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Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca Grant

by J. J. Bowden

The Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca Grant is unique for two reasons. First, it is the only recognized grant whose patent does not cover a single acre of the lands originally granted to it, and second, it is the only grant whose patented lands are located in three states. The history of this grant commences on February 18, 1820, when Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca individually arid on behalf of eight other persons, petitioned the authorities of New Mexico for a tract of vacant land situated on the Gallinas River at the place known as Las Vegas.

However, before action could be taken on the petition, Baca’s associates indicated that they had lost interest in the project. Due to unsettled conditions, New Mexico was placed under the jurisdiction of the province of Nueva Viscaya. Therefore, Baca for himself and his seventeen sons, petitioned the Provincial Deputation of Nueva Viscaya on January 16, 1821, asking for a grant covering the same tract which he described as having the following boundaries: 

On the north, the Chapellote River; on the east, the Aguage de la Llequa and the Antonio Ortiz Grant; on the south, the San Miguel del Vado Grant; and on the west, the summit of the Pecos Mountains.

On May 29, 1821, Diego Garcia Conde and Miguel de Zubirria, president and secretary, respectively, of the Provincial Deputation of Durango, notified the governor of New Mexico that the Provincial Deputation had granted the lands at Las Vegas to Baca; provided the eight persons who originally had been associated with Baca had no objections. Bartolome Baca, Governor of New Mexico directed the Alcalde of San Miguel del Vado to give legal possession of the grant since the eight individuals referred to in Baca’s first petition possessed other lands and were no longer interested in joining him in the colonization of the lands at Las Vegas. Juan Bautista Vigil, Secretary of the Territorial Deputation of New Mexico, later certified that during the February 16, 1825, session of the Territorial Deputation, a petition, filed by Juan Antonio Cabeza de Baca, son of Luis Maria Cabeza de Vaca and one of the original grantees of the grant, as read. The petition reviewed the background of the issuance of the grant by the Provincial Deputation of Durango, alleged that legal possession of the premises had been delivered to the grantees by the Alcalde of San Miguel del Vado, and. concluded by requesting that all the proceedings in connection with the grant be ratified by that body. After fully considering the matter, the Territorial Deputation ratified and confirmed the grant and ordered the Alcalde of San Miguel del Vado to place the grantees in legal possession of the grant. On December 26, 1825, Miguel and Mateo Baca appeared before Alcalde of San Miguel del Vado, Tomas Sena, to complain about his failure to deliver legal possession of the grant in accordance with the Territorial Deputation’s decree of February 16, 1825. Sena advised them that due to this recent illness and the pending election of his successor he had been unable to perform such formalities. On January 13, 1826, Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca notified the governor of New Mexico of Alcalde Sena’s continued failure to deliver legal possession of the grant notwithstanding the grantees’ repeated requests for such action. Governor Antonio Narbona issued a terse order on he same day directing the Alcalde of San Miguel del Vado to perform this function Pursuant to the order, Manuel Antonio Baca, who, in the meantime had succeeded Sena, promptly placed the grantees in legal possession of the grant.[1]

Following the delivery of possession, Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca built a hut at the place known as Loma Montosa from which he conducted his extensive ranching operations on the grant. At times he pastured as many as 3,000 sheep together with about 600 head of horses and cows on the premises. However, none of the grant was placed under cultivation. Josiah Gregg undoubtedly was referring to Baca’s headquarters when he mentions that at the Gallinas River, he observed “a large flock of sheep grazing upon the plain; while a hovel at the foot of a cliff showed it to be a rancho.”[2] Following Luis Maria Cabeza Baca’s death in 1833,[3] Juan Antonio Baca continued to operate the ranch until 1835 when he was killed and all of the grant’s livestock stolen by the Navajos. The hostilities of the Indians prevented the owners from re‑occupying the grant at all times prior to the issuance of the grant to the inhabitants of the Town of Las Vegas. On September 20, 1837, Tomas Baca, one of Juan Antonio Baca’s sons and the executor of his estate, sent a petition to Governor Manuel Armijo protesting the issuance of the Town of Las Vegas Grant; however, it does not appear that Armijo took any action on the matter.[4]

