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Pueblo of Pecos Grant

by J. J. Bowden

In prehistoric times, Indians of the Tanoan culture occupied a number of pueblos scattered along the upper Pecos River Valley. By the time of the arrival of the first Spaniards under Coronado in 1540, the Indians had concentrated in the Pueblo of Pecos, which was located about thirty miles southeast of Santa Fe. The Pueblo, quadrangular structure, consisted of two great four‑storied communal dwellings. One contained 585 rooms and the other 517. When Juan de Onate conquered New Mexico, the Pueblo of Pecos was the largest of New Mexican pueblos with a permanent population of 2,000 souls. During Onate’s administration, New Mexico was divided into missionary districts and the magnificent church of Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles, with its six towers, which for centuries served as a prominent New Mexican landmark, was commenced as the Pueblo of Pecos in 1617 and completed in 1620. The Pecos Indians, after killing their resident priest, actively participated in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and the siege of Santa Fe.[1]

At first Governor Antonio Otermin did not realize the seriousness of the situation but by August 21, 1680, the eleventh day of the Revolt, he recognized that Santa Fe could not be held. Therefore, he ordered a general retreat southward to El Paso del Norte where the Spaniards regrouped and made preparation for the reconquest of Now Mexico. Between 1681 and 1692, Governors Otermin and his successors made a number of unsuccessful attempts to reconquer the Pueblo Indians. The disappointing results of Governor Domingo Cruzate’s Entrada of 1689 prompted him to attempt to appease the Pueblo Indians by granting them land. Since land was the basis of the Pueblo economy, and, in the eyes of the Indians, their most precious possession,[2] it was hoped that a grant to each of the eleven principal Pueblos of New Mexico would cause the inhabitants of those settlements to return to their former peaceful and sedentary ways. Express authority to make land grants to Pueblos was given to Cruzate in a Royal Cedula published on June 4, 1687.[3] The Cedula authorized, as a general rule, the granting of a tract to cover all the land within 600 varas on each of the cardinal directions from the farthest or last house of the settlement and not from the church, together with an additional 1,100 varas of land in each direction for pastures. However, he was authorized “without limitation” to grant an Indian Pueblo, as a communal settlement, all of the land which he deemed necessary for its continued growth and welfare. One of these grants was made to the Pueblo of Pecos on September 25, 1689. The grant was made at El Paso del Norte by Cruzato and certified by the Secretary of Government and War, Pedro Ladron de Guitara. It covered a tract of land measured one league in each of the cardinal directions “measured from the four corners of the Pueblo leaving out the church which is situated to the south of said Pueblo.”4]

The wisdom of Cruzate’s action is evidence by the fact that when Governor Diego de Vargas reconquered New Mexico in 1693 the Pecos Indians took no part in the efforts of the other tribes to resist him. In fact, Juan Ye, then Governor of the Pueblo of Pecos, joined Vargas and acted as his mediator in the campaign against the Pueblo of Taos. For the next half century, it was the leading settlement east of Santa Fe. However, by 1750, the hostility of the Apaches and Comanches coupled with repeated epidemics reduced its population to less than one thousand persons. The final blow came in 1788, when smallpox ravaged the community leaving only one hundred eighty survivors. By 1838, its population had dropped to seventeen. No longer able to protect themselves, the remnants of the once proud tribe decided to abandon the pueblo and move to the Pueblo of Jemez. After the pueblo was vacated it rapidly was reduced to ruins, a process greatly accelerated when the travelers using the Santa Fe Trail robbed the buildings of their beams for firewood whenever they camped at the deserted village.[5]

On the second day after General Stephen W. Kearny seized New Mexico, he met with a delegation of Pueblo Indians, who requested that their land grants he recognized and protected from the encroachment and appropriation by others. As a result of this meeting, a provision was included in the Kearny Code which authorized the filing of papers evidencing land titles in the office of the Register of Lands at Santa Fe, New Mexico.[6] Since no provision was made for the confirmation of their claims, the Indians were suspicious and afraid to surrender their original title papers. After James S. Calhoun, who formerly had been Indian Agent, became Governor of New Mexico in 1851, he frequently urged Congress to recognize the Pueblo Land Titles. In order to fulfill its solemn obligation under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Congress passed the act of July 22, 1854,[7] creating the office of Surveyor General for New Mexico and vesting authority in him to investigate and report upon the validity of private land claims in New Mexico in order that Congress might take such action thereon as it deemed just and proper. The first Surveyor General, William Pelham, was instructed to give the Pueblo claims prompt attention. In compliance therewith, Pelham investigated the claims of seventeen Pueblos, including the Pueblo of Pecos. In his report dated September 30, 1856, Surveyor General Pelham stated:

The Pueblo Indians are constantly encroached upon by the Mexican citizens, and in many instances, the Indians are despoiled of their best lands; I, therefore, respectfully recommend that these claims be confirmed by Congress as speedily as possible, and that an appropriation he made to survey their lands, in order that their boundaries may be permanently fixed.[8]

