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Rancho de Ysleta Grant

by J. J. Bowden
 

The history of the Rancho de Ysleta Grant commences on July 9, 1828, when the inhabitants of the Pueblo of San Antonio de Ysleta petitioned Jose Antonio Arce, Governor of Chihuahua, for a grant covering the lands located in the vicinity of Sierra Alta, which they had utilized for a number of years as community pasture. The petitioners directed the governor’s attention to the fact that the original town grant given to their pueblo in 1751, and confirmed in 1825, had become insufficient since all of those lands had been appropriated and placed under cultivation. They further alleged that much of the grazing land in the area had already been appropriated by the adjoining settlements and that unless they were given the requested lands, they would not have sufficient pasturage for their livestock. Governor Arce with the consent of the Second Constitutional Congress of the State of Chihuahua approved the petition on August 31, 1828, and granted the pueblo a community pasture grant not to exceed an aggregate of one league of land for each family. The governor ordered the Alcalde of El Paso del Norte, Agapito Albo, to survey the grant and place the interested parties in possession of the premises. Albo called a public meeting in Ysleta on September 5, 1828, and appointed two chain carriers and a tally keeper to assist him in making the survey in accordance with the governor’s decree. The alcalde furnished the chain carriers with a cord measuring 110 varas in length and administered an oath requiring the surveying party to faithfully and legally survey the lands. The survey was run as follows:

Commencing at a monument located on the west side of a hill known as “La Lorna Tigua,” which marks the northwest corner of the original Town of Ysleta Grant; thence north 55,000 varas to a monument of earth located in the desert; thence in a southeasterly direction 52,000 varas to a monument of earth and stone located on the highest peak of the Sierra Alta, to the west of which was the Hueco Tanks; thence in an easterly direction 38,000 varas to a monument located on a hill just northeast of Alamo Springs; thence in a southeasterly direction 55,000 varas to a monument of dirt and stone located on the peak of the Sierra Blanca; thence in a westerly direction 80,000 varas to a monument located on the hill known as the “Lorna de San Juan de Cruz,” which marks the northeast corner of the original Town of Ysleta Grant; and thence in a northwesterly direction to the place of beginning.

After the survey was completed, Albo placed the inhabitants of the Town of Isleta in legal possession of the 186 leagues, or 823,608 acres of land embraced within the boundaries of the Rancho de Ysleta Grant. He also delivered a testimonio to the town officials evidencing its ownership of the premises. The grant was subsequently confirmed and ratified by the Constitutional Congress of the State of Chihuahua on September 24, 1834.[1]

All of the acreage embraced in the Rancho de Ysleta Grant was originally located within the State of Chihuahua,[2] but after the Texas Revolution, Texas asserted its claim to all lands located east of the Rio Grande River which included all of the lands embraced within the Rancho de Ysleta Grant.[3] When Texas accepted the Boundary Act of 1850 which established the Texas‑New Mexico boundary along the 32nd degree North Latitude, jurisdiction over approximately 65,000 acres of land covered by the grant was transferred to New Mexico.[4]

The earliest attempt to secure the recognition of the Rancho de Ysleta Grant occurred in July, 1855, when the inhabitants of Ysleta presented their testimonios for their town and pasture grants to the Rio Grande Commission for its investigation. The Commission allegedly conducted a complete investigation concerning the validity of the Rancho de Ysleta Grant in accordance with the provisions of Section 42 of the Act of February 11, 1858, but apparently did not recommend its confirmation. The original title papers collected by the Rio Grande Commission together with its records, abstracts of claims and final report were allegedly destroyed when the State Capitol building burned on the 9th day of November, 1881.

The claim to the Rancho de Ysleta Grant was dormant until 1887. Early in the summer of that year John P. Randolph, a surveyor from El Paso, Texas, heard the tradition that the City of Ysleta owned a vast unrecognized Mexican Grant. Upon investigating the rumor, Randolph learned that the original testimonio had been destroyed when the State Capitol had burned, but fortunately the claimants had secured a certified copy of the expediente on July 15, 1855, from Judge Pilar del Lazo, the custodian of the archives of El Paso del Norte.

