The following natural objects were designated as being the boundaries of the grant:

On the north ‑ Garita Hill; on the east ‑ The Rio Grande River; on the south ‑ The San Antonio Mountains;’ and on the west ‑ Sierra Montosa.

Upon completing the survey, Vigil advised the grantees “that the tract shall be cultivated and never abandoned; and he that shall not cultivate his land within twelve[1] years or that shall not reside upon it will forfeit his right ... .” The grantees were also notified that their settlement eventually was to be walled and fortified, but in the meantime they were to “move upon said tract and build their shanties ... .” After accepting the grant subject to such conditions, Vigil performed the ceremonies necessary to place the eighty-three colonists in legal possession of the tract. However, before a settlement could he established, the Navajos went on the war path and forced the colonists to vacate the grant. Another unsuccessful attempt to settle upon the land was made in 1846. Due to the continuous hostility of the Indians, the colonists were unable to move to the grant until 1851 or 1852, at which time a permanent settlement was finally made.[2]

On July 3, 1861 Jose Maria Martinez on behalf of himself and the other grantees petitioned[3] Surveyor General William Pelham for the confirmation of the grant. Since the major portion of the grant was located in Colorado, Pelham transferred the case to the office of the Surveyor General of Colorado. No action appears to have been taken on the claim by that office.

After the Court of Private Land Claims was established, Crescencio Valdes, the heir of one of the original grantees, filed suit[4] against the government seeking the confirmation of the grant which allegedly covered approximately two and a half million acres. There were a number of towns located upon the grant and approximately one thousand persons held conflicting claims under the public land laws. When the court ordered the plaintiff to make all of these persons parties defendant, he waived all his rights in any lands previously disposed of by the United States.

The case came up for trial on May 8, 1900 and the plaintiff submitted the documentary evidence and a great deal of oral testimony in support of his claim. The government contended that even if a valid grant had been made in 1833 the grantees had forfeited their rights by failing to settle on the grant as required by law and Archuleta, a mere prefect, had no authority to subsequently regrant or validate the claim. The Court of Private Land Claims announced its decision[5] rejecting the claim and dismissing the plaintiff’s petition on August 14, 1900.

This claim was one of the most important filed for consideration by the Court of Private Land Claims, not only on account of its vast size but because of the immense value of the mineral and agricultural lands located within the boundaries of the grant. The rejection of the claim dispelled the apprehensions of thousands of bona fide settlers as to their holdings and removed the cloud which had rested upon their titles to land in one of the most prosperous sections of the Southwest.


[1] This word appears to have been altered from “dos” (two) to “dose” (twelve).

[2] The Los Conejos Grant, No. F‑80 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Valdez v. United States, No. 109 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[5] 4 Journal 192 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L.).