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Maxwell Land Grant: An Astounding Piracy of the Public Domain

Former Surveyor General George Julian published an article in the North American Review attacking the Beaubien-Miranda Grant as an “astounding piracy of the public domain.”  His article prompted the New Mexico Bar Association to recommend to Congress a special tribunal to investigate all unconfirmed private land claims in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada.  This action led to Congress creating the Court of Private Land Claims in 1891.

by Michael Miller

The Maxwell Land grant was petitioned in 1841, by Guadalupe Miranda and Carlos Beaubien.  The reasons given were several and were related to establishing a colony in this part of the northern frontier: the first was to “afford protection from the Indians;” the second: to “employ a great number of idlers;” the third: to “relieve overcrowded conditions;” the fourth: to “ease problems caused by a scarcity of irrigation waters,” and the final reason was “to afford safe pasturage for livestock during times of war with the Navajos.”  Initially, the grant was much larger than the twenty-two leagues that Mexican governors were empowered to grant. 

The grant covered an area of twenty-five hundred square miles containing approximately two million acres.  In 1843, Alcalde Cornelio Vigil performed the customary procedures for legal possession of the grant, but Governor Mariano Chaves suspended the grant proceedings because of a protest by the Cura of the Pueblo of Taos, Padre Antonio Jose Martinez. 

In 1857, the grantees presented their claim to the Office of the Surveyor General and Surveyor General William Pelham recommended to Congress that the grant be confirmed.  In 1858, Miranda wrote his partner Beaubien a letter offering to sell his interest in the grant.  Beaubien did not purchase Miranda’s holdings, but his son-in-law Lucien Maxwell bought Miranda’s share for $2,745.00.  In 1864, Beaubien died and Maxwell purchased the balance of the grant from Beaubien’s heirs for $53,000.00.  Maxwell lived as a feudal lord for many years in the mansion he built in Cimarron which was located on the grant.

The U.S. General Land Office ordered an investigation into the land grant holdings in 1869, prompting Maxwell to sell the grant to the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company for one million fifty thousand dollars.  The legal proceedings concerning the land grant quickly became sensational following the sale because of the number of influential people involved in the case and the various claims of acreage and entitlement by the parties involved.  The case began with accusations of fraud, but through a series of court appeals and political manipulations, the U.S. government soon softened its allegations. 

In 1887, the court held that the grant confirmed by Congress was valid and that the survey was free from fraud.  Former Surveyor General George Julian published an article in the North American Review attacking the Beaubien-Miranda Grant as an “astounding piracy of the public domain.”  This article prompted the New Mexico Bar Association to recommend to Congress a special tribunal to investigate all unconfirmed private land claims in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada.  This action led to Congress creating the Court of Private Land Claims in 1891.  The Maxwell Land Grant was located in Colfax County and contained 1,714,764.94 acres.