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San Antonio del Rio Colorado Grant

by J. J. Bowden

Rafael Archuleta, Antonio Elias Armenta, and Miguel Montoya petitioned the Prefect of the First District of the Department of New Mexico, Juan Andres Archuleta on February 8, 1842, requesting a grant covering a tract of vacant public land known as San Antonio del Rio Colorado. The applicants, finding themselves without sufficient land to support their families, solicited the grant for agricultural purposes. In a decision issued on the same date, the Prefect held:

As one of the attributes pertaining to the Prefecture under my charge is to denote and determine the public lands lying within the limits of the district … and taking into consideration the miserable condition of the inhabitants and the promotion of agriculture I have determined to and do grant them in the name of the Mexican Republic the lands which they have registered and so that possession may be given, the petitioners shall present this decree to the Alcalde of the jurisdiction where the land is situated and the Alcalde shall carry out the proceedings.

On January 19, 1842, Alcalde Juan Antonio Martin under and by virtue of Archuleta’s decree placed the three grantees and thirty-two other colonists in legal possession of the grant and designated the following natural objects as its boundaries:

On the north, Jelo de los Pinabetas and the point of the Guadalupe Hill; on the east, the mountains; on the south, the brow of the Colorado; and on the west, the point where Guadalupe Hill joins the Rio Colorado.

Following the delivery of possession, Martin allotted each of the colonists an individual 100 vara tract of valley land for agricultural purposes and gave them the privilege of pasturing their livestock on the adjoining commons. Possession of the grant was given upon the condition that the colonists enclose and fortify the town and arm themselves. Complete title to the individual tracts was not to vest until they had been cultivated four years. Additional allotments were made within the grant by the Alcalde of Arroyo Hondo, Jose Miguel Sanchez from time to time between 1842 and 1848. By the time jurisdiction over New Mexico was acquired by the United States, the Town of San Antonio del Rio Colorado was a substantial community with some 300 families.[1]

Sixty-two of the residents of the Town of San Antonio del Rio Colorado filed an informal petition[2] in the Surveyor General’s office on March 11, 1872, seeking the recognition of the grant. The claim was investigated by the Surveyor General James K. Proudfit and on January 6, 1874, he reported it to Congress, recommending its confirmation. Proudfit’s report pointed out that the claim, which was based on a community grant was made in accordance with the “usage then in vogue.” Therefore, under the instructions given to him on August 21, 1854,[3] by the Commissioner of the General Land Office, he had concluded that the petitioners had made a prima facie case notwithstanding the fact that the original proceedings might be irregular. A preliminary survey of the grant was made in September 1879 by John Shaw for 18,955.22 acres.[4]

Since the claim had not been acted upon by Congress prior to 1885, it was one of the grants reexamined by Surveyor General George W. Julian under the instructions he received from the Commissioner of the General Land office when he took office. In a Supplemental Report dated May 13, 1886, Julian noted that while the courts had repeatedly held that after 1828 the governor was the only territorial authority in New Mexico who had authority to make dispositions of the public lands, the applicants had an equitable title that was “entitled to respect.” Continuing, he stated:

Justice would seem to demand that these people should have the right to select and retain the lands they have actually occupied and improved under the proceedings by which they were placed in possession in 1842, and within the boundaries there specified, the quantity thereof and its precise location to be determined and fixed by evidence to be hereafter taken and a survey to be made in the field. To this extent I recommend a confirmation of the claim to the legal representatives of those who were placed in possession of the land on January 19, 1842.[5]

Notwithstanding Julian’s favorable recommendation Congress failed to act upon the grant session after session. Thus, after its creation in 1891, the claim was presented[6] for adjudication by the Court of Private Land Claims. The plaintiff’s petition was filed on January 30, 1892, and was brought by Francisco A. Montoya for himself and on behalf of all others similarly situated. When the case came up for trial on August 18, 1892, he proved that the title papers were genuine and argued that if the title was not legal it was at least and equitable title which the United States was bound under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to recognize and protect. The plaintiff based his claim for an equitable title on the fact that more than 200 persons were occupying land which they were claiming under the grant. He asserted that the long occupancy and good faith improvement of such lands would have created an equitable right against the Mexican government. He also pointed out that there were 28 private land claims in New Mexico which had been issued after Mexico gained its independence based on grants made by a Mexican official other than the governor. The government’s attorney in turn argued that in 1842 a prefect had no authority to dispose of the public domain or authorize the delivery of possession thereof by an alcalde. He contended that the original colonists were mere trespassers and therefore, an equitable title had not been created. On March 10, 1893, the court handed down its decree[7] rejecting the claim on the grounds that a prefect had no power to make a valid disposition of public land, The plaintiff appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, but the appeal was subsequently dismissed upon the motion of the appellee.[8]

[1] The San Antonio del Rio Colorado Grant, No. 76 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[2] Ibid.

[3] S. Misc. Doc., No. 12, 42d Cong., 1st Sess  1‑7 (1871).

[4] The San Antonio del Rio Colorado Grant No. 76 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[5] S. Exec. Doc. No. 7 50th Cong., 1st Sess., 2‑4 (1887).

[6] Montoya v. United States, No. 4 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[7] 1 Journal 119 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[8] Montoya v. United States, 18 S Ct. 944, 42 L. Ed. 1213 (1897) (mem.).