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Maxwell Grant

by J. J. Bowden

In a vividly worded petition dated January 8, 1841, Guadalupe Miranda and Carlos Beaubien, two of the most prominent residents of Santa Fe, petitioned Manuel Armijo, Governor of New Mexico, on January 8, 1841, seeking a grant covering the following described tract of land:

Beginning at a point on the summit of the hill below the junction of the Rayado River with the Colorado River; thence easterly in a direct line to the first hills; thence in a northerly direction and parallel with the Colorado River to a point opposite its confluence with the Una del Gato River; continuing in a northerly direction along the same hills to the summit of the table land; thence northwesterly along said summit to the top of the mountain which divides the waters of the rivers running towards the east from those running to the west; thence in a southerly direction along said mountain to the intersection of the first hill south of the Rayado River; thence easterly following the summit of said hill to the place of beginning.

 As justification of their request, Miranda and Beaubien stated: 

That of all the departments in the Republic, with the exception of the Californias, New Mexico is one of the most backward in intelligence, industry, manufactories, etc., and surely few others present the natural advantages to be found therein, not only on account of its abundance of water, forests, wood and useful timber, but also on account of the fertility of the soil, containing within its bosom rich and precious metals, which up to this time, are useless for the want of enterprising men who will convert them to the advantage of other men, all of which productions of nature are susceptible of being used for the benefit of society in the department as well as in the entire republic, if they were in the hands of individuals who would work and improve them. An old and true adage says, that “what is the business of all is the business of none”; therefore, while the fertile lands in New Mexico, where, without contradiction, nature has proven herself more generous, are not reduced to private property, where it will be improved, it will be of no benefit to the department, which abounds in idle people, who, for the want of occupation, are a burden to the industrious portion of society, while with their labor they could contribute to its welfare, and honestly comply with their obligations. Idleness, the mother of vice, is the cause of the increase of crimes which are daily being committed, notwithstanding the severity of the laws and their rigid execution; the towns are overrun with thieves and murderers, who, by this means alone, desire to procure their subsistence. We think it a difficult task to reform the present generation, accustomed to idleness and hardened in vice. But the rising one, receiving new impressions, will easily be guided by the principles of purer morality. The welfare of a nation consists in the possession of lands which produce all the necessaries of life without requiring those of other nations; and it cannot be denied that New Mexico possesses this great advantage, and only requires industrious hands to make it a happy residence. This is the age of progress and the march of intellect, and they are so rapid that we may expect, at a day not far distant, that they will reach even us. Under the above conviction we both request your Excellency to be pleased to grant us a tract of land for the purpose of improving it, without injury to ay third party, and raising sugar beets, which we believe will grow well and produce an abundant crop, and in time to establish manufactories of cotton and wool, and raising stock of every description.

Three days later, Armijo donated the requested lands to the petitioners in order that they might make any proper use of it which the law allowed. For some unexplained reason, the grantees waited two years before applying to the Alcalde of Taos for the delivery of legal possession. On February 22, 1843, Alcalde Cornelis Vigil, together with his attending and instrumental witnesses, proceeded to the grant where he met the grantees. The party then proceeded to survey and monument the boundaries of the grant in accordance with the description contained in the grantee’s petition. The field notes of the survey contain the following description of the grant: 

Commencing on the east side of the Colorado River, a monument was erected; from whence, following in a direct line in an easterly direction to the first hills, another mound was erected at the point thereof; and continuing from south to north on a line neatly parallel with the Colorado River, a third mound was erected on the north side of the Chico Rica or Chacuaco Mesa; thence turning towards the west, and following along the side of the said table land of the Chacuaco to the summit of the mountain, where the fourth mound was erected; from thence following along the summit of said main ridge from north to south to the Cuesta del Osha, one hundred varas north of the road from Fernandez de Taos to the Laguna Regra, where the fifth mound was erected, from thence turning again to the east towards the Colorado River, and following along the southern side of the table lands of the Rayado and those of the Gonyalitos, on the eastern point of which the sixth mound was erected; and from thence following in a northerly direction, I again reached the river on its western side, where the seventh and last mound was erected opposite the first.

