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Nicolas Duran de Chaves Grant

by J. J. Bowden

On or about June 1, 1739 Nicolas Duran de Chaves appeared before Governor Gaspar Domingo de Mendoza to register a tract of land which he was than occupying. His petition described the requested tract as being bounded:

On the north, by the lands of Bernabe Baca; on the east, by the Rio Grande; on the south, by the lagoons called San Pablo; and on the west, by the Rio Puerco.

In support of his supplication, he advised the governor that in 1738 Governor Enrique de Olavide y Michelena had visited the Town of Albuquerque, and he had asked him for a grant covering the tract for the support of his large family of nine sons and herds of cattle and sheep. Michelena declined to grant the land to Chaves at that time, but gave him permission to occupy the tract until his successor arrived and had an opportunity to act upon the request. Continuing, Chaves pointed out in his petition that he had taken possession of the tract, built a cabin thereon, and stocked it with his animals; and, notwithstanding the imminent peril to both life and property, he had been able to retain possession of the property. Mendoza granted the land to Chaves on June 1, 1739 and ordered the Alcalde of Albuquerque, Juan Gonzales Bas, to place him in royal possession of the concession. In compliance with the governor’s decree, Bas went to Chaves rancho on August 26, 1739 where he met the adjoining land­ owners and advised them of the grant. Upon his inquiring about the northern boundary of the grant, a difference of opinion arose over its location. It was shown that the southern boundary of Bernabe Baca s lands was located at the ruins of the Tome Domingues house.[1] However, there was a dispute as to which of two ruins, which were about a league apart, was Domingues.’ Chaves claimed that the common boundary between his grant and Baca’s lands was located at the northern ruins. Due to the uncertainty over which of the ruins was Domingues,’ Bas got the interested parties to compromise their differences by agreeing to locate their common boundary midway between the two ruins at a little round lagoon with a growth of rushes. After settling this dispute, Bas, finding no other objection to the grant, proceeded to place Chaves in royal possession of a tract described as being bounded:

On the north, by a little round lagoon with a growth of rushes; on the east, by the Rio Grande; on the south, by the San Pablo Lagoons; and on the west, by the Rio Puerco.

The grant papers were returned to Mendoza, who, on September 30, 1739, made a marginal note at the foot of the expediente ordering the entry of the grant in the Government Book.[2]

The compromise settlement of the disputed north boundary of the grant must not have been accepted completely by Baca and Chaves, for the dispute was presented to Mendoza, and, on October 2, 1743, he held that “the boundaries must be recognized as those which are recited in it and they are the same which should be recognized according to the said grant and its owner is Nicolas de Chaves; and it being understood that in this as in other grants the pastures, entrances and exits, and waters are common, excepting the cultivated land and enclosures.…” [3]

Baca was not satisfied with the outcome of this decision and resubmitted the dispute to Mendoza’s successor, Governor Joaquin Codallos y Rabal. On March 3, 1744, Rabal found[4] Chaves’ grant to be null and void insofar as it encroached upon Baca’s lands and directed the Alcalde of Albuquerque, Baltazar de Abeitia, to place Baca in possession of the disputed lands. Six days later Abeitia fixed the common boundary between Baca and Chaves at the southern ruins which he declared to be the ruins of Tome Domingues and or­dered Chaves, under penalty of a $300 fine, to remove his house and corrals from Baca’s lands. However, even this decision did not solve the dispute between the two neighbors; and, on October 18, 1746, Baca and Chaves appeared before Rabal, who was passing through the area on a visit to El Paso del Norte, and advised them that, notwithstanding Abeitia’s decision, they finally had decided to settle their differences by locating their common boundary 250 paces farther north at a large cottonwood tree in front of Chaves corrals. Rabal approved[5] the arrangement and Baca gave Chaves a donation deed covering the narrow strip of land.

While this compromise finally settled the disputed northern boundary, approximately three years later a controversy developed over the location of his southern boundary. It seems that there were three lagoons forming what was known as the Lagoons of San Pablo, and a question arose as to which of the lagoons marked the boundary. Naturally, Chaves contended that it should be located at the most southernly location. The controversy was presented to Bernardo Antonio de Bustamante, Lieutenant Governor of New Mexico, who, by decision[6] dated June 2, 1719, settled the problem. However, this instrument is so mutilated that it is impossible to determine which way he held.

For over a century Chaves and his descendants peacefully occupied and used the grant; however, in 1820, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe built its line across the grant and attracted a number of homesteaders to the area. To have the lands covered by the grant withdrawn from settlement under the public land laws, Jose Chaves y Gallegos and nineteen others, both for themselves and on behalf off the other heirs and legal representatives of Nicolas Duran de Chaves, presented[7] the grant to Surveyor General George N. Julian for confirmation on April 11, 1887. In support of the claim, they filed the testimonio of the grant and copies of several documents from the archives[8] which mentioned the concession. A large amount of oral and documentary evidence which tended to prove that the heirs of the original grantee had occupied the promises for at least ninety years and connecting the twenty named petitioners to Nicolas Duran de Chaves. By decision[9] dated December 16, 1887, Julian stated that he had compared the signatures on the testimonio with signatures by the granting officials on documents known to be genuine from the archives and found them to be valid. He also held that the evidence showed that the conditions subsequent, prescribed by Spanish law pertaining to settlement, had been timely performed. Therefore, he found the grant to be valid and recommended its confirmation. However, he had a question as to the quantity of land which should be recognized. He pointed out that the tract described in the testimonio covered an estimated area of 50,000 acres but that Mendoza’s decree of October 2, 1743 had held that “pastures, entrances and exits, and waters are common, excepting the cultivated land and enclosures ....” Julian interpreted this language to mean that the grant covered only the lands actually cultivated by the claimants. Notwithstanding Julian’s favorable report, the controversy surrounding all Spanish and Mexican grants caused Congress to become derelict in its duties, and term after term passed without the confirmation of any of the pending claims.

