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Rio del Picuris Grant

by J. J. Bowden

Rafael Fernandez and twenty-three associates, all residents of the Pueblo of Picuris, petitioned the Territorial Deputation of New Mexico on March 6, 1829, asking for a grant covering the tract of vacant land embraced within the following boundaries:

On the north, the boundaries of those of Taos; on the east, Mora Hill; on the south, the Rio del Picuris; and on the west, the league of the Pueblo.

This request was taken up by that august body during its regu­lar session held on the following day and referred to the Ayuntamiento of Santa Cruz for a full report. In response to this order, the Ayuntamiento investigated the matter, and on April 5, 1829, advised the Territorial Deputation that it found no obstacle to the granting of the concession provided the pastures and watering places were not enclosed and the applicants were required to fence the fields they had opened. One month later, Mariano Rodriguez protested the issuance of the grant on the grounds it was a part of the commons of the Pueblo of Picuris, the applicants were speculators, and not bona fide colonists, and the lands were under the jurisdiction of the Ayuntamiento of Taos and it was the body that should have reported upon the merits of the application. As a result of this protest, the Territorial Deputation on June 5, 1829, rejected application and ordered the petitioners to vacate the premised as soon as they had harvested their crops.[1]

Nearly three years later, Rafael Fernandez and twenty-two of his original associates presented another petition to the Territorial Deputation requesting a grant covering the same lands. They called attention to the jurisdictional dispute between the Ayuntamientos of Santa Cruz and Taos and stated that the controversy was working a dire hardship on them since it had prevented them from acquiring the lands which they needed to support their families. They stated that their “children never tired of asking for what they were unable to provide...,” but by issuing the grant they would be able to satisfy the wants which they were then experiencing. By order dated April 27, 1832 and signed “Abreu, Secretary,” the Ayuntamiento of Taos was instructed to transmit all the information it had on the matter to his Excellency in order that he might be sufficiently informed to act upon the petition. Upon receipt of this decree, the Ayuntamiento was convened in extraordinary session in order to prepare the requested report. The Ayuntamiento found that the requested lands were under its jurisdiction, there were no objections to the grant, and recommended the issuance of the concession.[2] The petition was referred to a special three‑man committee of the Territorial Deputation, which, in a report dated July 18, 1832, recommended the granting of the applicants’ prayer subject to the following conditions:

1. Each of the applicants be allotted only the number of varas which he could cultivate.
2. The pastures, watering places and roads remain open.
3. The Alcalde of Taos be instructed to make the allotments and deliver title documents.

The matter finally came up for consideration by the Territorial Deputation on July 22, 1832, and “his Excellency” decided to grant the lands in accordance with the conditions contained in the Committee’s report. On July 28, 1832, a formal granting decree was issued by “Abreu, Secretary.” Alcalde Jose Marie Martinez on August 16, 1832, placed 42 families in legal possession of the grant, designated its boundaries and allocated each family an individual farm tract. Nine of these tracts contained 50 varas and the balance covered 100 varas. Since some of the original grantees failed to occupy their individual tracts within the time specified by law, the Alcalde on April 14, 1837, re‑delivered possession of each of those tracts to the person to whom it originally had been delivered. Thereafter, the grantees and their children or legal representatives continuously occupied the grant and had peaceful possession and enjoyment of the land. By the time the United States acquired jurisdiction over New Mexico, the Town of Rio del Picuris was a well established community.

The inhabitants of the Rio del Picuris Grant filed a petition[3] asking for the recognition of the grant with the Surveyor General’s Office on September 1, 1859, and evidence was offered in support of the claim. However, a decision on the merits of the grant was never rendered by that office.

Juan Fernandez, as the heir of Rafael Fernandez, filed suit[4] in the Court of Private Land Claims on January 25, 1893, seeking the confirmation of the grant, which he asserted contained approximately 20,000 acres. The govern­ment filed a general answer putting into issue the allegations contained in the plaintiff’s petition.

The principal issue raised during the trial of the case concerned the power of the granting officer to make the concession. The government argued that the grant had been made by the Territorial Deputation and under the doctrine of the Vigil case[5] only the governor had authority to make a valid grant in New Mexico after 1828. It also asserted that the plaintiff’s translation of the grant papers was in error and the references to “his Excellency” should read “its Excellency” while the title of the governor was “Seignoria.” The government also contended that the Abreu who signed the documents in question was Francisco Abreu who was Secretary of the Territorial Deputation in 1832. The plaintiff, in turn, argued that the Abreu was Governor of New Mexico and ex officio President of the Territorial Deputation in 1832. He attempted to distinguish the Vigil Case by showing in that case the governor had refused to make the grant and the Territorial Deputation had acted independently while in this case the governor made the grant in conjunction with the assembly. The court rendered a decision[6] rejecting the claim "for want of authority" on September 15, 1894. The plaintiff did not appeal the decision.

[1] Archive No. 287 (Mss., Records of the A.N.M.).

[2] Archive No. 396 (Mss., Records of the A.N.M.).

[3] The Rio del Picuris Grant, Mo. F‑71 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[4] Fernandez v. United States, No. 65 Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[5] United States v. Vigil, 13 Wall. (80 U.S.) 449 (1871).

[6] 2 Journal 200 (Mss., Records of the CL. Pvt. L. Cl.).