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Socorro Grant

by J. J. Bowden

While Don Juan de Onate was marching northward during the conquest of New Mexico in 1598, he found the Piro Indians[1] to be peaceful and receptive to the extension of Spanish control over their dominion, Onate was especially gratified with the friendly reception he received at Teypana, the pueblo which he renamed Socorro, for the natives furnished him with a much needed supply of maize. By 1610, all of the pueblo tribes residing in the Rio Grande Valley had submitted to Spanish rule. During the next twenty years, the Franciscans were busily engaged in building missions and converting the Pueblo Indians, In 1626, a mission was founded by Fray Alonso de Benavides at the Pueblo de Pilabo, which was situated on the site of the present city of Socorro, New Mexico. The Pueblo de Pilabo was located on the west bank of the river about three leagues south of the Pueblo de Teypana which, in the meantime, had been abandoned, Fray Benavides, remembering the assistance given to Onate by the Piro Indians, named the new mission Nuestra Senora de Perpetuo Socorro or Our Lady of Perpetual Help. By 1680 Socorro had become the largest of the three remaining Piro Pueblos with a population of approximately 600 persons.[2] The principal factor which attributed to the growth and prominence of Socorro was the Spanish garrison which had been located there to protect the missionaries. The Apaches were especially afraid of the two small cannons which controlled the entrance to the village.

Following the successful revolt of the Pueblo Indians of Northern New Mexico in 1680, Governor Antonio de Otermin and the survivors from the “upper river” settlements and haciendas fled southward from Santa Fe in hope of finding refuge in the garrison located at the Pueblo of Isleta. Meanwhile, Alonso Garcia, Lieutenant Governor of New Mexico and the military commander at Isleta, hastily gathered the survivors from the settlements in the “lower river” region. Doubting that any of the northern settlers had survived the massacre and believing that his position at Isleta was indefensible, Garcia decided that the safest course of action would be to retreat southward. On August 14, 1680, the Spanish refugees who had assembled in the garrison together with a handful of faithful Tigwa Indians from the Pueblo of Isleta started down the Camino Real with only the clothes on their backs and less than a week’s food supply amidst the catcalls and jeers of the hostile Indians who were lurking in the nearby bosque, As soon as the refugees departed, the remaining Isletans abandoned their pueblo and joined the rebellion, When Garcia passed through the Piro nation, he found the Piros to be friendly but determined to abandon their pueblos because they feared a deadly and merciless retaliation from other Pueblo Indians as a result of their steadfast refusal to join the revolt Therefore, Garcia had no alternative but to permit the inhabitants of the Pueblos of Sevillita, Alamillo and Socorro to join him and thereby dangerously increase the size the already weakened impoverished group of refugees. Garcia reached the Fray Cristobal Paraje, which was located at the north end of the Jornada del Muerto, before he learned that Governor Otermin and his group had survived. He promptly stopped and waited for Otermin to join him. The two groups were united on the 13th of September, On the following day, the combined forces continued the retreat across the perilous Jornada del Muerto towards El Paso del Norte. The weary refugees finally reached the safety afforded by the strategic pass sixteen days later. The 2,263 refugees who survived the rebellion and retreat camped for a short period at the La Salineta Paraje which was four leagues above El Paso del Norte. However, the area around the La Salineta Paraje proved to be unsuitable to support such a large number of people and most of the refugees were temporarily settled in three make‑shift camps at or near the Toma Paraje, which was located about twelve leagues north of El Paso del Norte.[3]

During his second unsuccessful campaign to reconquer New Mexico in 1681, Otermin was surprised to find that the hostile Indians had sacked the deserted Pueblo of Socorro and burned its convent and church. To prevent the enemy from occupying the remaining buildings, he also burned them.[4]

Realizing that the immediate reconquest of New Mexico was impossible, Otermin ordered the establishment of four permanent new settlements in the El Paso Area for the immigrants from New Mexico, The Pueblo of Socorro del Sur founded in the spring of 1682, about twelve leagues east of El Paso del Norte for the Piro, Tano and Jemiz Indians, Since the new pueblos which were scattered up and down the Rio Grande a total distance of twenty‑four leagues proved difficult to manage and defend, Governor Jironza Petris de Cruzate, Otermin’s successor, reorganized the settlements in the El Paso district in 1684, Socorro del Sur was moved to a site approximately five leagues east of El Paso del Norte.[5]

The rebellious Pueblo Indians were finally defeated in 1693, and Spanish control was once again firmly established over New Mexico, Diego de Vargas, the hero of the Reconquest, mentioned in his report concerning the campaign that he camped at the ruins of the Pueblo of Socorro,[6]  For more than a century these deserted ruins served as a bleak reminder of the havoc wrought by the Pueblo Revolt,

