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Rancho del Rio Grande Grant

by J. J. Bowden

Upon learning that a group of persons were considering the formation of a new colony on the premises known as Rancho del Rio Grande, Nicolas Leal appeared before the Alcalde of Taos, Antonio Jose Ortiz, and advised him that the proposed project would be prejudicial to the rights of the inhabitants of San Francisco de las Trampas.[1] He pointed out that they depended upon the waters of the Rio Grande del Ranchito and the Rio Chiquita to irrigate their fields and that there was not enough water in the rivers to support two agricultural colonies. Ortiz referred the matter to Governor Fernando Chacon on February 2, 1795. Chacon was apparently sympathetic for he rejected the request for a grant covering such land which, in the meantime, had been filed. Shortly thereafter Leal and ten associates, the majority of whom were heirs of Diego Romero, petitioned Ortiz for a grant covering the Rancho del Rio Grande as a pasturage for their livestock. The petition was obviously made in order to prevent others from seeking an agricultural grant covering the Rancho del Rio Grande. This petition was referred to Chacon, who granted the request and ordered Ortiz to place the eleven grantees in possession of the premises. On April 9 1795 Ortiz, in obedience to the governor’s order, delivered royal possession of the grant to the grantees and designated the following natural objects as its boundaries:

On the north, by the boundaries of Manuel Montes Vigil; on the east, by the spur of the Rio de Don Fernando Mountain; on the south, by the Cuchilla del Oso Mountains; and on the west, by the Canada de Miranda and the Picuris Pueblo Road.[2]

The grantee promptly stocked the grant and continuously grazed their herds of sheep and cattle upon its lands.

The fact that no permanent settlement had been established on this tract led many persons to believe that it was vacant. One such person was Nicolas Sandoval, a landless resident of the Pueblo of Taos. It seems that Sandoval had received a deed covering a tract known as Los de Montes in consideration for the services and assistance he had rendered in the construction of an acequia. However, this conveyance had been revoked and the land reconveyed by Alcalde Juan Antonio Lovato to others more of his liking without considering the harm he was doing to Sandoval. As compensation for his loss, Sandoval, in 1827, registered a small tract of agricultural land at the Rancho del Rio Grande. In response to his petition, the Territorial Deputation of New Mexico asked for a full report on the merits of the petition from the Ayuntamiento of Taos. The Ayuntamiento recommended that the application be denied because the issuance of the requested grant “would prejudice third parties in the settlements, as in years of drought, the waters would be diminished”. On March 13, 1837 Sandoval, together with ten associates, petitioned Governor Albino Perez, requesting a grant covering the premises. To overcome the previous objections, the petitioners stated that they would not need “even the smallest portion of the waters” from the Rio Grande del Ranchito or the Rio Chiquita. The petitioners explained that they would irrigate their fields with water obtained from certain springs located on the tops of the mountains. They were careful to point out that the waters from these springs never reached the rivers but were absorbed in or near the foot of the mountains. They planned to carry the water from the springs to their fields through a long acequia to be constructed at their expense and thus conserve such salubrious water. They voluntarily agreed to fence their fields to protect their crops from trespassing livestock and promised to construct such fences in a manner which would not impede traffic or enclose any public watering place. Perez referred the petition to the Ayuntamiento of Taos on the following day, directing it to report “what may occur to them in the matter, keeping in view the recommendation this petition merits”. The Ayuntamiento, on March 27, 1837, appointed a committee comprised of David Waldo, Juan Manuel Lucero, and Jose de Jesus Trujillo to investigate and report upon the merits of the petition. After having interviewed the petitioners and the inhabitants of San Francisco del Rancho, the commission reported that the requested grant could not be legally made since the land previously had been granted to Nicolas Leal and his associates. On March 31, 1837 the Ayuntamiento of Taos approved the committee’s report and recommended that the petition be denied. The Ayuntamiento’s decision recited that the issuance of a grant to the applicants would cause irreparable damage to the approximately three hundred families living downstream from the Rancho del Rio Grande and who had been granted and were using the same lands as a pasturage. It was also pointed out that the small springs referred to by the petitioners would not furnish adequate water to irrigate their fields and, therefore, in order to survive, they would take water from the river which was already in short supply and fully appropriated. Perez formally rejected Sandoval’s petition on April 20, 1837.[3]

Sometime between December 30, 1860 and May 13, 1861, the owners of the Rancho del Rio Grande Grant filed their testimonio of the grant and requested that an inquiry into the validity of their claim be instituted by Surveyor General Alexander P. Wilbar; however, much to the consternation of the claimants, year after year passed with no action being taken on their petition. Desiring to have their claim acted upon as soon as possible, they prevailed upon Representative J. Francisco Chaves to introduce a bill of confirmation in the United States Congress in 1871. This bill passed both houses of Congress but the President, due to the pressure encountered during the closing days of the 41st Congress, failed to sign the Act into law. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate during the 42nd Congress. This bill was passed in the Senate, but due to a crowded schedule, was not acted upon by the House.