The surviving heirs of Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca petitioned[5] Surveyor General William Pelham on June 19, 1855, seeking the confirmation of the grant. The petitioners called Pelham’s attention to the fact that the same lands had been granted to the town of Las Vegas but alleged that the Town of Las Vegas Grant was void, and had been issued with the knowledge that the lands covered thereby legally belonged to them. The two applications were consolidated and after a lengthy hearing, Pelham in a report[6] dated December 18, 1850, found both grants to be good and valid. He recommended both grants for confirmation, leaving to the court the problem of adjusting the conflicting rights. In order to avoid expensive and time consuming litigation, the Baca heirs agreed to relinquish their older title to the lands in question to the inhabitants of the town of Las Vegas provided they were given an equivalent amount of land elsewhere in the Territory. The Senate Committee on Private Lands to which the problem has been referred, recommended the acceptance of this proposal “... which, indeed, would undoubtedly have been acceded to by Mexico if the Territory had remained hers.”[7] As a result of the Committee’s report, Congress by an act approved June 21, 1860,[8] confirmed the grant to the town of Las Vegas and settled the Baca claim by authorizing the heirs of Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca:

 … to select instead of the land claimed by them, an equal quantity of vacant land, not mineral, in the Territory of New Mexico, to be located by them in square bodies, not excluding five in number … Provided however, that the right hereby granted to said heirs of Baca shall continue in force during three years from the passage of this act, and no longer.

To accommodate the Baca heirs, the General Land office directed the surveyor General on July 26, 1860, to promptly proceed with the surveying of the Town. of Las Vegas Grant and to furnish them with scrip for an equivalent amount of land. The Town of Las Vegas Grant was surveyed in 1860 for 496,446.96 acres. Once the Baca heirs received their scrip, they proceeded to locate it in five square tracts containing 99,289.39 acres each. Each of these tracts was located on lands which were in the territory of New Mexico on June 21, 1860, but two are now located in Arizona and one in Colorado.

The first tract, or Baca Float No. 1, was located in Sandoval County, New Mexico, about six miles west of Los Alamos, on December 6, 1860, and is described as follows:

 Beginning at a point 2‑1/2 miles west of the corner of Townships 19 and 20 North and Range 4 and 5 East, N.M.P.M., and thence North, South, East and West from said center point a sufficient distance to embrace 99,289.39 acres.

The second tract, or Baca Float No. 2, was located in San Miguel County, New Mexico, about ten miles north of Tucumcari, on December 15, 1860, and covered the following described land: 

Beginning at the common corner for Sections 19 and 30, Township 13 North, Range 30 East and Sections 24 and 25, Township 13 North and Range 29 East, N.M.P.M.; thence North with the Range line 12 miles, 36 chains and 45 links; thence East 12 miles, 36 chains and 45 links; and thence West 12 miles, 36 chains, and 45 links to the point of beginning.

On December 27, 1860, the claimants amended the location in order to locate its west line along the east line of the Fort Butler Military Reservation. The reservation was surveyed on February 1, 1861, and covers the following described tract of land: 

Commencing at the common corner of Sections 27, 28, 33 and 34, Township 12 North, Range 29 East N.M.P.M.; thence West 12 miles; thence North 11 miles; thence East 12 miles and thence South 11 miles to the place of beginning.

Since the reservation was only 11 miles long, it was necessary for the Baca heirs to further amend their location of the second tract. On February 5, 1861, they requested that the tract he located as follows: 

Commencing at the common corner of Sections 21, 22, 27, and 28, Township 13 North, Range 29 East, N.M.P.M. and adjoining the Fort Butler Reservation; thence North 6 miles, 18 chains and 22 links; thence East 12 miles, 36 chains and 45 links; thence South 12 miles, 36 chains and 45 links; thence West 12 miles 36 chains and 45 links; and thence North 6 miles, 18 chains and 23 links to the place of beginning.

It was later discovered that approximately the northwest one-half of the Baca Float No. 2 conflicted with the Pablo Montoya Grant. The Baca heirs recognized the superiority of the Pablo Montoya Grant and expressly waived any rights they might have to the area in conflict.

The third tract, or Baca Float No. 3, was located in Santa Cruz County, Arizona, about six miles north of Nogales on June 17, 1863, and is described as follows:

Commencing at a point one ad a half miles from the base of the Salero Mountain in a direction North 450 East of the highest point of said mountain, and running thence from said beginning point West 12 miles, 36 chains and 44 links; thence South 12 miles, 36 chains and 44 links; thence East 12 miles, 36 chains and 44 links; and thence North 12 miles, 36 chains and 44 links to the place of beginning.