For years the incursions and attacks by the nomadic Indians upon the pueblos and Spanish settlements along the frontiers of New Spain had steadily increased. By 1763, it became apparent to the Spanish government that unless prompt defensive measures were taken, the northern provinces would once again be lost to the hostile Indians, Therefore, Charles III appointed the Marques de Rubi to inspect all of the presidios and to recommend measures for improvement. After a twenty‑three month inspection tour which covered more than 7,600 miles, Rubi recommended the creation of a main defensive line of presidios stretching from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico The presidios in this new defensive line were to be located about forty leagues apart He recommended that twelve presidios be relocated, and six new ones be created. On September 10, 1772, the King issued the New Regulations of Presidios, which put into effect practically all of Rubi’s recommendations.[7]

Pursuant to the provisions of the twenty‑fifth section of the New Regulations of Presidios, Pedro de Nava, Commandant General of the Internal Provinces of New Spain, on January 18, 1800, ordered the Governor of New Mexico to attempt to re‑establish the old ruined towns of Senecu, Socorro, Alamillo, and Sevillita in order to lessen the dangers and hardships encountered by travelers on the Camino Real. At that time there was no settlement along the 250‑mile stretch of the Camino Real lying between El Paso del Norte and Sabinal, which was located about six leagues south of Tome. Thus, New Mexico was virtually an island surrounded by hostile Indians, with the Camino Real serving as its sole link and means of communication with the civilized world. The Governor was also given detailed instructions concerning the formation of each new colony. He was expressly directed to issue each colony a grant of four square leagues of land.[8]  On March 31, 1800, the Governor of New Mexico reported that Alamillo had been re‑established, but that he had decided to postpone the immediate refounding of Sevillita, Socorro and Senecu. He explained that the river had destroyed the irrigation system at Sevillita, and it would cost too much to replace it. Socorro was not resettled, because the Governor felt that its location on the west side of the river and sixteen leagues south of Sabinal rendered it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to defend.[9]

The re‑establishment of Socorro was not accomplished until 1815, when seventy families of Spanish subjects settled on the site of the old pueblo. On November 18, 1817, Xavier Garcia and Anselmo Tafoya, on behalf of themselves and the other inhabitants of Socorro, petitioned the Governor of New Mexico for a grant covering the lands upon which they had settled. On the same day the Governor, Pedro Maria de Allande, directed the Alcalde of Belen to:

… comply with the order which had been given to him by my predecessor when he directed the abandoned Pueblo of Socorro be settled. [10]

Bartolome Baca, Alcalde of Belen, placed the grantees in possession of the land, but neglected to give them a testimonio of the proceedings.

On August 1, 1818, Xavier Garcia, on behalf of himself and the other grantees, petitioned Governor Facundo Melgares, requesting the issuance of an appropriate instrument evidencing their title to the Socorro Grant. Three days later Governor Melgares directed them to apply to the Alcalde of Pena Blanca for their title papers. There is a tradition that the Alcalde of Pena Blanca again placed the colonists in possession of the grant and gave them the proper documentary evidence of such proceedings on August 9, 1818, but such papers were subsequently lost when the office of the Alcalde of Socorro burned.[11]  The expediente of the grant, which was in the Archives at Santa Fe, was also destroyed during the Revolution of 1836, when Governor Albino Perez was killed. The loss of all copies of the grant papers so disturbed the colonists that on November 30, 1845, Manuel Trujillo, on behalf of himself and. the other colonists, petitioned Governor Manuel Armijo, asking for the confirmation of their title to the grant which he described as being bounded:

On the north, by the upper bluff of the Arroyo de San Lorenzo; on the east, by the summit of the mountains on the left side of the Rio Grande, called and known as the Oscura Mountains; on the south, by the edge of the little heights of Tornillal at the edge of the meadows called and known as the Bosque del Apache; and on the west, by the summit of the Magdaline Mountains.

On December 2, 1845, Armijo, having investigated the facts, proceeded to regrant and confirm the petitioners’ title to the lands described in their petition. The Governor’s decree stated that his action was based upon the authority conferred upon him by the Supreme Government and the Colonization Laws.[12]

The original colonists, or their heirs and assigns, continued in peaceful possession of the lands covered by the Socorro Grant, even after the area came under the jurisdiction of the United States, On February 25, 1875, the claimants of the Socorro Grant filed a petition with the Surveyor General, seeking the recognition of their title to the grant. Surveyor General James K. Proudfit promptly investigated the claim. The testimony offered to Proudfit indicated that the grant extended approximately 100 miles east and west and about 33 miles from north to south. Thus it would appear that the grant covered an area of approximately 1,612,000 acres. Donaciano Vigil, who had been a secretary in the military department, testified that to the best of his knowledge, the governor’s signature and rubric on the decree were genuine.

