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Town of Cieneguilla Grant

by J. J. Bowden

On March 20, 1872, Anthony Joseph, Adolph Guttman, Julian Freedman, and Lucien Stewart petitioned[1] Surveyor General T. Rush Spencer seeking the confirmation of a grant which allegedly had been made to Jose Sanchez and nineteen other colonists by Governor Fernando Chacon. In support of their claim, the applicants filed a certified copy of an Act of Possession, which recited that on February 12, 1795, Antonio Jose Ortiz, Alcalde of the Pueblo of Taos, in obedience to an order by Chacon placed the twenty grantees in royal possession of the grant and designated the following natural objects as its boundaries:

On the north, the Los Seritos de los Aguajes; on the east, the Arroyo Hondo; on the south, the summit of the Picuris Mountains; and on the west, the surplus lands of those of Embudo in the Rio Grande Valley.

He also allotted each grantee a 256 vara wide individual tract of agricultural land and set the balance of the grant aside as a commons. Possession of the grant was delivered subject to the understanding that, except for the individual allotments, the concession was a community grant for the benefit of both the original grantees as well as any others who might subsequently join the settlement. Each grantee was also instructed to arm himself with either a firearm or a bow and arrows for the mutual protection of the community. The certificate attached to the certified copy showed that it was made on May 4, 1826, by Juan Antonio Lovato, Secretary of the Ayuntamiento of the Pueblo of Taos, as a replacement of the original which was “torn and ripped.” During his investigation of the claim, Spencer received an affidavit by Adolph Guttmann, who stated that having made a diligent search of the Archives at Taos and Santa Fe and having made reasonable inquiries amongst the residents of the Town of Cieneguilla, the petitioners were unable to find any documentary evidence of the grant and, therefore, firmly believed the grant papers had been mislaid or destroyed. Two witnesses were examined by Spencer. Their testimony tended to establish the genuineness of the certi­fied copy of the Act of Possession, the long peaceful possession of the grant, and the existence of the Town of Cieneguilla. Based on this evidence, Spencer, on June 13, 1872, approved the grant and recommended its confirmation by Congress to the twenty original grantees named in the list attached to the Act of Possession.[2] A preliminary survey of the grant was made in October, 1877, by Deputy Surveyors Griffin and McMullen. Their work showed the grant covered an area of 43,961.54 acres.[3]

The long delay, Congress’ failure to confirm any grants after 1879, and the Supreme Court’s decision in the Peralta Case,[4] which held that documentary evidence from private sources and oral testimony no matter how formal and complete would not sustain the claimant’s burden of showing that a valid grant had been made if there was no evidence of the grant in the Spanish and Mexican Archives, caused the claimants no little concern. Therefore, on July 29, 1886, they applied for and were given leave to introduce further evidence in support of their claim. Their request was granted and they filed a document written in Spanish and took the depositions of five witnesses. The Spanish document consisted of a series of communications between Governor Facundo Melgares and the officials of the Ayuntamiento of Taos during the months of March and April, 1822. From these, it appears that early in the year 1822, a group of Jicarilla Apaches led by the Indian known as Espilin, petitioned the governor for permission to settle at the Town of Cieneguilla. The governor granted the request and notified the Ayuntamiento of Taos to that effect. The Ayuntamiento of Taos, under whose jurisdiction the Town of Cieneguilla fell for local governmental purposes, protested such action in a lengthy communication dated April 2, 1822, which set forth many reasons why the Jicarilla Apaches should not be permitted to settle among the Spanish inhabitants of the Town of Cieneguilla and asserting that “the supreme authorities” of New Mexico had granted the Cieneguilla to the Spaniards. The document concludes with an unsigned notation dated April 17, 1822, possibly by the governor, directing Felipe Gonzales, the presiding officer of the Ayuntamiento of Taos, to send Espelin to the capital “to appear before me.” The depositions showed that at least parts of the grant had been occupied almost continuously since its inception. Several of the witnesses had a personal knowledge of a settlement at Cienegulila for sixty or seventy years and stated that when they “first knew the settlement, the houses and lands had the appearance of having been occupied for many years previous.” As a result of the introduction of this new evidence, Surveyor General George W. Julian proceeded to re‑examine the claim. In a Supplemental Opinion[5] dated July 5, 1886, he stated:

If the presumption can be indulged that the secretary of the Ayuntamiento of Taos was the proper custodian of the original Act of Possession and that a copy authenticated by him would be legal evidence, this document (the certified copy of the Act of Possession) falls far short of proving the existence of a grant. If the Alcalde acted in pursuance of a decree of the governor, his report should have been transmitted to that official. The instrument merely states that the Alcalde proceeded by order of the governor, but fails to show whether the order was written or verbal and does not pretend to give its date, contents, or under what circumstances it was issued or what, if any, land was granted. 

