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The Mesilla Civil Colony Grant

By J. J. Bowden

Under the provision of the Eighth Article of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo[1], the residents of New Mexico were given the choice of retaining their Mexican nationality or becoming citizens of the United States. In an effort to encourage and assist any loyal Mexicans who might wish to emigrate to Mexico, President Jose Joaquin de Flerrera promulgated the Act of Aug­ust 19, 1848,[2] which governed the repatriation of such persons.

The Seventh Article of that Act directed the governors of the establishment of new colonies for the benefit of the emigrant. In compliance therewith, the State of Chihuahua promulgated the Act of May 22, 1851[3] governing the establishment of Civil colonies with the state. Ramon Ortiz, the Cura of El Paso del Norte, was appointed Commissioner of Emigration by both the National Government and the State of Chihuahua with authority to supervise the removal of any New Mexican who wished to emigrate to Chihuahua. Ortiz promptly commenced exhorting the inhabitants of New Mexico to retain their native citizenship and move to Mexican territory as soon as possible.

[4]On March 1, 1850, a group of sixty persons led by Rafael Ruelas voluntarily left their homes at Dona Ana to settle upon the low plateau situated on the west side of the Rio Grande River about eight miles south of Dona Ana. This settlement formed the nucleus of the Mesilla Colony which was formally established by Ortiz on January 20, 1852. On that date Ortiz set aside for the benefit of the new colony a rectangular tract of land containing three and a half leagues of bottom land for agricultural purposes and an additional tract located south of the farm lands and containing one and a quarter leagues as a common pasturage. The narrow strip of bosque lands lying between the river and the agricultural and pasture lands was given to the colonists as a public park and domestic livestock pasturage. The Mesilla Colony was established shortly after the Initial Point of the International Boundary between the United States and Mexico had been compromised and fixed at 32° 22' North Latitude. All of the lands set aside for the Mesilla Colony was located just south of that line.

During the years 1852 and 1853, Ortiz distributed numerous farm tracts and city lots to the more than two thousand inhabitants who resided within the boundaries of the Mesilla Colony. However, before Ortiz had a chance to perform all of the acts necessary to make a valid grant covering the lands which had been set aside to the Mesilla colony, there was a revolution in Mexico. The Arista Government, which had appointed Ortiz was overthrown and he was removed from office. Guadalupe Miranda was appointed as Ortiz’s successor on April 28, 1853.[5]

A number of colonists who lived on the southern portion of the Mesilla Colony requested Miranda to divide the Colony and give them a separate and distinct grant. In order to avoid further strife and confusion between the inhabitants of the colony, Miranda complied with this request on August 3, 1853. by establishing two colonies, the Mesilla Civil Colony and the Santo Tomas de Yturbide Colony, and giving each a separate grant. On the following day Miranda proceeded to survey the boundaries of the Mesilla Civil Colony and place its inhabitants in possession of their grant. The grant consisted of two leagues of agricultural land and two leagues of pasture lands. The first, or agricultural tract, was described as follows:

Commencing at a point on the west bank of the river which was the southeast corner of the Mesilla Civil Colony Grant and the northeast corner of the Santo Tomas de Yturbide Grant; thence west along the north line of the Santo Tomas de Yturbide Grant 5,000 varas to a hill a short distance west of the Guerras Corral; thence north 19,500 varas along the slope of the hills to the point where Penasco Prieto Hill, which is situated just north of Picacho Mountain and Apache Ford, strikes the river; thence down the west bank of the river 20,000 varas to the place of beginning.

The second, or pasture tract:

Commencing at Penasco Prieto and run thence west 5,000 varas across the hills; thence south 10,600 varas; thence east 5,000 varas to a point in the west boundary line of the agricultural tract and situated on the slope of the hills; and thence north to the point of beginning.

Due to the Mesilla Civil Colony’s large population, Miranda directed the colonists to establish a second settlement at the foot of Picacho Mountain and that a portion of the inhabitants of Mesilla be moved to the new town. The inducement for the establishment of the second village was the granting to the Colony of two leagues of pasture land instead of one. Miranda recommended that the pasture lands be proportionately divided between the two settlements.

Shortly thereafter, the town of Picacho was established at a point about three miles south of Penasco Prieto Hill. Miranda also recognized and confirmed the allotments of farm tracts and city lots which had been made by Ortiz to the individual colonists. He also continued making allotments to new settlers as they moved to this grant until the agricultural tract had been fully appropriated. Miranda’s acts as Commissioner were fully approved by both the Supreme Government and the State of Chihuahua. By 1853, Mesilla was the largest and most important town in southern New Mexico.[6]

Meanwhile, the refusal of A. B. Gray, the American Surveyor on the International Boundary Commission, to approve the Bartlett‑Conde Agreement, which compromised and fixed the Initial Point of the International Boundary west of the Rio Grande, greatly embarrassed the United States and finally forced it to purchase the disputed area from Mexico on December 30, 1853.[7] The Gadsden Purchase must have come as a great shock to the loyal Mexicans who had moved to the Mesilla Colony for the primary purpose of retaining their native citizenship, for once again they found themselves living upon foreign soil. However, by this time their animosities had been spent and most of the colonists decided against further migration.