Based upon his examination, Proudfit rendered a favorable decision on August 28, 1875, which approved the grant without qualification, and recommended its confirmation by Congress according to the boundaries set forth in Manuel Trujillo’s petition to Governor Armijo. The Surveyor General’s report, together with the supporting papers, were transmitted to Congress for its further action on January 5, 1877. A preliminary survey of the grant made in March, 1878, by Deputy Surveyors Sawyers and White showed that the grant contained only 843,259.59 acres.[13] The Commissioner of the General Land Office, N. C. McFarland, made an independent investigation into the validity of the grant In a letter to the Secretary of Interior dated April 17, 1882, he stated that he believed that Armijo’s action constituted a complete recognition and reaffirmation of the grant, but suggested that in the event an Act be passed confirming the grant, that no provision adopting or approving the preliminary survey be included therein; thus, leaving the settlement of all questions affecting the location of the boundaries of the grant within the province of the Interior Department.[14]

Meanwhile, the taint of fraud stifled all efforts to settle New Mexico’s land grant problem. Session after session of Congress passed without the confirmation of a single grant. The situation further deteriorated when Surveyor General George W. Julian set himself up as a court of review to pass upon the acts of his predecessors. In connection with the Socorro Grant, he issued a Supplemental Decision on August 3, 1886, wherein he stated that he believed the Decree dated November 30, 1845, by Governor Armijo was a forgery and that the other fragmentary title papers evidenced only an equitable title to the lands which were actually occupied and used by the 850 families who resided upon the grant.[15]Notwithstanding Julian’s qualified recommendations, Congress failed to take any action on the confirmation of the Socorro Grant, and the claim was still pending at the time when the Court of Private Claims was established.

On February 27, 1893, Entimio Montoya filed suit against the United States seeking the recognition of the Socorro Grant and vesting title to the lands covered thereby in himself in trust for the original grantees or their heirs, legal representatives or assigns.[16] Montoya’s claim was based on the fragmentary data in the Spanish Archives and Armijo’s revalidation decree of December 2, 1845.

The case came up for trial on April 2, 1897. The Government offered three expert witnesses on questioned documents, who attacked the genuineness of the Armijo Decree. William M. Tipton, a special assistant for the Court of Private Land Claims, very convincingly testified that all of the 1845 proceedings concerning the Socorro Grant were spurious. Tipton directed the court’s attention to numerous items of internal evidence which supported his contention that such proceedings were forgeries. The fact that the proceedings were not written upon stamped paper when all other grants made in 1845 and 1846 were on the stamped paper aroused his suspicions. An alteration in the date of the grant from 1839 to 1845 also created serious doubts in his mind. An endorsement in the grant papers which indicated that they had been recorded in Book “C” of the Kearny Registery was also proven to be erroneous. Tipton pointed out that at the time the Armijo Decree allegedly was filed, Book “C” was missing from the Surveyor General’s office. After the grant papers had been filed Book “C” was found and returned. Perhaps the most interesting portion of Tipton’s testimony was his efforts to show that all of the 1845 proceedings were written by a single person and, in his opinion, that person was Luis Maria Baca, Governor Armijo’s son‑in‑law. Tipton spent a considerable amount of time showing that the signature and rubric attached to the decree were not executed by Governor Armijo. This was done by having the court compare the signature and rubric on the decree with a number of signatures and rubrics which were unquestionably genuine.

The signature on the “Socorro Decree” was made with short hesitant strokes and with extreme care while the specimens from the Archives showed that Armijo executed his signature with a bold, flowing free hand. Likewise, the rubrics on documents from the Archives were all executed with a single stroke of the pen while the rubric on the “Socorro Decree” was made with at least four separate strokes. Armijo’s name was even misspelled as “ARNIJO” on the “Socorro Decree”.[17]  Justice Henry C. Sluss announced the court’s decision rejecting the claim on August 29, 1899.  In its decision, the court found the Armijo Decree to be a forgery. The court further held, as a matter of law, that even if the Armijo Decree had been valid, Armijo did not have authority to validate a previous grant made by the Spanish authorities, His authority under the Colonization Law was limited to the issuance of original grants to colonists. Once the Armijo Decree was eliminated as spurious, there was nothing left for the plaintiff to rely upon for a confirmation but the proceedings held in 1817 and 1818. Since neither of these proceedings purported to be anything more than a petition for a grant and an order by the governor referring the matter to the appropriate Alcalde for a report, such documents would not support a claim which the United states was obligated to recognize.[18]  The plaintiff realized that there was little likelihood that the United States Supreme Court would reverse the decision of the Court of Private Land Claims. Therefore, Montoya did not appeal the decision.