 Following the completion of the survey, Vigil performed the customary ceremony for the delivery of legal posses­sion which he described as follows: 

I took them by the hand, walked with them, caused them to throw earth, pull up weeds and show other evidences of possession …

The grantees promptly formulated plans for the colonization of the grant but were prevented from proceeding with the project when Governor Mariano Chaves issued a decree dated February 27, 1843, which suspended the grant. It seems that within a few days after the issuance of the grant, Antonio Jose Martinez, the Cura of the Pueblo de Taos, protested the grant on the grounds that Beaubien was a foreigner and, therefore, was not entitled to hold an interest in the land and also that the grant appropriated most of the pasture and hunting lands belonging to Pueblo de Taos. Beaubien appealed the suspension to the Departmental Assembly on April 13, 1844. He informed the Assembly that while he had been born in Canada, he had become a naturalized Mexican citizen and a resident of New Mexico. He accused Martinez of maliciously misstating the facts and asserted that while Martinez had stated the grant covered a large number of leagues, it did not “exceed fifteen or eighteen.” He also denied each of the other allegations contained in the protest. The Departmental Assembly considered the matter during its regular session held on April 15, 1844, and finding the statements made by Martinez to be untrue set aside the suspension decree of February 27, 1843. This decision was based in part on an affidavit signed by eleven residents of the Pueblo of Taos wherein they certified that the grant did not contain any lands used as pasturage or hunting grounds by the inhabitants of Taos. The affidavit further stated that. Notwithstanding the statements made by Martinez they were of the opinion that the establishment of a colony on the grant would be very beneficial to the interior settlements. The benefits specifically mentioned were that the proposed colony would (1) afford protection from the Indians, (2) employ a great number of “idlers,” (3) relieve overcrowded conditions, (4) ease the problems caused by a scarcity of irrigation waters, and (5) afford safe pasturage for livestock during times of war with the Navajos. On April 18, 1844, Armijo, who in the meantime had been reappointed as governor, authorized Miranda and Beaubien to proceed with the establishment of their colony. The grantees immediately occupied the grant and started cultivating the land. Kit Carson stated that later in the year a number of houses had been built along the banks of the Cimarron River and that a number of large fields had been planted with corn, beans, and pumpkins. He estimated that about 200 acres were under cultivation and some 15,000 head of sheep were being pastured on the grant.[1]

When General Stephen Watts Kearny conquered New Mexico in 1846, Miranda fled southward with Governor Armijo. He finally settled at El Paso del Norte, where he became a highly influential political figure. Beaubien, however, elected to stay in Taos and became an American citizen.

On February 23, 1857, the grantees presented their claim to Surveyor General William Pelham for confirmation. After investigating the matter, Pelham on September 1, 1857, found the grant to be good and valid according to the laws and customs of Mexico, and therefore, recommended that Congress confirm title to Guadalupe Miranda and Charles Beaubien.[2] By an act[3] passed on June 21, 1860, Congress confirmed the grant as recommended by Pelham.

Meanwhile, in a pathetic and heart rendering letter dated February 24, 1858, Guadalupe Miranda wrote his old friend and co‑owner of the grant: 

Circumstances place men in different positions, sometimes favorable and at other unfavorable. In the latter condition I find myself, and my circumstances are such as to oblige me to do that which at other times I would not do. Thrust out from my country, a portion of my property abandoned, and the rest for a year and months at the disposition of my enemies, my resources have been reduced to such a degree that today, in order to maintain my numerous family, I find myself obliged to dispose at that which remains to me... So, if you do not wish to purchase my part, then I will sell to another. . . .[4]

Charles Beaubien did not purchase Miranda’s interest, but his son-in-law, Lucien B. Maxwell, did on April 7, 1858, for a total consideration of two thousand seven hundred forty-five dollars. Charles Beaubien died on February 10, 1864. Thereafter, Maxwell systematically purchased the balance of the grant from Beaubien’s heirs. Maxwell paid less than fifty-three thousand dollars for the entire grant.[5]

Maxwell prospered as a result of his extensive operations on the grant. He built a magnificent and palatial home at Cimarron where he entertained in a grand and lavish style. During the height of his power and wealth, he lived as a virtual feudal lord with utter disregard of the expense of the necessities and comforts of life.[6]