The danger and expense connected with a journey from Mesilla to Santa Fe coupled with the possibility of the creation of a special investigative commission[8] prompted the inhabitants of the grant to postpone the filing of their claim before the Surveyor General until 1874. The more than one thousand claimants acting through their attorney, John D. Bail, petitioned the Surveyor General James K. Proudfit on January 23, 1874, requesting the confirmation of the grant. This was the first claim to be presented to the Surveyor General for approval of land lying within the area covered by the Gadsden Purchase. By opinion dated February 17, 1874, the Secretary of Interior decided that the Surveyor General had the same authority to pass on the validity of titles to lands located within the Gadsden Purchase as he had possessed in connection with lands acquired under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Proudfit, in an opinion dated February 12, 1874, held that the grant had been duly made by Miranda on August 4, 1854, that claimants had undisputed possession of the lands, and that valuable improvements had been made and placed upon the lands by the claimants. The Surveyor General concluded his report by recommending to Congress that title to the Mesilla Civil colony grant be confirmed to its inhabitants.[9] In order to withdraw the acreage covered by the grant from the public domain, John T. Elkins and Robert Marmon, United States Deputy Surveyors, made a preliminary survey of the claim in March, 1878. It showed that the grant contained a total of 33,960.33 acres.[10] Contemplating an early confirmation of the grant by Congress, the claimants secured the passage of a special act by the New Mexico Territorial Legislature on February 15, 1878, which incorporated their various interests under the grant as the Incorporation of Mesilla. The Corporation was to be managed by three elected Commissioners who had the right to sue, be sued, hold, lease, or rent the lands embraced within the grant, and power to sell and convey such lands with the consent of two‑thirds of the claimants.

No further action was taken toward approval of the La Mesilla Civil Colony Grant until after the establishment of the Court of Private Land Claims, On February 28, 1893, the Incorporation of Mesilla Civil Colony Grant, for themselves and on behalf of all others who owned or claimed an interest in the Mesilla Civil Colony Grant, brought suit in the Court of Private Land Claims against the United States for the approval of the Grant. [11]

The case was originally set for hearing on July 5, 1898, but was postponed until August 28, 1899. At the hearing, the plaintiffs introduced a large amount of oral and documentary evidence in support of their claim. The Government objected to the confirmation of the grant on the grounds that Miranda lacked authority to issue the concession, and that it had not been recorded in the Archives of Mexico as required by the Gadsden Treaty.

The Court, in its decision dated September 5, 1899, held that Miranda had been duly appointed as Commissioner to supervise the repatriation of emigrants from New Mexico. The Court further found Miranda, as Emigration Commissioner, had authority to establish new colonies and allot land to settlers in accordance with the Act of August 19, 1848, and May 22, 1851. Continuing, the Court held that Miranda had made a valid colony grant to the persons who constituted the Mesilla Civil Colony Grant on the date of the signing of the Gadsden Treaty. Commenting on the issue of whether the title papers of the grant had been duly recorded as required by the Gadsden Treaty, the Court held that the Mexican laws required the filing of the expediente in the Archives of the Ayuntamiento of El Paso del Norte and not in the National Archives at Mexico City. Next, the Court noted that the grant had been made for two separate tracts, one for agricultural purposes and the other for pastures. The evidence showed that all the agricultural lands had been allotted or distributed among the colonists, and that the pasture lands were being held by the Corporation for the benefit of the claimants. In connection with the grant of pasture lands, the Court held such concession, insofar as it exceeded one square league of land, was void for want of authority. In conclusion, the Court confirmed title to the following described tract of agricultural land as Tract Number One to the Corporation of Mesilla in trust for all persons to whom the same was allotted and such others who were bona fide residents on the grant on December 30, 1853, their heirs and successors, to‑wit:

