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Plaza of Guadalupe Grant

by J. J. Bowden

In 1851, eighty-two local landless families petitioned the prefect of Taos, George Levy, requesting him to grant them the privilege of occupying and cultivating that certain tract of land known as the Plaza of Guadalupe “in conformity with the usages and customs in force prior to the acquisition of New Mexico by the United States.” The tract was described as being bounded:

On the north, by the Sangre de Cristo Grant; on the east, by the Cumbre de la Sierra Grande; on the south, by the Ojo del Pinabetas and the waters of the Sierra Guadalupe; and on the west by the Canon of the Rio Grande.

Levy granted the request and appointed a commission comprised of Francisco Martine, Miquel Ortiz and Matias Ortega to divide, pass out, and assign to each of the applicants an individual tract of land ranging from fifty to seventy varas in width. Each of the commissioners was allowed one hundred and twenty varas of land as compensation for his services. Levy also authorized the settlers to use the water from the three small streams which were fed by the melting snow off the mountains which bounded the grant on its east side. In response to the charge, the commission allotted the farm tracts to the petitioners, who immediately occupied and commenced farming their respective lots. Sometime in 1854, Vincento Martinez and a number of other citizens of Taos instituted a suit in the District Court for the Second Judicial District of New Mexico seeking to enjoin Jose Miguel Ortiz and a number of the other inhabitants of the Plaza of Guadalupe from claiming and using the grant. On September 4, 1854, the jury held for the defendants and the court entered judgment in their favor. Thereafter, the inhabitants of the grant continuously held and enjoyed peaceful possession of the premises which were estimated to contain nine square leagues or approximately 39,852 acres of land.[1]

A claim for the confirmation of the grant was presented[2] to Surveyor General T. Rush Spencer on July 17, 1872, by Jose Ignacio Garcia, Jose S. Martinez, and Pedro Vigil, as attorneys in fact for the seven hundred forty-one inhabitants of the grant. In a brief supporting the claim, they pointed out that during the initial session of the New Mexico legislature, which met after the establishment of a civil government under the Organic Act,[3] an act was passed on July 14, 1851, which provided that the laws which previously had been in force and not repugnant to or inconsistent with the Constitution of the United States were to continue in effect.[4] Continuing, the claimants stated that:

… ever since 1824, Prefects of New Mexico had the right to extend the settlement of vacant lands within their jurisdiction and parcel it out to the people who wished to form a new town...

Therefore, according to their reasoning, if Prefects had the power to make grants under the Mexican Regime, this authority still existed after the United States acquired New Mexico and, thus, their claim should be recognized.[5]

While the peaceful occupation of the grant for more than twenty years might have given them an equitable interest in the lands which were actually occupied, it was clear they had no legal title under the grant. In short, the petitioners had totally failed to establish a legal claim. First, they had not filed any documentary evidence supporting their claim and without some evidence of title, the claim obviously could not be recognized, Second, it was a well-established principle of law that when Mexico ceded the territory to the United States, all of the vacant and unappropriated land therein passes to the United States and the Territory of New Mexico had no title to the unappropriated lands within its borders.[6] Thus, New Mexico could not by its laws, impose or dictate to the United States, the terms or mode by which title to the public lands shall be conveyed. Finally, it should be noted that the facts set forth in the claimant’s petition indicated that the Prefect was attempting to make a concession under the Cedula of January 4, 1813, while it was well established that after 1828 only the governor could make valid grants of the public domain in New Mexico[7]  in view of these defects it is not surprising to find that the petitioners did not push for an early hearing upon their claim, and, therefore, no action was had thereon by the Surveyor General’s Office. The grant was never presented to the Court of Private Land Claims for adjudication since it only had jurisdiction over claims arising under Spanish and Mexican grants.[8]

[1] The Plaza of Guadalupe Grant, No. F‑105 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[2] Ibid.

[3] An act proposing to Texas the establishment of her northern and western boundaries, the relinquishment by the said state of all territory claimed by her exterior to said boundaries, and all her claims upon the United States, and to establish a government for New Mexico, Ch, 49, Sec. 7, 9 Stat. 446 (1850). Section 9 of this act provides, among other things, that the legislative power of the Territory of New Mexico shall extend to all rightful subjects of legislation consistent with the Constitution of the United States but that no law would be passed “interfering with the primary disposal of the soil.”

[4] Leitensdorfer v. Webb, 1 N.M. 34 (1853).

[5] The Plaza of Guadalupe Grant, No. F‑105 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[6] Irvine v. Marshall, 20 How. (161 U.S.) 558 (1857).

[7] Crespin v. United States, 168 U.S. 208 (1897)

[8] Court of Private Land Claims Act, Chap. 539,. Soc. 6, 26 Stat. 854 (1891).