In treating upon the question of secondary evidence in relation to Mexican Grants, the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of United States v. Castro et al. 24 How., 346, said: “But in order to maintain a title by secondary evidence, the claimant must show to the satisfaction of the court: 1st, that the grant was obtained and made in the manner required at some former time, and recorded in the proper public office; 2d, that the papers in that office, or some of them have been lost or destroyed; and 3rd, he must support this proof by showing that within a reasonable time after the grant was made there was a judicial survey of the land, and actual possession by him, by acts of ownership exercised over it...”

The most that can be said ... (of the Spanish document) is, that if genuine, they show that as early as 1822 the governmental authorities of Taos recognized the settlement of Cieneguilla as legal and entitled to the protection of the government by reason of a grant having been made to the inhabitants at some former period. If it were shown or can be presumed that this paper was in the possession of the governor, it would tend to prove a recognition by him of the rightful occupation of the land at Cieneguilla by the settlers.... 

It would appear that a settlement was founded at Cieneguilla some seventy or eighty years ago at least, and that the original settlers, and those holding under them, have believed they had a grant to the land claimed... (however) in my opinion no legal title is shown in this case. The question of an equitable title is not so clear, out I de not feel warranted in recommending its rejection by Congress. It cannot be justified on the mere grounds of long continued possession; but possession, as in this case, under a colorable title, and a claim of right made in good faith, seems fairly to justify the existence of an equitable title.

Session after session continued to pass without any action being taken on the claim by Congress. Meanwhile, Lehman Spiegelberg acquired the interest of the four former owners of the grant. When jurisdiction over the adjudication of Spanish and Mexican land grants in New Mexico was transferred to the Court of Private Land Claims without the Town of Cieneguilla Grant having been passed upon by Congress, Spiegelberg had no choice but to bring suit against the United States in that court for the recognition of the claim. Such action was instituted[6] on February 14, 1893. The United States filed a general answer putting the plaintiff’s allegations in issue. When the case came up for trial, Spiegelberg offered as evidence the copy of the Act of Possession, the Spanish Document and mesne conveyances connecting himself to the original grantees. He also offered considerable oral testimony in an effort to prove the long occupation and possession of the grant by the original grantees and their heirs and assigns and to establish that the arable portions of the grant had been under cultivation for more than thirty years. The parties stipulated that the 1822 Spanish Document had been a portion of the Archives of New Mexico prior to its having been filed amongst the papers pertaining to the claim while it was pending before the surveyor General. However, the government objected to the introduction of the certified copy of the Act of Possession on the grounds it “was a copy and not the original, and was a copy made by one not authorized under the laws of Spain or Mexico to make copies and was not properly authenticated by anyone authorized to de so, and its custody and possession was not shown, and its genuineness was not shown in any way.” The court accepted all of the plaintiff’s documentary evidence subject to a ruling on the government’s objection when it considered the case. In its opinion[7] dated August 19, 1896, the court noted that while the plaintiff claimed a valid grant had been made in 1795, he had never produced any original grant papers but relied solely upon the certified copy of an Act of Possession made in 1826 and the secondary evidence contained in the 1822 Spanish document. Continuing, the court held:

We have no occasion to go into the question whether we would confirm the claim if the original Act of Possession was before us. We are not furnished with any law or usage which would give to the certificate of the Secretary of the Ayuntamiento of Taos the force and effect of evidence. We are, therefore, compelled at the onset to reject the evidenced title that is offered and we therefore reject the claim and dismiss the plaintiff’s petition.

Spiegelberg filed a motion for rehearing, but it was overruled on October 4, 1898.[8] No appeal was taken and, thus, the history of the grant comes to an abrupt end. 

[1] The Town of Cieneguilla Grant, No. 62 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[2] H. R. Exec. Doc. No. 68, 42d Cong., 3d Sess., 2‑7 (1873).

[3] The Town of Cieneguilla Grant, No. 62 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[4] Peralta v. United States, 3 Wall. (70 U.S.) 134 (1866).

[5] S. Exec. Doc. No. 4, 50th Cong., 1st Sess., 4-12 (1887).

[6] Spiegelberg v. United States, No. 84 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[7] 3 Journal 53 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[8] 4 Journal 32 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).