On June 28, 1869, Surveyor General T. Rush Spencer was directed by Commissioner of the General Land Office to survey the grant pursuant to the act of June 21, 1860. However, he was cautioned to give particular attention to the true locus of the exterior boundaries of the grant since their description in the testimonio were somewhat vague. Continuing, the Commissioner stated that as near as he could determine the grant included a much larger area than the maximum of twenty-two leagues which the Mexican governors were empowered to grant. Maxwell protested these instructions and appealed the matter to the Secretary of Interior, who, on December 31, 1869, held that since the maximum amount of land which could legally be granted an individual under the colonization laws of Mexico was eleven leagues, It could be presumed that Congress intended to confirm the grant for an area no greater than eleven leagues to each claimant.[7] This decision undoubtedly influenced Maxwell in reaching a decision to sell the grant. On April 13, 1870, Maxwell, joined by his wife, Inez B. Maxwell, sold nearly all of the lands covered by the grant to the Maxwell Land Grant & Railway Company for a total consideration of one million fifty thousand dollars.[8]

In connection with the sale, a private survey of the boundaries of the grant was made by W. W. Griffin between the months of May and September, 1870. The survey showed that instead of containing less than eighteen leagues, as originally presumed, the grant actually covered an area in excess of twenty-five hundred square miles, or approximately two million acres. Though a private enterprise and unofficial a copy of the plat and field notes of this survey were filed in the General Land Office, for the information of the government as to the exact location of the exterior boundaries of the grant. Following the sale of the grant, the new owners continued to manage the estate as if there was no question over the title to all of the lands contained in the Griffin Survey.

The General Land Office, as a result of the decision in the Tameling case,[9]decided in 1877 that it was obligated to establish the official boundaries of the grant and to issue a patent for all of the lands covered thereby. Surveyor General Henry N. Atkinson was in the process of ordering an official survey of the grant when the claimant recommended the adoption of the Griffin Survey in order to avoid the added expense of a new survey. The Surveyor General declined on the grounds that he did not think that it would be proper to adopt a private survey and also he had some questions as to whether Griffin had properly located the northern and eastern boundaries of the grant. The Commissioner of the General Land Office, J. A. Williams, concurred with Atkinson and directed him to employ “a capable and disinterested deputy who has had no connection or business transaction referable to the interests of the owners of the grant either in surveying for them or purchasing lands falling within the grant, so that the deputy selected will be free from any bias or undue influence in the lawful execution of the survey.” Thereafter, the Surveyor General entered into a contract with Deputy Surveyors John T. Elkins and Robert G. Marmon for the survey of this grant. This survey was made in the autumn of 1877 and a patent based thereon was finally issued on May 9, 1879, for 1,714,764.94 acres.[10]

Meanwhile, gold was discovered in the vicinity of Mount Baldy and violent disputes occurred when the proprietors of the grant tried to keep prospectors and settlers off the land. Strong anti-grant sentiment developed and the leaders of the element convinced the Attorney General of the United States that suit should be instituted to set aside the patent to the grant on the grounds that Elkins and Marmon had falsely, fraudulently, and deceitfully surveyed the land in such a manner as to include a large area not covered by the original concession. A bill in equity was filed in the United States Circuit Court in Colorado on August 25, 1882, alleging that in 1877 Stephen B. Elkins, President of the Maxwell Land Grant & Railway Company, conspired with his brother, John T. Elkins, and Robert G. Marmon, the official surveyors of the grant, to cheat and defraud the United States out of land by running an incorrect survey. In this action, the government sought to recover the 265,000 acres covered by the grant which were located in the State of Colorado. A similar action was instituted in the United States Circuit Court in New Mexico to recover the New Mexican portion of the grant. It was agreed that the New Mexico case would be governed by the final decision in the Colorado suit. The cases were sensational, not only because of the value of the land involved, but also for the reason that some of the most prominent and influential men in New Mexico and Colorado were implicated in alleged fraudulent activities which were international in nature and gigantic in proportions.

