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Mesilla Civil Colony Grant
by Denise Damico
The Mesilla Civil Colony land grant was established in the midst of a dispute between the governments of the United States and Mexico concerning the location of the new national border between the two, a result of the Mexican War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The grant's history demonstrates the degree to which control over southern New Mexico's Mesilla Valley has been contested. Beyond diplomatic wrangling between the United States and Mexico, Apaches and Hispanos fought for control of the area, as did Confederate-allied Texans and Union-allied New Mexicans during the Civil War, and residents of the Mesilla Civil Colony grant worked for over half a century to ensure that the government of the United States would confirm their right to the grant.
U.S. troops came to the Mesilla Valley in the fall of 1846, as General Stephen Kearny and his “Army of the West” marched through New Mexico and into Mexico. Throughout the Mexican War (1846-1848), American troops were stationed at Doña Ana, the only Hispanic settlement in the area at the time. Mexico's military defeat in the war led to the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on the second day of February 1848. Under the treaty, Mexico ceded New Mexico, along with the rest of the present-day Southwest, to the United States in return for fifteen million dollars.
Controversy regarding the exact location of the new border between the two countries began almost immediately after the treaty was signed. The treaty's language concerning the border was based on a map which did not accurately reflect the location of the Río Grande; placing it over a hundred miles too far east. When a joint American and Mexican expedition surveyed the border region, they determined that the Río Grande, as surveyed, would demarcate the border between the U.S. and Mexico just north of the town of Doña Ana, with the town on the American side of the border.
Some American politicians were furious about the results of the survey, claiming that the American surveyor involved in the expedition had “given away” economically important swathes of land to Mexico. In particular, they viewed the Mesilla Valley as an excellent possible location for the transcontinental railroad, which was then in the planning stages. Southern politicians especially favored this so-called “southern route” which they believed would give the South an advantage in the highly divided regional political atmosphere at the time.
For the Mexican government and many of the Hispano residents of Doña Ana, the issue seemed clear-cut. The territory on the western side of the Río Grande in the Mesilla Valley remained Mexican. Doña Ana residents who wished to remain on Mexican territory, and retain their Mexican citizenship, could simply cross the river and establish settlements there. The Mexican state of Chihuahua set up the Mesilla Civil Colony, along with several other colonies farther south, as resettlement locations for New Mexican residents who wanted to remain part of the “mother country,” Mexico.
The territory on the west side of the Río Grande in the Mesilla Valley was disputed for years by both the Mexican and American governments until the Gadsden Purchase of December 1853 definitively ceded the land to the United States. Mexican president José Joaquín de Herrera had previously issued “National Regulations” to govern the repatriation of Mexican citizens from the territory lost to the U.S. in the Mexican War. The Regulations established a fund to help defray repatriates' moving expenses and called upon governors of the northern Mexican states to distribute land and establish colonies for the repatriates. Hundreds of Doña Ana residents took advantage of these provisions. Beginning in 1849, several began moving across the river. On March 1, 1850, Rafael Ruelas, along with sixty other Doña Ana residents who wished to retain their Mexican citizenship, officially founded the settlement of Mesilla.
Mesilla thrived and the area's population grew to two thousand by January 1852. A year later, in January 1853, Father Ramón Ortiz officially issued the Mesilla Civil Colony Grant. Ortiz was a special commissioner appointed by the Mexican government to help repatriate New Mexicans, like Rafael Ruelas and his contemporaries, who wished to move south of the border following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and thus remain Mexican citizens on Mexican territory.
Ortiz drew up the official grant documents setting aside a portion of the non-irrigable lands as a commons area, one for pasture and another for forest uses, wood gathering and hunting. Three leagues of the grant were irrigable lands to be allotted to individual families. Ortiz began the allotment process immediately.
However, before the process was completed, political turmoil in Mexico led to Ortiz' replacement as special commissioner by Guadalupe Miranda. Miranda was one of the recipients of the large and contested Maxwell Land Grant and was later Prefect of El Paso del Norte (Ciudad Juarez).
Miranda came to the Mesilla area in April of 1853. At that time, there were two settlements on the Mesilla Civil Colony grant, Mesilla and Santo Tomás de Iturbide. At the request of the people living at the latter settlement, Miranda divided the Mesilla Civil Colony grant into two separate grants, officially creating the Santo Tomás de Iturbide Grant. This division reduced the Mesilla Civil Colony Grant’s irrigable land from three to two leagues but increased the pasture land from one and a quarter to two leagues. Meanwhile, Miranda also founded another grant neighboring Mesilla, the Picacho grant (at the base of Picacho Mountain). The Picacho grant would share the Mesilla Civil Colony’s two leagues of common pasture land.
In December of 1853, the Gadsden Purchase became official and the previously Mexican, Mesilla Valley, came under U.S. sovereignty. On the Fourth of July, 1854, Mesilla residents held an official ceremony raising the U.S. flag over the plaza. This change in possession dealt a blow to Mesilla residents' claim to their title to the grants. It would be decades before title was confirmed under the slow and unwieldy process established first by the Surveyor General and later by the Court of Private Land Claims.
Mesilla's population remained mostly Mexicano after the change in possession. According to an 1858 newspaper article, out of some 4,000 residents, only about 200 were Anglo-Americans. In the late 1850s and 1860s, Mesilla became famous as a stop along the Butterfield Overland Coach route between San Antonio, Texas, and San Diego, California. Passengers looked forward to the relatively large town of Mesilla as the stop along the route with the most amenities.