Meanwhile, another suit had been filed in the Court of Private Land Claims by the City of Socorro and Candelario Garcia for the confirmation of a claim to four square leagues of land measured from the center of the Roman Catholic Church.[19]  The plaintiffs contended that each town established by direction of Spanish officials or thereafter recognized as municipalities was entitled, as a matter of law, to a grant of four square leagues of land in the absence of a grant specifying a different award. In support of this contention, the plaintiffs offered into evidence a copy of Pedro de Nava’s Order of January 18, 1800, directing the Governor of New Mexico to re‑establish the town of Socorro and grant it four square leagues of land. They also called the court’s attention to the fact that an Ayuntamiento had been established at Socorro pursuant to an order of the Provincial Deputation of New Mexico dated April 15, 1822. The United States offered no special defense in the case. Based upon the evidence presented by the plaintiffs, the court, in its opinion dated August 29, 1892, found that the Town of Socorro was entitled to four leagues of land in the form of a square measured one league in each of the cardinal directions from the center of the Roman Catholic Church.[20]

The United States originally announced that it intended to appeal this decision on the grounds that all towns were not, under Spanish and Mexican law or the customs of the times, entitled to a grant of four leagues of land as a matter of law. However, in view of Pedro de Nava’s Order of 21 January 18, 1800, it decided to waive the appeal.[21]

The four league tract which had been confirmed by the Court of Private Land Claims was surveyed by Deputy Surveyor Hiram T, Brown. The survey showed that the grant contained a total of 17,371.18 acres. A patent was issued to the City of Socorro and Candelario Garcia on January 11, 1896, for the benefit of the owners of the lands within its limits and as to the residue in trust for the use and benefit of all the inhabitants of the city.[22]

Since the decree failed to establish the procedure whereby the trustees of the Socorro Grant could carry out their trust or convey title to the numerous inhabitants of the town for their individual tracts of land, the New Mexico Legislature was forced to a special act in 1893, which granted the trustees full authority to manage and control the grant. This Act established the procedure whereby the various claimants of tracts lying within the confirmed portion of the Socorro Grant might establish their right to the land they occupied and secure deeds to such land. [23]


[1] 1. The Piro Indians were physically a round‑headed mongoloid type people. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they were one of the major pueblo tribes, They were basically sedentary agriculturists and had developed a high culture. The Piros occupied the area on both sides of the Rio Grande between the present towns of San Marcial and Sevellita, New Mexico. They lived in from nine to fourteen separate pueblos. The exact locations of a majority of these pueblos are uncertain and several are known by name only. By 1860 all but three of the Piro Pueblos had been abandoned, The three remaining pueblos were Socorro, Sevellita and Alamillo. This was due not only to the efforts of the missionaries to gather their flock but also as a result of the continuous harassment of the Christianized Indians by the Apaches. Following the Pueblo Revolt n 1860, the Piros were resettled in the El Paso Valley where their descendants still live.

[2] Hodge, Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico 261 (1959).

[3] 1. Hackett, Revolt of the Pueblo Indians, XXIX‑CXVII (1942).

[4] 2. Hackett Revolt of the Pueblo Indians, 205 (1942).

[5] Hughes, The Beginnings of Spanish Settlements in the El Paso District, 323‑368 (1935).

[6] Espinosa, Crusaders of the Rio Grande , 107 (1942).

[7] Kinnaird, The Frontiers of New Spain, 1‑42 (1958)

[8] Archive No. 1171 (Mss., Records of the A.N.M.).

[9] Archive No 1155 (Mss., Records of the A.N.M.).

[10] Archive No 890 (Mss., Records of the A.N.M.).

[11] Archive No 382 (Mss., Records of the A.N.M.).

[12] The Town of Socorro Grant No. 107 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[13] Ibid.

[14] H. R. Report No, 380, 48th Cong., 1st Sess., 1-6 (1884).

[15] S. Exec. Doc. No. 93, 49th No.93, 1st Sess.,, 2‑4 (1887)

[16] Montoya v. United States, No. 127 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L Cl.).

[17] Ibid.

[18] 4 Journal 110 (Mss, Records of the Ct. Pvt. L, CL).

[19] City of Socorro v. United States, No. 13 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt L. Cl.).

[20] 1 Journal 37 (Mss, Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[21] Report of the United States Attorney dated January 9,1893 in the case, City of Socorro and Candelario Garcia v. United States (Mss,. Records of the General Service Administration, National Archives, Washington, D.C.), Record Group 60, Year File 9865‑92. In connection with this case it should be noted that the United States Supreme Court in United States v. City of Santa Fe, 165 US. 675 (1897), held that Spanish law did not, proprio vigore, confer upon every Spanish villa or town a grant of four square leagues of land.

[22] 49 Deed Records (Mss., Records of the County Clerk’s Office, Socorro, New Mexico).

[23] New Mexico Statutes Annotated, 1941, Sec.. 9‑901-9-912.