Concluding that the grant constituted a valid claim which was fully guaranteed by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Randolph entered into an agreement with the duly authorized officials of the City of Ysleta, the corporate successor to the Pueblo of San Antonio de Ysleta, on July 15, 1887.[5] This agreement appointed Randolph attorney‑in‑fact for the city and provided that if he prosecuted the city’s claim to final judgment, the city would convey an undivided one‑half interest in the grant to him in consideration for such services.[6]

Randolph caused a Trespass to Try Title suit to be filed on February 28, 1889, in the 34th Judicial District Court of El Paso County, Texas, against the Trustees of the [7] Texas Pacific Land Trust. Charles J. Canda, Simon J. Drake and William Strauss, as Trustees of the Texas Pacific Land Trust, claimed 193 sections of patented land which conflicted with the grant. These lands had been located by the Texas and Pacific Railway Company between December 20, 1878 and January 20, 1879 by virtue of certain land certificates which had been donated to it by the State of Texas in return for its having built a railroad from Texarkana to Ft. Worth. When the railroad went into receivership in 1885, these lands were conveyed to the Trustees of the Texas Pacific Land Trust for the benefit of the holders of the railroad’s Income and Land Grant Bonds. Ludwig Hiddt was employed by Randolph to survey and plat the grant. His survey was completed on the 10th day of June, 1890, and disclosed that the grant embraced approximately[8] 716,510 acres of land.

After the Court of Private Land Claims was established in 1891, John P. Randolph caused a suit to be instituted in that Court in an effort to secure recognition of the city’s claim to the grant insofar as it covered the 65,628 acres of land contained in two triangular tracts of land located in Otero County, New Mexico. [9]

At this point, the attorneys for the Texas Pacific Land Trust announced that the grant papers had been forged. For some unexplained reason, someone had changed the year in the date of Judge Lazo’s certificate on the certified copy of the testimonio from 1855 to 1853. Randolph could not explain this alteration and thereafter took no further steps to secure the recognition of the grant. The Texas District Court case was dismissed by the Court on May 18, 1897,[10] for want of prosecution.

Meanwhile, it was realized that if a dependable and adequate water supply could be obtained that agriculture in Mesilla and El Paso valleys could be greatly expanded. In order to insure such a water supply, three separate reclamation and irrigation projects were advanced. Ernest Dale Owen, a Chicago attorney and land speculator, advocated the construction of a dam across the Rio Grande River at the northern end of the Mesilla Valley near Fort Selden, New Mexico. He proposed to transport the water conserved by such a dam to the mesa by means of a canal which ran through a tunnel in the Organ Mountains. He believed that if the dam and canal system were constructed that he would be able to place 200,000 acres of land located in the western portion of the Rancho de Ysleta Grant under cultivation.

In connection with this scheme, Owen entered into a contract with the City of Ysleta wherein he agreed to perfect the city’s title to the grant and to protect it against all adverse claims asserted by John P. Randolph or his assigns. In consideration for such professional services, the city granted Owen an option to purchase the entire grant for ten cents[11] and acre.

Pursuant to his agreement, Owen had the city’s suit before the Court of Private Land Claims set down for an early hearing. He elected to prosecute the claim against the United States involving the New Mexican portion of the grant first because he believed that the Court of Private Land Claims would be more sympathetic to his arguments since all of the land was all public domain and the issues would not be confused by the defenses advanced by any third parties. Should the Court of Private Land Claims recognize the validity of the New Mexican portion of the grant, it would also give Owen a decided advantage in his anticipated suits for the recognition of the larger and more valuable portion of the grant which was located in Texas.

The United States in its answer denied the city’s allegations that a valid grant had been made to the Pueblo of Ysleta. The government further alleged that the testimonio offered by the plaintiff had been manufactured and antedated. In support of its answer, the government offered affidavits by the custodians of the Mexican Archives at El Paso del Norte arid Chihuahua. These affidavits stated that each custodian had diligently searched the archives under his jurisdiction and was unable to find any document, note, memorandum or entry referring or pertaining to the Rancho de Ysleta Grant. No explanation was submitted to the Court by the plaintiff as to why the original copy of the expediente of the grant, which was allegedly in existence in the year 1855, when the certified copy had been made by Judge Pilar Lazo, could not be found in the archives of El Paso del Norte.


