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Pueblo of Taos Grant

by J. J. Bowden

The Pueblo of Taos with its twin five‑storied Tewa communal dwellings has been well known to Europeans since 1540 when Hernando de Alvarado, a captain in Coronado’s Army, first explored the Rio Arriba or upper river area. The Tewa name for the pueblo was Towik which the Spaniards mispronounced as Taos. When New Mexico was divided into mission districts in 1598, Taos was assigned to Fray Francisco de Zamora, who, following the Pueblo’s submission to the Spaniards on September 9, 1598, commenced the construction of the mission of San Geronimo do Taos. While a large portion of its inhabitants were christianized, the Taos Indians refused to cease practicing their ancient religious rites. Religious intolerance by the missionaries coupled with the demands for tribute from the encomenderos sowed the seeds of discontentment. The encroachment of the Spaniards upon the lands which the Taos Indians were actually occupying and had long considered as a tribal possession fanned the smoldering fires of rebellion. However, it was the widespread mistreatment of the Pueblo Indians by the Spanish authorities which finally led them to unite under the leadership of Popé, a Tewa medicine man, and sparked the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. The combined Pueblo Indian forces either killed or drove every Spaniard out of New Mexico and prevented their return until 1692, when Diego de Vargas brought the rebellious Indians to their knees. When de Vargas marched against Taos in October, 1692, the inhabitants fled into the mountains. He returned nearly a year later only to find the Pueblo deserted. Peace terms were finally negotiated in 1694 and missionaries returned to Taos. However, five priests and twenty-one other Spaniards were massacred when the Taos Indians joined the unsuccessful revolt of June 4, 1696. De Vargas marched against the Pueblo in September and laid siege upon the Indians, who had fortified themselves in a canyon. A month later, the Indians surrendered and a lasting peace was finally established between the Taos Indians and the Spaniards.[1]

Spanish settlers did not return immediately to the Taos area in great numbers; however, during the eighteenth century, the Spanish officials issued a number of grants in the vicinity of Taos, at least three of which encroached upon the Pueblo league.[2] At the time of the issuance of these grants, the Indians did not object since they did not interfere with their agricultural and stock raising activities. However, as the Spanish population increased, disputes arose. In 1750 there were 125 non‑Indians in the Taos jurisdiction, most of whom lived at the Pueblo. At first these disputes did not concern the conflict between the private and Pueblo grants but involved the efforts by the white inhabitants who were cultivating lands within the Pueblo Grant, to keep the Indians’ livestock out of their crops. The Spanish officials invariably decided such disputes in favor of the Indians and ordered the whites to fence their fields and stop interfering with the Indians use of their traditional pastures. By 1795 the hostilities of the Comanches had abated somewhat and most of the Spaniards moved from the Pueblo to their grants or to form new settlements Thereafter serious boundary controversies became prevalent.[3]

On April 11, 1815 Jose Francisco Lujan, Governor of the Pueblo of Taos, petitioned Acalde Jose Miguel Tafoya seeking the ejection of the trespassers who were encroaching upon the Pueblo League. Lujan asserted that in view of the fact that the King had given the Indians of the Pueblo of Taos “a league of land in the four directions”, the Spaniards who had usurped lands within their league should be removed “in order that their families might spread out over the planting lands and have ample pasturage for their animals”. Tafoya advised the Indians that they should apply to the Governor for relief because the owners of the ranches inside the Indian league would probably vigorously oppose the granting of their petition, and only he could settle the dispute. Governor Alberto Maynez issued a decree on April 18, 1816 which clearly defined the rights of the Pueblo Indians, This decree provides:

The league of five thousand varas measured from the cross in the cemetery in all directions, of which his Majesty made grant to each town of Indians from the beginning of its establishment, is in order that it be conserved for the maintenance of its natives; so that they have the use and cannot give nor sell without permission of the King; because of its being a patrimony or entailed estate, so that no judge or governor has the power to sell a part or the whole of said league.