Meanwhile, Barbara Chaves de Sanchez, one of the heirs of Nicolas Duran de Chaves, who had perfected a homestead entry and received a patent in 1882 to 157.37 acres within the exterior boundaries of the grant, filed an ejectment suit in 1889 against Vincente Chaves and a number of others claiming under the grant. The defendants asserted that, since the grant was perfect, the patent was invalid. The District Court for Valencia County held for the plaintiff, and the defendant appealed. The New Mexico Supreme Court, in a decision[10] dated January 25, 1893, affirmed the lower courts decision and held that jurisdiction over the adjudication of the validity of Spanish and Mexican Land Grants belonged to the political department. Continuing, it stated: 

No jurisdiction over such claims in New Mexico was conferred upon the courts.… We have endeavored to show that the court below was powerless to take cognizance of the grant title, or declare it of any value whatever; and, the land being a part of the territory ceded to the United States, of which the court took notice, the patent was conclusive evidence in the court below of the proper conveyance of the land, and that the United States was the rightful owner at the time the patent was issued.

Just eighteen days before the issuance of the de­cision in the Chaves case,[11] Jose Chaves y Gallegos, as an heir and legal representative of Nicolas Duran de Chaves, filed suit[12] against the United States, Barbara Chaves y Sanchez and two other homesteaders, who had settled within the grant, in the Court of Private Land Claims, which had been created by Congress in 1891[13] to solve the land grant problem, seeking the confirmation of the grant. He asserted that, since the grant was perfect in 1848, it was paramount to the patents subsequently issued to the homesteaders. The United States had no special defenses against the confirmation of the grant and in its answer merely placed the allegations contained in the plaintiff’s petition in issue. The homesteaders filed answers setting up titles under their patents and asking that their lands be excepted from the confirmation should the court find the grant to be valid.

Upon the trial of the case on July 26, 1896, Chaves introduced the testimonio of the grant, Archive Numbers 92, 184, and 201, and oral testimony tracing possession of the grant back three generations. The government filed a general answer and its co‑defendants offered their patents. The court, in its decision[14] dated August 23, 1893, unanimously held that the claim was a perfect grant and title had become vested in Nicolas Duran de Chaves prior to his death; and, therefore, legal title was in his heirs and legal representatives at the date of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The court was divided, however, upon the question of the rights of the co-defendants to have the lands included within their patents excepted from the decree of confirmation. The majority of the court held that the rights of the co‑defendants should be reserved, but granted Chaves the right to sue the government for a money judgment in lieu of such land. Justices W. M. Murray and Wilbur F. Stone dissented on the ground that, since the grant was perfect and complete, it was fully protected by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the patents were void. Neither side appealed the decision.

The grant was surveyed by Deputy Surveyor Sherrard Coleman in October, 1894, for a total of 40,248.57 acres less 410.90 acres covered by patented homesteads, or a net area of 39,837.67 acres. The survey was submitted to the court and approved[15] on May 29, 1895. It was later discovered that Coleman had erroneously located the Rio Puerco too far east. This mistake was called to the court’s attention by the Land Department, with a request that the court order a new survey. The court, on February 2, 1898, held that it did not have the power to grant the Land Department’s request and “if anything remained to be done to make the line on the surface of the earth conform to the decree. . . such action must be taken by that office.”[16] As a result of this decision, the Land Department ordered a new survey. The resurvey was made by Deputy Surveyor John H. Walker in July, 1900.

On December 26, 1900, Chaves brought suit under Section 14 of the Act of March 3, 1891[17] against the government for a money judgment for the value of 410.90 acres embraced within the three homestead entries. A judgment[18] in favor of the owners of the grant was entered on December 14, 1903, for the statutory maximum of $1.25 per acre, or a total of $513.62. This is the only instance in which a money judgment against the United States has been granted and paid in all the litigation arising out of private land claims adjudicated by the Court of Private Land Claims.


[1] Tome Domingues established a flourishing estancia below the Pueblo of Isleta and about 14 leagues north of the Pueblo of Socorro sometime before 1662. He fled south in August, 1680, with the rest of the Rio Abajo people. ln 1682, he and his family were granted permission to move to New Spain, and they never returned to New Mexico. Chavez, Origins of New Mexico Families 25 (1954)

[2] The Nicolas Duran de Chaves Grant, No. 155 (Mss. Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Archive No. 92 (Mss., Records of the A.N.M.).

[5] Archive No. 184 (Mss., Records of the A.N.M.).

[6] The Nicolas Duran de Chaves Grant, No. 155 Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Archives Nos. 92, 184, and 201 (Mss., Records of the A.N.M.).

[9] The Nicolas Duran de Chaves Grant, No. 155 Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[10] Chaves v. Chaves, 7 N.M. 58, 32 p. 137 (1893).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Chaves v. United States, No. 57 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[13] Court of Private Land Claims Act, Chap. 539, 26 Stat. 854 (1891).

[14] 1 Journal 201‑205 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[15] (Stet.)

[16] (Stet.)

[17] Court of Private Land Claims Act, Chap. 539, Sec. 14, 26 Stat. 854 (1891).

[18] 4 Journal 347 (Mss., Records of the CL. Pvt. L. Cl.).