Commencing at a point on the west margin of the Rio Grande del Norte as the same was situated in the year 1853, on a small bill on the line which divides the colonies of Santo Tomas and of Mesilla, being the point fixed by the United States Government survey as the southeast corner of said grant; thence for the southern boundary running west five thousand varas to a hill in front of the ruins of a corral. called Guerras corral, or the place where said corral and the ruins thereof were formerly situated; thence for the westerly boundary running in a northerly direction, west of north, along the slope or drainage of the hills in a direct line towards the Picacho Mountain on the river side where it touches the hills, and thence continuing along the margin of said river to the Penasco Prieto Hill, which is to the north of a small bend called the Apache Ford a little above Picacho, making nineteen thousand five hundred (19,500) varas; thence for the easterly boundary continuing towards the south, and east of south, to the place of beginning, following along the west margin of said river as the same was situated in the year 1853, except where the sand grant lies opposite to the Dona Ana Bend Colony Grant, heretofore confirmed as Cause No. 24, and as to such portions of the easterly boundary the line shall follow the western boundary of sand Dona Ana Bend Colony Grant as finally located under the confirmation aforesaid. The north boundary of this tract shall be an east and west line to the north‑east corner on the west boundary of the Dona Ana Bend Colony Grant.

The Court also confirmed title to the following described tract of pasture land as Tract Number 2 to the Corporation of Mesilla, to‑wit:

Commencing at a point on the westerly boundary of Tract No. 1 as above described, and five thousand varas from the northwest corner thereof, said five thousand varas being measured by following the meandered west boundary of Tract No. 1, from the northwest corner of said Tract No. 1; from said point on said west boundary five thousand varas from said northwest corner, measured as aforesaid, running due west five thousand varas; thence southerly and parallel to said western boundary of Tract No. 1, five thousand varas; thence due east five thousand varas to the intersection of said first-mentioned boundary, five thousand yams to the place of beginning making a tract one square league, more or less.[12]

The United States Attorney reported that while he had some doubts as to the correctness of the Court’s decision holding that the grant had been made by proper authorities and had been duly recorded as required by the Gadsden Treaty, he did not believe that the Supreme Court would reverse the decision on these mere technicalities, especially in view of the long continued possession of the grant. Accordingly, he recommended that no appeal be taken on the case by the Government.[13]

The Attorney General concurred and authorized the Government’s attorney to notify the Court of Private Land claims that the Government would not appeal. Once the decision became final, the Commissioner of the General Land Office entered into a contract with Jay Turley, Deputy United States Surveyor, for the surveying of the Mesilla Civil Colony Grant. Turley’s survey disclosed that Tract No. 1 contained 17,784.43 acres, and Tract No. 2 embraced 3,844.09 acres.[14] The final step in the recognition of the grant was taken on November 15, 1909, when the United States issued a patent to the Corporation of Mesilla for the two tracts of land covering the Mesilla Civil Colony Grant.[15]

[1] Miller, Treaties and other International Acts of the United States, 217‑218 (1937).

[2] S. Exec. Doc. No. 56, 43d Cong., 1st Sess., 27‑30 (1874).

[3] Ibid., 21‑26.

[4]  Bartlett, Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora, and Chihuahua, 212‑214 (1854).

[5] The Mesilla Civil Colony, No. 86 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Miller, Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States, 293-302 (1942).

[8] In his Annual Report dated September 30, 1860, Surveyor General John A. Clark called attention to the grants in the Mesilla Valley which had been issued between 1848 and 1853, and stated that while the Gadsden Treaty settled the question of boundary, it had not settled the question as to whether Mexico could make valid grants within the disputed area. He recommended the appointment of a commission to “take proofs in relation to the concessions, improvements and occupation of the lands, and for confirmation to the present holders upon proof being made that the party in possession, or his grantor, or person under whom he claims, received, in good faith, a grant of the lands claimed from the State of Chihuahua or Republic of Mexico on December 30, 1853, and has in all respects complied with the terms of the grant.” H.R. Exec. Doc. No. 1, 38th Cong., 1st Sess., 88‑89 (1860).

[9] Land Claims Records 21‑22 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.). Marogoldo Guerra, who was one of the original colonists at Mesilla, petitioned Surveyor General A. P. Wilbar on October 4, 1863, seeking the confirmation of the Mesilla Colony Grant. However, since that grant had been superseded by the Mesilla Civil Colony Grant, no action was taken on the claim. The Colonia de Mesilla Grant No. F‑114 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[10] The Mesilla Civil Colony Grant, No. 86 (Mss. Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[11] The Incorporation of Mesilla v. United States, No. 151 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[12] 4 Journal 122‑125 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[13] Report of the United States Attorney dated June 21, 1900, in the Case Incorporation of Mesilla v United States (Mss., Records of the General Services Administration, National Archives, Washington, D.C.), Record Group 60, Year File 9865‑92.

[14] The Mesilla Civil Colony Grant, No. 86 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[15] 38 Deed Records 180 (Mss., Records of the County Clerk’s Office, Las Cruces, New Mexico).