The Court of Private Land Claims in a unanimous decision dated September 27, 1894, held that the claim should be rejected. While the Court commented on the fact that the plaintiff had not presented sufficient evidence to prove the existence of a valid grant, it based its opinion dismissing the plaintiff’s petition on the grounds that the Court did not have jurisdiction over a claim which was clearly located within the boundaries of the State of Texas at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.[12]

Meanwhile, and apparently in anticipation of a favorable decision by the Court of Private Land Claims, Ernest Dale Owen, on September 13, 1894, instituted a Trespass to Try Title suit in the 34th Judicial District Court of El Paso County, Texas, against the Trustees of the Texas Pacific Land Trust in an effort to secure the recognition of Ysleta’s claim insofar as it covered the lands in conflict with the land[13] owned by the Trust. He did not attempt to join the State of Texas, which owned a majority of the balance of the acreage which conflicted with the grant as a party defendant because the State could not be sued without legislative consent. The State held these lands for the benefit of the Permanent Public School and University Funds.

The defendants requested that the case be transferred to the United States Circuit Court for the Western District of Texas on the grounds that there was a diversity of citizenship between the parties. Owen protested the defendant’s application by arguing that a municipal corporation was not a citizen of any state, and therefore, there was no diversity of citizenship between the parties. The District Court over­ruled the protest and ordered the case removed to the Federal Court[14] on October 1, 1894. The Judge of the United States this case with its discussions in a number of other cases which recognize the validity of grants located east of the Rio Grande River.

Court for the Western District of Texas, T. S. Maxey, in his decision of April 16, 1895, upheld the validity of the removal by holding that a municipal corporation was a citizen[15] of the state which created it. The removal of the case to the Federal Court amounted to a major setback for the proponents of the grant for Judge Maxey was the jurist who had presided over the trial of the case involving the1Jose Lerma Grant. In his decision rejecting the validity of that grant, Judge Maxey had held that a certified copy of the expediente of an alleged Mexican land grant would not be sufficient evidence to establish the validity of such a claim when no evidence of the grant could be found in the proper archives of Mexico. The United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals[16] had confirmed that decision.

Confronted with the adverse precedents established by the decisions of the Court of Private Land Claims and the United States Circuit Court of Appeals, which when taken together presented an insurmountable barrier against the recognition of the Texas portion of the Rancho de Ysleta Grant, Ernest Dale Owen decided it was impractical, if not futile, to further prosecute the claim. The suit was formally dismissed on October 21, 1899, when the Court called the case,[17] and the plaintiff failed to appear.

The dismissal of the City of Ysleta’s suit ended the high hopes of its claimants to secure the judicial recognition of the Rancho de Ysleta Grant. Likewise, all of Ernest Dale Owen’s dreams of building the Fort Selden dam and his related schemes of promoting the agricultural development of the mesa lands east of El Paso, Texas, were abruptly cancelled.


[1] 14 Deed Records 313 and 20 Deed Records 109 (Mss., Records of the County Clerk’s Office, El Paso, Texas)

[2] Gammel, The Laws of Texas, 1193 (1898).

[3] Compromise of 1850 (Texas and New Mexico), Chap. 49, 9 Stat. 446 (1850).

[4] Gamrnel, The Laws of Texas 1533 (1898).

[5] City of Ysleta v. United States, No. 33 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[6] 26 Deed Records 19 (Mss., Records of the County Clerk’s Office, El Paso, Texas.).

[7] Town of Ysleta v. Canda, No. 1140 (Mss., Records of the District Clerk’s Office, El Paso, Texas).

[8] Book 392 (Mss., Records of the County Surveyor’s Office, El Paso, Texas).

[9] City of Ysleta v. United States, No. 33 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[10] Minute Book 324 (Mss., Records of the District Clerk’s Office, El Paso, Texas).

[11] 36 Deed Records 250 (Mss., Records of the County Clerk’s Office, El Paso, Texas) and El Paso Herald August 23, 1894.

[12] 2 Journal 219 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[13] City of Ysleta v. Canda, No. 2000 (Mss., Records of the District Clerk’s Office, El Paso, Texas).

[14] City of Ysleta v. Canda, No. 190 (Mss., Records of the C.C.I7.D. Tex.).

[15] City of Ysleta v. Canda, 67 F. 6 (C.C.W.D. Tex.) (1895).

[16] Morris v. Canda, 80 F. 739 (5th Cir. 1897).

[17]  2 Minute Book 62 (Mss., Records of the C.C.W.D Tex.).