The 1860s saw several notable events at Mesilla. Confederate troops invaded the Valley from Texas in July 1861 and occupied Mesilla until August 1862. Unusually heavy rainfall in the spring of 1862 and 1865 led to severe flooding of the Río Grande which destroyed crops and fields. The course of the river changed permanently after the 1865 floods. As a result, the village of Picacho became separated from the rest of the grant and was eventually abandoned.
The Mesilla Civil Colony was the first of the land grants in the Gadsden Purchase area to be recommended for confirmation to Congress by the Surveyor General, who at the time was James K. Proudfit. The grant's claimants filed for confirmation before the Surveyor General on January 23, 1874. Proudfit recommended that Congress confirm the grant on February 12 of that year. He ruled that Guadalupe Miranda had duly issued the grant and allotments of irrigable land to individuals; the claimants thus had undisputed title to their land and, in the intervening decades, had made improvements upon the land (such as establishing irrigation ditches, farming the land, and building houses and other structures). In March of 1878, twenty-five years after the grant was originally issued, the Surveyor General's office surveyed the grant, placing almost thirty-four thousand acres within the grant's boundaries. Congress' extremely slow progress on actually confirming grants recommended by the Surveyor General, however, meant that the Mesilla Civil Colony claimants would have to wait for almost three more decades before the U.S. government officially acted to confirm the grant.
In the meantime, the claimants organized as a corporation. On February 15, 1878, the New Mexico legislature passed a special act which incorporated the grant, meaning that the individual claimants could now function as a consolidated body before the law. This special act provided for three elected commissioners to run the corporation.
On February 28, 1893, the Incorporation of Mesilla, along with individual claimant Thomas J. Bull, filed for confirmation of the grant before the Court of Private Land Claims. Bull owned a substantial interest in the grant, which he had acquired by buying out several grantees. One issue before the court was whether or not Guadalupe Miranda had authority to make land grants. After some debate, the Court ruled that Miranda did, in fact, have such authority. The Court also ruled that Miranda had properly recorded the grant papers at the archives in El Paso del Norte. In its September 5th, 1899 ruling, which confirmed the Mesilla Civil Colony grant, the Court confirmed the two leagues of irrigable land (referred to in the Court ruling as “Tract 1”). However, though Miranda had allotted two leagues of common pasture land to the Mesilla Civil Colony, the Court ruled that the commons could only contain one league of land. The corporation, according to the Court's decision, was to hold the land in trust for all the people to whom land was originally granted as well as to those living on the grant on 20 December 1853, their heirs and assignees.
Another government survey was conducted following the Court's decree. This time, however, the survey found the grant to be much smaller than the 1878 government survey had found. According to the new survey, the irrigable land (Tract 1) consisted of 17,784 acres and Tract 2 of 3,844 acres, totaling 21,028 acres; much smaller than the earlier survey's 33,960 acres of granted land. This discrepancy may be in part due to the Court of Private Land Claims' refusal to confirm the original second league of pasture land, which accounted for approximately 3,900 acres. In any case, the final confirmed land in the grant was considerably less than the original.
The Incorporation of Mesilla finally received the patent to the Mesilla Civil Colony on November 15, 1909. It had been fifty years since settlers, seeking to stay within Mexican territory, had come to Mesilla from Doña Ana following the Mexican War, and over forty-five years since Mesilla officially became part of the territory of the United States.
1849: Settlers from Doña Ana begin crossing the Río Grande to re-settle in Mexico.
March 1, 1850: Rafael Ruelas officially founds the community of Mesilla.
January 1853: Father Ramón Ortiz officially issues Mesilla Civil Colony grant.
April 1853: Guadalupe Miranda divides Mesilla Civil Colony into two grants, Mesilla and Santo Tomas de Iturbide. Miranda begins to allot irrigable lands to individuals.
December 1853: Gadsden Purchase becomes official. Mesilla is now part of the U.S.
January 1874: Mesilla Civil Colony claimants file for confirmation before Surveyor General.
February 1874: Surveyor General rules in favor of Mesilla Civil Colony claimants.
February 1878: Mesilla Civil Colony claimants incorporate.
March 1878: First U.S. government survey of grant finds that the grant encompasses almost 34,000 acres.
February 1893: Incorporation of Mesilla and Thomas J. Bull file for confirmation of Mesilla Civil Colony grant before Court of Private Land Claims.
September 1899: Court of Private Land Claims issues decree confirming grant.
November 1909: U.S. government issues patent to Mesilla Incorporation.
Bowden, J.J. , “The Mesilla Civil Colony Grant,” Spanish and Mexican Land Grants in the Chihuahuan Acquisition. El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1971, pp. 48-57.
Mora, Anthony P. “Mesillaros and Mexican Gringos: The Changing Meanings of Race, Nation, and Space in Southern New Mexico, 1848-1912". Ph.D. Thesis, University of Notre Dame, 2002.
Price, Paxton P. Pioneers of the Mesilla Valley. Las Cruces: Yucca Tree Press, 1995.
Spanish Archives of New Mexico (SANM-I), Surveyor General Case File 86, Microfilm Reel 21, New Mexico State Archives and Records Center (NMSRCA).
SANM-I, Court of Private Land Claims Case Number, Court of Private Land Claims Case Number 151, Microfilm Reel 48, NMSRCA.
Werne, Joseph Richard . "Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Mesilla Controversy". Ph. D. Thesis, Kent State University, 1972.