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Town of Las Vegas Grant

By J. J. Bowden

Juan de Dios Maese, Manuel Archuleta, Manuel Duran, and Jose Antonio Casacs, for themselves and on behalf of twenty-five other men, petitioned the Ayuntamiento of San Miguel del Vado on March 20, 1835, for the tract of land located about twelve miles northeast of San Miguel del Vado on the Gallinas River which was commonly known as Las Vegas. The petitioners requested this grant for the purposes of “planting a modest crop and to pasture their livestock. They described the tract as being bounded: 

On the north, by the Sapeyo River; on the east, by the Aguage de la Zequa; on the south, by the Antonio Ortiz Grant; and on the west, by the San Miguel del Vado Grant.

The Ayuntamiento of San Miguel del Vado considered the petition on the same day, and, being anxious to encourage colonization by indigent families, referred the matter to the Territorial Deputation with a recommendation that he grant be made. The Territorial Deputation took the matter up during its March 23, 1835, session and decided that the grant should be made with the boundaries requested, not only to the petitioners but also to any landless person who might wish to join the settlement. The grant was made subject to the condition that the pasture and watering places remain free for the use of all. In conclusion, it ordered that the proceedings be forwarded to the Governor for his concurrence. On the following day Francisco Sarracino, as Acting Governor, directed the Alcalde of San Miguel del Vado, Jose Jesus Ulibarri y Duran, to place the grantees in possession of the grant. Sarracino also instructed the Alcalde to select a townsite and distribute home sites and farm tracts amongst the colonists. Ulibarri went to the grant on April 6, 1835, and after surveying the premises and delivering legal possession thereof to the grantees, proceeded to allot an individual farm tract and residential lot to each of the 31 adult male inhabitants of the grant in accordance with the provisions of the colonization laws. At the conclusion of these proceedings, Ulibarri notified the colonists that all of the watering places and pasture lands contained within the grant were to be reserved for the common benefit of all the town’s inhabitants. In regard to the defense of the town, he informed the grantees that each should furnish his own arms and was obligated to perform his fair share of all labor necessary for the common welfare of the community, including working upon a wall which was to be constructed around the town for protection against the Indians.[1] On June 11, 1841, one hundred eighteen additional farm tracts and city lots were allotted to the new colonists, who had moved to the grant after 1835. A similar distribution was made in November 20, 1846, to 29 persons. Subsequently, six tracts which had been abandoned were reallotted to six new colonists.

Dr. Adolphus Wislizenus passed through the town of Las Vegas on June 25, 1846, and described it as being located in an exposed valley about a mile from the Gallinas River and containing approximately 100 houses. Mention was made that the settlers, who looked poor and dirty, cultivated the field which surrounded the town by means of irrigation and raised some stock.[2]

On the morning of August 15, 1846, Stephen Watts Kearny and his staff galloped into the plaza at the town of Las Vegas where he was met by Alcalde Juan de Dios Maese. From the top of a nearby building, where all could see and hear, Kearny delivered his famous proclamation whereby he formally took possession of New Mexico for the United States. [3]

Francisco Lopez, Henry Connelly and Hilario Gonzales, individually and on behalf of the other inhabitants, petitioned Surveyor General William Pelham on September 11, 1855, for the recognition of the town of Las Vegas Grant. The petitioners carefully called the Surveyor General’s attention to the fact that the heirs of Luis Cabeza de Baca also had filed a claim in his office seeking the confirmation of a different grant covering the same lands. After hearing the testimony and reviewing the documentary evidence presented in connection with the two claims, Pelham stated that he did not believe that Congress, when it created the office of Surveyor General, intended to give him authority to adjudicate title disputes arising between private individuals. He was, therefore, of the opinion that his jurisdiction was limited solely to ascertaining whether a claim was of such a nature as to separate the lands embraced therein from the public domain. Having reached this conclusion, Pelham proceeded to pass upon the validity of each of the two claims. He held that the land in question had been lawfully separated from the public domain, and that in the absence of one, the other would he a good and valid grant. Pelham concluded his report, which was dated December 18, 1858, by recommending that Congress confirm both grants and, thus, leave the problem of adjudicating the conflicting claims to the courts.[4] Congress confirmed the Town of Las Vegas Grant by Act[5] approved June 21, 1860. This Act also confirmed the claim of the heirs of Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca. In order to accommodate all of the interested parties and to avoid the litigation mentioned in Pelham’s decision, the Act permitted Baca’s heirs to select an equivalent amount of non‑mineral public domain elsewhere in New Mexico.