The incessant delays and mounting expenses encountered as a result of their Washington activities prompted the numerous inhabitants of the grant to file a supplemental petition on January 10, 1872 in an effort to secure the recognition of the claim through regular channels. Surveyor General T. Rush Spencer promptly conducted an investigation into the background of the grant. Just five days after the filing of the supple­mental petition, Spencer rendered a decision[4] in which he found the testimonio to be genuine and recommended the confirmation of the grant. A preliminary survey of the grant was made by Deputy Surveyor Robert G. Marmon in September, 1879 for 109,043.80 acres. This survey showed that the grant conflicted with the Mora Grant by about 20,523 acres. Only about one sixteenth of the grant could be farmed. The balance, which was very rough and mountainous, could only be used for grazing purposes.[5]

Notwithstanding its previous interest in the claim, Congress took no action on the Surveyor General’s recommendation and the matter was awaiting Congress’ attention when the Court of Private Land Claims was created. Pursuant to Section 6 of the Act of March 3, 1891,[6] Thomas Torres, on behalf of himself and any other heirs and legal representatives of the original grantees, instituted suit[7] in the Court of Private Land Claims against the United States on April 12, 1892 in an effort to obtain the confirmation of the Rancho del Rio Grande Grant. The government in its answer raised two special defen­ses. It contended that since the grant conflicted with the Town of Mora Grant, which had been previously confirmed and patented, its owners should be joined as parties defendant. Second, it asserted that if the grant should be recognized, the Court, pursuant to Section 13 of the act,[8] should limit its area of eleven square leagues. When the case came up for trial, Torres introduced the muniments of the title to the grant, together with oral testimony showing that there were approximately fifty persons living on the premises who were all claiming through and under the original grantees. The government conceded that the grant papers were genuine and that the claimants had an equitable title, but argued that the confirmation should not include any lands within the boundaries of the Town of Mora Grant and should be limited to a maximum area of eleven square leagues. In support of this contention, the government called the court’s attention to Section 6 of the Act,[9] which authorized the institution of suit only in cases where the grant had “not been confirmed by Act of Congress, or otherwise finally decided upon by lawful authority”, and the seventh subsection of Section 13, which provided that no claim could be confirmed “for a greater quantity than eleven square leagues of land to or in the right of any one original grantee or claimant …”. The plaintiff relied by pointing out that Section 7 of the Act provided that the confirmation of the grant would only release the title of the United States and would not affect the rights of any person or other claimant in respect to such lands. He argued that subsection 7 of Section 13 of the Act 10 limited confirmation to eleven leagues only when the size of grants were so restricted “by the respective laws of Spain or Mexico applicable to the claim”. Since this was a Spanish Grant, the eleven league limitation under the Mexican Colonization Law of 1824,[10] was not applicable. However, even if applicable, the eleven original grantees under the Mexican Colonization Law of 1824[11] would be entitled to receive a grant in excess of half a million acres. In its opinion[12] dated August 30, 1892 the Court found that the grant had been made by the Spanish Government in 1795 and recognized but not regranted by the Mexican authorities in 1837. As to boundaries, it accepted the plaintiff’s arguments and held that the grant should be confirmed to the heirs and legal representatives of the original grantees without an eleven league limitation or regard to the conflict with the Town of Mora Grant. The Court stated that it had no authority to settle boundary disputes or affix private rights since the settlement of such questions were within the province of the local courts.

Since neither party appealed from this decision, the surveyor General awarded a contract to Deputy Surveyor John H. Walker for the surveying of the grant. A patent was is­sued on August 16, 1901 for the 91,813.15 acres contained in the Walker Survey.[13]

[1] The settlement, which had developed around Diego Romero’s ranch headquarters on the Cristobal de la Serna Grant, was known as Francisco de las Trampas.

[2] H. R. Misc. Doc. No. 181, 42d Cong., 2d Sess., 80‑22 (1872).

[3] Ibid., 82‑84. 

[4] The Rancho del Rio Grande Grant, No. 58 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[5] Ibid.

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

[7] Torres v. United States, No. 10 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

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

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Reynolds, Spanish and Mexican Land Laws 121 (1895).

[12] 1 Journal 49‑52.

[13] The Rancho del Rio Grande Grant, No, 58 (Mss, Records of the S.G.N.M.).