This selection was approved by the Surveyor General of New Mexico on the same day; however, he stated that he could not give a certificate concerning the occupancy and mineral status of the land since it was located far beyond any of the public surveys and nothing was officially known concerning it. On July 18, 1863, the Commissioner of the General Land Office acknowledged receipt of the selection but insisted that the Surveyor General, the Receiver, and the Register of the New Mexico Land Office each give certificates concerning the character of the land. The Surveyor General, the Receiver, and the Register of New Mexico each certified on March 25, 1864, that the land within the Baca Float No. 3 was not surveyed and all the information in their offices indicated that such land was vacant and non‑mineral. On April 9, l864, the Commissioner of the General Land Office notified the Surveyor General of his approval of the location and instructed him to have the tract surveyed in order to officially segregate the land from the public domain. Pursuant to these instructions, Deputy Surveyor William Wrightson was directed to survey the tract. When he arrived at the beginning point it was discovered that a mistake had been made in its description which would result in the exclusion of most of the lands which the Baca heirs had intended to be covered by their selection. Due to this mistake, and the untimely death of Wrightson, who was killed by Indians, the survey was never made. On April 13, 1866, the Baca heirs requested the Commissioner of the General Land Office to permit then to correct the error by amending their selection in order to cover the following described land: 

Commencing at a point 3 miles West by South from the building known as Hacienda de Santa Rita; thence North 12 miles, 36 chains and 44 links; thence East 12 miles, 36 chains and 44 links; thence South 12 miles, 36 chains and 44 links; and thence West 12 miles, 36 chains and 44 links to the point of beginning.

 The effect of this amendment would be to shift the entire location approximately 10 miles northeast. The Commissioner approved the request on May 21, 1866, and from that time until July 25, 1899, the claimants and General Land Office treated the Baca Float No. 3 as covering the lands described in the amended description. However, on July 25, 1899, the General Land office held that the amendment was in reality a new location, that it had no authority to permit the relocation of the tract after the expiration of the three-year time limit specified in the act of June 21, 1860,[9] and, accordingly, held the claimants to the original selection of 1863. The original location was surveyed by Deputy Surveyor Philip Contzen in 1905. His survey and report showed that the Baca Float No. 3 conflicted with the San Jose de Sonoita Grant and parts of the tract contained valuable mineral deposits. Therefore, the Commissioner of the General Lend office on May 13, 1907, declared the selection invalid on the grounds that it failed to comply with the limitations contained in the act of July 21, 1860.[10] The owners of Baca Float No. 3 filed suit to enjoin the Secretary of Interior and Commissioner of the General Land Office from clouding their title by permitting entries under the public land laws upon the lands covered by their location. The case ultimately reached the United States Supreme Court which held[11] that the approval of the location of the Baca Float No. 3 and order of survey by the Surveyor General and Commissioner of the General Land Office vested title in the Baca heirs notwithstanding the subsequent discovery that parts of the selected tract conflicted with lands covered by a valid Mexican land grant and that other parts contained valuable mineral resources. The conflicting claims of the owners of the Baca Float No. 3 and the San Jose de Sonoita Grant were settled in 1920 when the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals held[12] that the lands covered by the San Jose de Sonoita Grant were not public land, but were private property, which the government, under the express terms the Gadsden Treaty was bound to respect. Therefore, the lands covered by the San Jose de Sonoita Grant were not subject to selection by the Baca heirs.

The fourth tract or Baca Float No. 4 was located about five miles east of Moffat in Saguache County, Colorado, and is described as follows: 

Beginning at a point on the Eastern edge of the Valley of San Luis where the 38th parallel of north latitude crosses the base of snowy range, dividing the waters of the Arkansas and Del Norte Rivers; thence East along said parallel 4‑1/2 miles; thence South along a meridian line 12 miles, 36 chains and 44 links; thence West at a right angle 12 miles, 36 chains and 44 links; thence North to said specified parallel of latitude; and thence East with said parallel to the point of beginning.