On July 26, 1860, the General Land Office directed the Surveyor General to give the surveying of the Town of Las Vegas Grant priority so its area could be ascertained. The General Land office pointed out that the survey was necessary in order for Baca’s heirs to timely select their lands. Pursuant to these instructions, the Surveyor General promptly caused the grant to be surveyed by Deputy Surveyors Pelham & Clements. Their survey was approved by the Surveyor General on December 8, 1860, and showed that the grant contained a total of 496,446.96 acres.[6] The survey also disclosed that the Town of Las Vegas Grant conflicted with a portion of the John Scolly and Town of Tecolote Grants. Since the Town of Tecolote Grant had been confirmed and surveyed prior to the Town of Las Vegas Grant, its title is paramount. The John Scolly Grant, which was also confirmed by the Act of June 21, 1860, also has been recognized as being superior to the extent that its patented portion conflicts with the Town of Las Vegas Grant.

In his report for the year 1887, the Secretary of the Interior discusses the Town of Las Vegas Grant, which he described as being perhaps the most remarkable claim in New Mexico. In a harsh criticism of the previous handling of the Town of Las Vegas and Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca Grants, he writes: 

The land involved is claimed by two parties, namely, the Town of Las Vegas on the one side and the heirs of Luis Maria Baca on the other. Of course it was not possible for both sets of claimants to own the same land at the same time, since if the grant to one was valid, the grant to the other could not be. But the Surveyor General decided after carefully examining both cases that under either grant, the land was segregated from the public domain and beyond the control of the Government .... The claims, however, were not conflicting, for the heirs of Baca, after making a formidable showing of their rights, contented themselves with simply asking for scrip, for lands to be located elsewhere of equivalent area in lieu of their claim. This made the way clear for the town of Las Vegas, and revealed the fact that in the friendly interplay at these nominally rival parties, each was willing to help the other to a large share of the public domain. Their interests were made to intersect each other at a point of mutual good will in furtherance of a common design upon the public domain. It is quite remarkable that the Surveyor General did not see this collusion, nor even seem to suspect it, and that although the grant as confirmed to the town of Las Vegas only contained about 20,000 acres of agricultural land, the tract as surveyed by him was made to contain 496,446 acres, being about 475,000 acres in excess of the grant.

 But I am dealing now with the action of Congress in this strange case. Congress confirmed the grant as recommended for confirmation by the Surveyor General; but the Surveyor General made no recommendations whatever and gave Congress no data on which it could rightfully confirm to the town of Las Vegas any lands except the numerous small allotments set apart to as many holders for agricultural purposes and covering in the aggregate about the 20,000 acres above mentioned. Congress went further, and yielding to the demands of the heirs of Baca, who could have no right to anything if the claim of the town was valid, gave them scrip in lieu of the lands thus unwarrantably asking for, covering the same area; and this illustration of legislative wisdom and consistency had its illuminating touch in the survey of the grant to the town of Las Vegas for 496,446 acres, while the General Land office, assuming gratuitously that this monstrous fraud was authorized, proceeded to issue scrip to the Baca heirs for the same quantity of land, by which the Government would be robbed of nearly 1,000,000 acres. Fortunately for the country, in this case the facts have been dragged to the light in time for resurvey of the land claimed according to its true boundaries, and the cancellation of the scrip issued to the Baca heirs in excess of the land actually belonging to the town under its grant.[7]

As a result of this report, a resurvey of the Town of Las Vegas Grant was ordered by the General Land office on November 5, 1887, but due to a lack of funds, the Surveyor General failed to make the survey. Finally, the status quo was broken, On March 1, 1890, Moses Milhiser, assignee of the rights of a number the original grantees, protested the proposed resurvey and demanded that a patent be issued based on the original survey. Secretary of Interior, John W. Noble, conducted a full investigation into the matter, and in a lengthy decision dated December 5, 1891, held that the Act of June 21, 1860[8] confirmed title to the town of Las Vegas to the extent of only the areas covered by the 184 individually allotted tracts and that the balance of the land embraced within the exterior boundaries set forth in this testimonio of the grant belonged to the United States.[9] A motion for review of this decision was denied on July 16, 1892.[10] A second motion, filed by the County Commissioners of San Miguel County, New Mexico, asking for the reversal of the decision of December 5, 1891, was denied on May 16, 1894.

