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Ojito de los Medanos Grant

by J. J. Bowden

On March 2, 1893 the heirs of John Gwin, Jr, filed suit[1] in the Court of Private Land Claims against the United States seeking the confirmation of the Ojito de los Medanos Grant, which covered a square tract of sixteen leagues, or 69,443.22 acres with the Ojito de los Medanos or Lucero Springs as its center. In support of their claim, the plaintiffs filed a certified copy of an instrument which had been filed[2] in 1848 and recorded[3] in the land registry established by the Kearny Code. This instrument showed that Antonio Sandoval, a retired soldier and resident of the Town of Los Padillas, appeared before the Alcalde of Albuquerque, Mariano de la Pena, on June 13, 1819 and advised him that, while he had a large number of cattle, he had no land upon which to pasture them. Continuing, he stated that he feared that his stock might break into and damage the fields of his Indian neighbors. Therefore, he requested a grant “to the extent of two leagues in each direction” from the Ojito de los Medanos, which was situated on the west side of the Mesa de Yeso. Pena forwarded the petition to Governor Facundo Melgares on the same day, with a report in which he assured the governor that the allegations contained in the petition were true, that the lands surrounding the spring were vacant, and that he was referring the matter to Melgares for his further action, since he did not have the authority to make the requested concession. On June 24, 1819 Melgares unconditionally granted the premises to Sandoval and reserved unto himself the right to deliver possession of the property to the grantee. The Plaintiffs alleged that the governor personally placed Sandoval in royal possession of the grant, and thereafter he occupied the land with his flocks and herds till his death in 1862 as a childless widower. In order to connect themselves to Sandoval, the plaintiffs introduced his will in which Sandoval left his estate to his five sisters. By deed[4] dated November 23, 1872, Gwin had acquired the interests of many of the grandchildren of four of Sandoval's sisters. The government in its answer asserted that the grant had been abandoned within a short time after the date of the alleged grant.

 

The case came up for trial on September 16, 1897 at which time the plaintiffs offered the certified copy of the grant papers. As a foundation for its introduction, they asserted that the testimonio of the grant had been destroyed by robbers who broke into Sandoval's house near Albuquerque and plundered and burned many of his papers in 1853. They also called attention to the fact that Volume B of the Records of Land Titles had been stolen from the Surveyor General's Office. Oral evidence was also introduced by the plaintiffs tending to show the occupation of the tract by the grantee for several years subsequent to 1819. This evidence fur­ther showed that several years prior to 1836 Sandoval “aban­doned” the tract, moved his flocks to Guadalupe County, where he secured the Agua Negra Grant from the Mexican authorities and never returned to the Ojito de los Medanos Grant. It was also shown that the claim had not been pre­sented to the Surveyor General under the Act of July 22, 1854,[5] although three other grants made to Sandoval had been submitted to that office and two of them had been confirmed by Congress. The government contended that there was utter absence of proof of any claim of ownership of the grant by Sandoval and his heirs and legal representatives subsequent to its abandonment. The plaintiffs sought to overcome the government’s contention that the grant had been abandoned by showing that Indian hostilities prevented the occupation and use of the grant. However, this line of testimony also showed that such hostilities existed at the time the grant was made. The government argued that the grantee could not offer as an excuse for abandoning the grant a condition of things which existed at the time of the making of the grant, and which was really one of the reasons why the grant was made to him. It pointed out that it was the policy of the Spanish government to fortify the frontiers against the Indians by making grants to those who would defend it. Continuing, the government pointed out that there was a serious question as to whether the 1819 proceedings were tantamount to a complete and perfect grant. It noted that there was no evidence that the governor had ever delivered possession of the premises to Sandoval and argued that, unless he had been placed in possession of the grant, the concession was merely a license to occupy the land, which was revoked upon the change of sovereignty in 1848. The government, in the alternative, contended that the grant, at best, was an imperfect or equitable claim since it had not been confirmed by the Comandante General at Guadalajara; and, therefore, even if there was a grant of sixteen square leagues as claimed, the court, under Section 13 (7) of the Act of March 3, 1891[6] had no power to confirm the claim for more than eleven square leagues. In connection with the extent of the claim, the government asserted that the grant was not two leagues in each direction from the spring but a tract with the spring at the center of a square measuring two leagues on each side. Thus, the grant would cover only four square leagues, or about 16,000 acres.

 

The court in its majority opinion[7] dated September 20, 1897 rejected the grant on the grounds that, since there was no evidence that possession of the tract had ever been delivered to Sandoval, the concession was merely a license, which had been abandoned prior to the change in sovereignty; and, therefore, the claim was not one which the United States was bound to recognize and confirm under its treaty with Mexico. Justices William M. Murray and Henry C. Sluss concurred with the majority in the results but were of the opinion that the copy of the grant document tendered by the plaintiffs was not competent evidence.

 

 


[1] Gwin v. United States, No. 209 (Mss., Records of the çt. Pvt. L. Cl.). Previously, a similar suit was filed by Maria M. Baca, a granddaughter of one of Sandoval’s sisters and devisees, on February 1, 1893. The two suits were consolidated for purposes of trial. When the consolidated case came up for trial, Baca announced that she would not further prosecute her action. Whereupon, the order of consolidation was set aside by the court, and her suit was dismissed. Baca v. United States, No. 69 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[2] B Record of Land Titles 16‑1/2‑17. This volume was stolen from the surveyor General’s Office in 1880.

[3] 1 New Mexico Statutes 64 (1941).

[4] A‑3, Deed Records 417‑423 (Mss., Records of the County Clerk’s Office, Los Lunas, New Mexico).

[5] An Act to Establish the Offices of Surveyor General of New Mexico, Kansas and Nebraska, to Grant Donations to Actual Settlers Therein, and For Other Purposes, Chap. 103, Sec. 8,10 Stat. 308 (1854).

[6] Court of Private Land Claims Act, Chap. 539, Sec. 13 (7), 26 Stat. 854 (1891).

[7] 3 Journal 274 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).