If it should result that for many years past or in any manner whatever citizens may have intruded to plant and build on the Indians' land, ought to lose the work done, leaving their ground free to them; but as from this grave injuries might result to the citizens, the Chief Alcalde of Taos will temper equity with justice so far as possible, hearing the parties and adjusting their differences in such manner that the natives shall not be left injured in the compromise which they may make; and Don Felipe Sandoval, the Protector of the Indians will set forth after this decree whatever may occur to him in regard to the present petition.[4]

The Spaniards protested this decision, stating that it would deprive them of forty‑four tracts, two villages containing about 200 families and their church. They complained that since the Indians had invited their forefathers to settle upon the land in order to help in the defense of the Pueblo against the Comanches, it would be unfair to deprive them of the lands which had been granted without objection from the Indians. They contended that since the Indians had not improved or cultivated the lands in question, they, being members of the conquering nation, ought to have the land or at least, be allowed to rent it. In conclusion, they intimated that if they were deprived of the land they would be placed in such a hopeless position that they might be driven to some act of desperation. This led the Governor to urge the Indians and Spaniards to compromise their differences so he would not have to refer the matter to the Royal Audiencia. However, he re‑emphasized that the Indians’ right to the league which had been granted to them by the King was incontestable and if the Spaniards took the matter to trial in order to placate themselves, the Indians would undoubtedly prevail.[5]

Few changes were made in the legal status and admin­istration of Indian affairs after Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821 and the various Mexican governments invariably recognized and protected the Pueblo land titles.

After the United States acquired New Mexico, it was bound under the eighth section of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago[6] to recognize the rights of the Pueblo Indians, who under the laws of Mexico had been Mexican citizens. Thus, Congress when it created the office of Surveyor General for New Mexico, ordered him to investigate and report upon nature of the land. Titles held by the Pueblos in order that the bona fide claims might be confirmed.[7] In response to this change, Surveyor General William Pelham commenced a general inquiry into the validity of pueblo land titles, one of which was that of the Pueblo of Taos. On August 2, 1856 he held a hearing on the Pueblo of Taos Grant, at which time Pablo Romero, the then governor of the Pueblo, together with War Captain Juan Reyno and Cacique Benito Casillas, testified that they did not have any papers evidencing the original grant to the Pueblo but there was a tradition that a four‑league grant had been made to the Pueblo of Taos at the same time that grants were made to all the other pueblos in the territory. In support of this tradition, they filed the following letter:

The communication of Your Reverence of the 11th instant is received concerning the measure of the leagues of land of the Pueblo of Taos, which shall contain five thousand varas from the cross in the cemetery towards the four cardinal points, concerning which matter I have today issued a decree to the senior justice of that jurisdiction, requiring him to be governed thereby, mingling equity with justice so that the citizens who are on alien lands may not be injured more than what is absolutely necessary, in which I trust Your Reverence will cooperate with your kind offices.

God preserve you many years:
Santa Fe April 15, 1815
Alberto Maguez
Very Reverend Friar Jose Benito Pereyro[8]

In his Annual Report dated September 30, 1856 Pelham, in connection with the Pueblo land titles upon which he had reported, stated:

 The Pueblo Indians are constantly encroached upon by the Mexican citizens, and in many instances the Indians are dispoiled of their best lands; I therefore respectfully recommend that these claims be confirmed by Congress as speedily as possible, and that an appropriation be made to survey their lands, n order that their boundaries may be permanently fixed.[9]

Congress heeded the Surveyor General’s advice and by Act approved on December 28, 1858[10] it conferred title to seventeen pueblo grants including that of the Pueblo of Taos The grant was surveyed in July, 1859 for 17,360.55 acres, and a patent was issued to the Pueblo of Taos on November 1, 1864.[11]


[1] Forrest, Missions and Pueblos of the Old Southwest 87‑88 (1962).

[2] These were the Antoine Leroux the Antonio Martinez and Francisca Antonia de Gijosa Grants.

[3] Jenkins, “Taos Pueblo and its Neighbors”, 41 New Mexico Review 91‑100 (1966).

[4] Archive No. 1357 ((Mss., Records of the A.N.M.).

[5] Ibid

[6] 5 Miller, Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America 217‑218 (1937).

[7] An Act to establish the office of Surveyor General New Mexico, Kansas, and Nebraska, to grant donations to actual settlers therein, and for other purposes, Chan. 103 Sec. 8, 10 Stat. 308 (1854).

[8] H. R. Exec. Doc No 1, 34th Cong., 3d Sess., 512 (1856).

[9] Ibid., 411‑412.

[10] An Act to confirm the land claims of certain pueblos and towns in the Territory of New Mexico, Chap. 5. 11 Stat 374 (1858).

[11] The Pueblo of Taos Grant, No. I (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).