Before a survey was made pursuant to the decision of December 5, 1891, Jefferson Raynolds, for himself and the other inhabitants of the town of Las Vegas filed suit in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking to enjoin the Secretary of Interior and Commissioner of the General Land Office from carrying out the survey or in any manner interfering with their rights. The defendants filed a demurrer, which was overruled and the injunction granted. The decree also held that the plaintiffs’ title to the grant was good and indefeasible. The defendants appealed to the Court of Appeals where the decision of the lower court was affirmed. A further appeal was taken to the United States Supreme Court which was finally dismissed when the defendants retired from office.[11]

The claimants of the Town of Las Vegas Grant tenaciously pursued the prosecution of their claims. On December 17, 1898, they asked that a patent be issued to the town for all of the lands included in said grant as surveyed in 1860. The heirs and assignees of the original grantees also requested a patent. The Department of Interior, after reconsidering the merits the requests, revoked its previous decisions and held that the Tameling[12]and Maxwell[13] cases clearly established the preposition that the grant was confirmed by Congress for the full amount of land embraced within the boundaries set forth in the petition which had been filed in the Surveyor General’s Office in 1855. In conclusion, the decision directed the Commissioner of the General Land Office to issue a patent to the town of Las Vegas since the confirmation was made in favor of the town.[14] The heirs and assigns of the original grantees filed suit in the Federal Court for the District of Columbia to enjoin the issuance of the patent to the town of Las Vegas. They contended that a patent could not be issued to the town of Las Vegas since it had no legal or corporate capacity to hold the grant. The court dismissed the action and the plaintiffs appealed. The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the lower court’s action.[15] To overcome the objections raised by this suit the New Mexico legislature passed an act[16] vesting the management, control and administration of the grant in the District Court of San Miguel County. Thus, the Town of Las Vegas Grant is unique in that it is the only grant under the direct management of the courts. A patent was issued to the Town of Las Vegas for 431,653.65 acres on June 27, 1903.[17] In addition to the land, the inhabi­tants received a priority to the use of the waters from the Gallinas River under the doctrine of “Pueblo Rights.”[18]

[1] H. R. Exec. Doc. No. 14, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., 16‑36 (1860).

[2] A. Wislizenus, Memoir of a Tour to Northern Mexico, 17 (1848).

[3] Twitchell, Old Santa Fe, 259‑260 (1963).

[4] The Town of Las Vegas Grant, No. 20 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[5] An Act to confirm certain private land claims in the Territory of New Mexico, Chap. 167, 12 Stat. 71 (1860).

[6] The Town of Las Vegas Grant, No. 20, (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[7] Report of the Secretary of Interior, 665 (1887).

[8] An act to confirm certain private land claims in the Territory of New Mexico, Chap. 167, 12 Stat. 71 (1860).

[9] The Town of Las Vegas Grant, 13 L.D. 646 (1891).

[10] The Town of Las Vegas Grant, 15 L.D. 58 (1892).

[11] Smith v. Raynolds, 166 U.S. 717 (1896).

[12] Tameling v. United States Freehold & Emigration Co., 93 U.S. 644 (1874).

[13] United States v. The Maxwell Land Grant Co., 121 U.S. 325 (1886).

[14] The Town of Las Vegas Grant, 27 L.D. 683 (1898).

[15] Maese v. Herman, 183 U.S. 572 (1901).

[16] 1 New Mexico Statutes 672 (1942).

[17] W. Earl Thomas to J.J.B., October 1, 1965.

[18] Cartwright v. Public Service Company of New Mexico, 66 N.M. 64, 343 P. 2d 654 (1959).