The Congress of the United States accepted this recommendation and on December 22, 1858, the Pueblo of Pecos Grant was approved and confirmed.[9] A patent covering the 18,763.33 acres embraced within the grant was issued on November 19, 1864.10]

For many years, the “Cruzate Grants” were universally accepted as being valid and authentic. However, in the 1890s, Will N. Tipton, Investigator for the Court of Private Land Claims, made a special study of those grants and after exhaustive research declared each to be spurious. His opinion was based on four defects. The first was that all of the grants had been certified by Pedro Landron de Guitara, whereas Cruzate’s Secretary of Government was Pedro Ortiz Nine do Guevara. The second was that Cruzate’s signature on each of the grants, when compared with his signature on other documents in the archives, disclosed that they were inartistic forgeries. The third was that the supposed grant to the Pueblo of Laguna was dated ten years before the pueblo had been established. And, the fourth was that parts of the supposed grants were copied out of a book entitled Ojeada Sobre Nuevo Mexico, which had been written by Antonio Barreiro in 1832.[11] Notwithstanding this discovery, the government made no effort to set aside the patents to these grants on grounds that they had been obtained through fraud, since, it was believed there was enough documentary evidence available, which coupled with the long and peaceful occupation of the land by the Indians, would justify the presumption that valid grants had been made under the Royal Cedula of June 4, 1687,[12] and October 15, 1713.13]

Sometime prior to January 20, 1887, James M. Seymour purchased the interests of the Pecos Indians. On that date, he filed a quiet title suit[14] against the unknown heirs of the Indians of the Pueblo of Pecos. The principal issue in this case was whether or not deeds by all the known member of the tribe were sufficient to convey title to the grant. Based on a long line of cases, Seymour contended that the Pueblo Indians were not Indians in the true sense of the term and therefore, the Indian laws of the United States did not apply to them. This case was dismissed before it went to judgment and the question remained unsettled until a provision was inserted in the New Mexico Enabling Act[15] which provided, that all lands acquired by Indians from the United States or any prior sovereign were to be subject to the disposition and control of Congress.

In 1913, the United States Supreme Court in the Sandoval Case[16] held the Pueblo Indians to be wards of the United States and, therefore, they did not have the right to alienate the lands. Under this decision, the Pueblo Indians had the right to recover all lands which they had previously sold. The consternation which arose as a result of the Sandoval decision prompted the passage of the Public Land Act of 1924,[17] which provided for the creation of a Pueblo Land Board to investigate and validate or reject the claims of some 3,000 non‑Indians who asserted claims to land within the boundaries of the Pueblo Land Grants of New Mexico.

The Pueblo Land Board upon investigation found that a large number of non‑Indians were in possession of several hundred separate tracts covering the entire grant and such parties had been in adverse possession thereof under title of color emanating prior to January 6, 1902, which was the cut‑off date under Section 4(a) of the Act. Therefore, the Board found that the Indians’ title to such tracts had been extinguished.18]


[1] Ayer, The Memorial of Fray Alonso de Benavides 231‑233 (1916); 2 Hodge, Handbook of American Indians, 220‑221 (1960); and Forrest, Missions and Pueblos of the Old Southwest 97-99 (1962).

[2] Lange, Cochiti, 36 (1959).

[3] 1 Twitchell, The Spanish Archives New Mexico, 475‑477 (1914). The quantity of land given to Indian Pueblos was increased to a league in each direction by the Royal Cedula of October 15, 1713. Thus, four square leagues of 17,712 acres measured from the church became the accepted size for Pueblo Grants in New Mexico. Annual Report of The Secretary of Interior, 333‑334 (1856).

[4] H. R. Exec. Doc. No. 1, 34th Cong., 3d Sess., 506 (1856).

[5] Alsberg, New Mexico, a Guide to the Colorful State. 238‑239 (1962) .

[6] 1 New Mexico Statutes, 64 (1942).

[7] An act to establish the office 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 (1954).

[8] H. R. Exec. Doc. No. 1, 34th Cong., 3d Sess., 411‑412 (1856).

9] An act to confirm the land claim of certain pueblos and towns in the Territory of New Mexico, Chap. 5, 11 Stat. 374 (1858).

[10] The Pueblo of Pecos Grant, No. F (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[11] Brayer, Pueblo Indian Land Grants of the “Rio Abajo” New Mexico, 14‑15 (1939).

[12] Hall, The Laws of Mexico, 63‑66 (1885).

[13] H. R. Exec. Doc. No. 1, 34th Cong., 3d Sess., 519‑520 (1856).

4] Seymour v. The Unknown Heirs of the Indians of the Pueblo of Pecos, No. 2723 (Mss., Records of the District Clerk’s Office, Las Vegas, New Mexico).

[15] The New Mexico Enabling Act, Chap. 310, 36 Stat. 557 (1912).

[16] United States v. Sandoval, 231 U. S. 28 (1913).

[17] The Pueblo Land Act, Chap. 331, 43 Stat. 636 (1924).

[18] The Pueblo of Pecos Grant (Mss., Records of the Pueblo Land Board, General Service Administration, Washington, D.C.).