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Town of El Rito Grant

by J. J. Bowden

Jesus Maria Vigil, a resident of the Town of El Rito, for himself, and on behalf of all other interested parties, petitioned[1] Surveyor General Henry M. Atkinson on October 22, 1883, seeking the confirmation of a grant which had been given to his great grandfather, Joaquin Garcia in about 1780. He alleged that the grant covered the following described tract of land situated on both sides of the El Rito River:

Commencing in the hills southwest of the Ojo de Santo Domingo (including said spring) running thence northerly to the highest summit of the mountains called Sierra Negra; thence to and along the northerly limits of the valley known as the Valle de los Caballos to the highest summit of a certain red mountain called Sierra Colorado; thence along the next easterly high lands in a southerly direction to a line extended due easterly from the point of beginning; and thence westerly along said line to the point of beginning.

 He alleged that judicial possession of the grant had been delivered. He stated that he was unable to produce any documentary evidence of that grant and presumed that they had been lost. He also pointed out that several towns were located upon the grant and its lands had been continuously occupied and cultivated since time immemorial. He concluded by advancing the theory that the long possession of the tract coupled with the tradition that a grant had been made established a presumption in favor of the validity of his claim.

Meanwhile, Epifanio Lopez for herself and the other settlers and residents of the Town of El Rito petitioned[2] Atkinson for the confirmation of the grant as a community grant to the extent of four square leagues on the theory that the grant had been issued to Garcia for the purpose of forming a colony and each Spanish settlement was a proprio vigore entitled to four square leagues of land. The inhabitants of the towns of La Pablozon, Plaza del Medio, Plaza de los Atencios and Plaza de la Cuesta filed similar petitions.[3]

During his investigation of the claims, Surveyor General George W. Julian, who, in the meantime, had succeeded Atkinson, received the testimony of a number of witnesses. One of these witnesses, Jose Maria Chaves, stated that he had personally known Joaquin Garcia and knew that. he claimed the lands covered by the grant by virtue of a concession made to him sometime prior to the turn of the nineteenth century. He even recalled having examined the title papers to the grant in connection with a suit that was before him while he was Probate Judge of Rio Arriba County. Several of the other witnesses testified that the grant covered an area of 9 miles square or approximately 51,000 acres and was bounded:

On the north, by the Jarita and Valley of the horses; on the east, by Red Mountain; on the south, by Black Mountain; and on the west, by Santo Domingo Spring.

 It was also shown that in 1846 there were several hundred families living in the five settlements located on the grant and many of the inhabitants claimed and occupied individual tracts based on deeds executed between 1808 and 1843 from Garcia.

On June 17, 1886, Julian rendered his opinion[4] in the case. He held that while the petitioners had failed to establish a legal title to the land, the heirs and legal representatives of Joaquin Garcia had established an equitable title to the lands actually occupied which should he recognized by the United States. Julian stated that his recommendation was not based on a presumed or implied grant but on the ground that the uninterrupted possession and occupation in good faith of the small and irregular tracts by poor and uneducated persons of Spanish or Mexican descent led him to believe that the former sovereign would have honored the claims. Therefore, he held the claim to such tracts were protected by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Continuing, he called Congress’ attention to the fact that the recognition of these small claims would tend to Americanize their owners and put them on the same level as homesteaders, to whom they were analogous. However, he contended that they should not be put to the trouble and expense of perfecting their claims under the homestead laws since their equitable titles were already vested. Julian’s favorable opinion caused the General Land Office to reserve the lands from entry under the homestead laws, but Congress failed to act on the claim.

Following the creation of the Court of Private Land Claims under the Act of March 3 1891,[5] Tomasa Tenorio de Quentana filed suit[6] for the confirmation of the grant as a descendant of Joaquin Garcia. She described the grant as a tract covering approximately 50,000 acres of land being bounded:

On the north, by the mountains of horse valley; on the east, by the Pueblo Colorado; on the south, by the cejita; and on the west, by the little mountain of the Canada de Madera.

The government filed a general answer putting in issue the allegation contained in Tenorio’s petition. When the case came up for trial on June 11, 1898, Tenorio announced to the court that she would not further prosecute her claim. A decree[7] was accordingly entered by the court rejecting the claim and dismissing her petition. Thereafter, the lands were restored for entry under the homestead law[8] and the claimants perfected titles to their individual tracts under that law.

[1] The Town of El Rito Grant, No. F‑197 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[2] The Town of El Rito Grant, No. 151 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Court of Private Land Claims Act, Chap. 539, 26 Stat. 84 (1891).

[6] Tenorio v. United States, No. 224 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[7] 3 Journal 393 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[8] Homestead Act, Chap. 561, 26 Stat. 1097 (1891), 43 U.S.C. Sec. 161 (1964).