By the time the case came to trial, the government had softened its allegations as to fraud and based its case on two principal propositions. First, the original grant could not exceed twenty-two leagues and there was no process of evolution by which the grant could be legally expanded to cover the princely domain described in the patent to the grant. Second, through error and mistake the surveyors had run the north line of the grant through Fishers Peak, which was the highest peak in the area and situated some seven miles north of the New Mexico‑Colorado boundary, when, in fact, the north line should have run along the summit of the Raton Mountains, which were located near the common boundary between New Mexico and Colorado.

The Circuit Court found the first question was controlled by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Tameling Case,[11] which declared that the confirmation of the act of June 21, 1860,[12] was equivalent to a grant de novo of the entire tract. In connection with the second question, the Court found that although the surveyors may have made an error in judgment in locating the description contained in the grant and had run their survey lines so as to include a large tract of land which may not have been covered by the grant, the patent could not be set aside. The Court noted that the General Land Office, a branch or the Executive Department, has the responsibility of passing upon the correctness of surveys of the public domain. Therefore, before the courts could set aside a patent, clear proof of wrong‑doing or mistake must be established. It contended that the sanctity of contracts justified such a doctrine, and the good faith of the government required it. As a result of these findings, the court dismissed the government’s suit.[13] The government appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court which completely exonerated the Commissioner of the General Land Office, the Surveyor General, and Deputy Surveyors Elkin and Marmon by holding there was not the slightest evidence that they had been governed by any fraudulent or improper motives in their acts in regard to the surveying of the grant or that they had shown any favoritism towards the grantees in connection with the ascertaining of its boundaries. Continuing, the court held that in a proper case the court could set aside or correct a patent when it was clearly shown that it had been obtained through fraud or mistake; however, in this case the government had utterly failed to prove its allegations.[14] The government, being dissatisfied with the decision, promptly filed a motion for rehearing on the grounds that it had new and material evidence. The court granted the motion and set the matter down for argument on May, 11, 1887. At the rehearing: 

The arguments of both sides of the case were restricted in point of time, and were wanting in no element of ability, industrious research or clear apprehension of the principles involved …[15]

On May 27, 1887, the court handed down its decision which held that it was entirely satisfied that the grant, as confirmed by Congress, was valid; that the survey and the patent were entirely free from fraud on the part of the grantees or those claiming under them; and that its decision could not be otherwise.[16]

The ink was hardly dry on the rehearing opinion of the Supreme Court, which in unmistakable terms cleared all parties connected with the grant from the allegation of conspiracy and fraud contained in the governments bill, when malcontented Surveyor General George W. Julian published a venomous article[17] in the North American Review attacking the Beaubien and Miranda Grant as an “astounding piracy of the public domain.” This article so aroused the ire of the New Mexico Bar Association that it determined to do something about settling the private land claim problems of the Southwest. At its annual meeting held at Santa Fe on January 6, 1890, the Association recommended that .Congress create a special tribunal to investigate and determine the extent of all unconfirmed private land claims in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada.[18] On March 3, 1891, Congress responded by passing an act creating the Court of Private Land Claims. Thus, the problems raised by this famous grant motivated the final solution of one of the most interesting but difficult legal problems encountered in the Southwest.

[1] H. R. Report No. 457, 35th Cong., 1st Sess., 245‑256 (1858).

[2] H. R. Report No. 321, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., 256‑257 (1860).

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

[4] Keleher, Maxwell Land Grant 40‑41 (l964).

[5] Ibid., 42‑44.

[6] 1 Anderson, History of New Mexico 180 (1907).

[7] The Miranda and Beaubien Grant, No. 15 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.)

[8] A Deed Records 146, (Mss., Records of the County Clerk’s Office, Raton, New Mexico).

[9] Tameling v. United States Freehold & Emigration Co., 3 Otto (93 U.S.) 644 (1874).

[10] The Miranda and Beaubein Grant, No. 15 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[11] Tameling v. United States Freehold & Emigration Co., 3 Otto (93 U.S.) 644 (1874).

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

[13] United States v. The Maxwell Land Grant. Co., F. 118 (C.C.D. Colo. 1886).

[14] United States v. The Maxwell Land Grant Co. 121 U.S. 325 (1887).

[15] United States v. The Maxwell Land Grant Co. 122 U.S. 365 (1887).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Julian, “Land Stealing in New Mexico,” 145 North American Review, 25‑26 (1887).

[18] Report of the New Mexico Bar Association 29 (1890).