The Surveyor General of New Mexico notified the General Land Office and the Surveyor General of Colorado of the selection. The Surveyor General of Colorado was notified since the land was located in the Territory of Colorado, which had been created on February 28, 1861. The location of the Baca Float No. 4 in Colorado was permissible since the Territory had been created subsequent to the passage of the act of June 21, 1860.[13] The Surveyor General of Colorado, in a letter to the Commissioner of the General Land Office dated February 24, 1863, expressed the opinion that the selection covered “rich minerals in the mountains.” In reply, the General Land Office advised him that before the selection could be approved it would, be necessary for the Surveyor General, the Register, and Receiver to certify that the lands were both vacant and non‑mineral. During the year 1863, ex‑Governor William Gilpin, who had acquired an interest in the tract, requested the Surveyor General of Colorado to survey the tract. Since it was beyond the limits of any existing public survey, the Surveyor General issued a contract to Deputy Surveyor A. Z. Sheldon to do the work. The General Land Office disapproved the contract on the ground that the Surveyor General previously had indicated that the selection contained valuable mineral deposits. On December 12, 1863, the Surveyor General transmitted certificates by himself, the Receiver and Register, in which they stated that they were satisfied that the lands covered by the Baca Float No. 4 were vacant and non‑mineral. The General Land Office responded by advising the Surveyor General that since the certificates were not based on actual knowledge, but upon information and conclusions based upon reasoning, the certificates were not sufficient. The selection was, there­fore, suspended pending the filing of acceptable certificates showing the actual character of this land. Finally, on March 29, 1864, the Surveyor General sent the General Land Department a transcript of the field notes made by Sheldon and a plat of the survey with his certificate of approval attached. These documents were received by the General Land office without objection. The only conclusion that can be deduced from the acceptance of these documents was that the General Land Department felt that its original instructions had been met. Numerous efforts were later made to secure the issuance of a patent for the Baca Float No. 4 but the Supreme Court held[14] that the act of June 21, 1860[15] did not provide for the issuance of a patent and that the Surveyor General’s approval of the survey and location effected a full transfer of title. It is interesting to note that notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s decision in this case, a patent was finally issued on February 20, 1900, for the Baca Float No. 4.[16]

 The final tract, or what is now known as Baca Float No. 5, was originally located on October 30, 1862. The location covered the following described tract of land located in De Baca County, New Mexico: 

A 99,289.39 acre square tract of land at the place known as Bosque Redondo on the Pecos River, the center of said location to be on the northeast bank of the Pecos River, 5 miles below the mouth of the canyon forming the valley of the Pecos River and extending north, south, east and west from said center point a sufficient distance to enclose such area.

Indian hostilities were so severe in the Pecos River area that it was obvious that the tract could not be surveyed for some time; therefore, the Baca heirs requested and received permission from the Surveyor General on February 5, 1863, to withdraw their selection and relocate the scrip elsewhere. Since there was a serious question as to whether the Surveyor General had authority to permit the floating of the certificate, the Baca heirs secured the passage of the act of June 11, 1864,[17] which authorized them to relocate the lands anytime before June 21, 1865, subject to the same conditions as prescribed in the act of June 21, 1860.[18] The scrip was relocated in Yavapai County, Arizona, about thirty miles north of Prescott on May 6, 1865, and is described as follows:


Beginning at the head of Rances Creek at a monument on the trail from Fort Majure to Prescott near the large Black or Burnt Mountain; thence North 6 miles, 18 chains, and 22 links; thence East 12 miles, 36 chains and 44 links; thence South 12 miles, 36 chains and 44 links; thence West 12 miles, 36 chains and 44 links; and thence North 6 miles, 18 chains and 22 links to the place of beginning.

The selection and approval of the five Baca Floats marks the climax of the history of one of the most interesting of the Southwestern Spanish and. Mexican land grants.


[1] H.R. Exec. Dcc. No. l, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., 8‑11 (1860).

[2] Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies, 76 (1954).

[3] Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca was killed by a soldier because he had some contraband property belonging to an American which he refused to surrender. H. R. Exec. Doc. No. 14, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., 37 (1860).

[4] Ibid., 40‑42.

[5] The Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca Grant, No. 20 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[6] H. R. Exec. Doc. No. 14, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., 45 (1860).

[7] S. Report No. 228, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., 3 (1860).

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

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Lane v. Watts, 234 U.S. 525 (1914).

[12] Ely Real Estate & Investment Co. v. Watts, 262 F. 721 (9th Cir., 1920).

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

[14] Shaw v. Kellogg, 170 U.S. 312 (1897).

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

[16] Herstrom “A Pygmy Among the Giants,” The 1959 Brand Book of the Enver Westerners, 261 (1959).

[17] An act to amend an act entitled “An Act to Confirm Certain Private Land Claims in the Territory of New Mexico,” Chap. 123, 13 Stat. 125 (1864).

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