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Town of Real de Dolores del Oro Grant

by J. J. Bowden

The town of Real de Dolores del Oro, an unincorporated village, and Guadalupe Montoya, for himself and on behalf of its other inhabitants, filed suit[1] in the Court of Private Land Claims on February 18, 1893, against the United States, the owner of the Ortiz Mine Grant, the owners of the Mesita de Juana Lopez Grant and a large number of other defendants, seeking the confirmation of a tract of land containing four square leagues or 17,361 acres in the form of a square with the church as its center and extending therefrom one league in each of the cardinal directions. The plaintiffs alleged that in the year 1830, the Governor Jose Antonio Chaves formed the town under and pursuant to the laws then in force in New Mexico.[2]

 They further alleged that at all times subsequent to its establishment that the town had a population of not less than 40 persons or 20 heads of families, that it was in existence at the time the United States acquired New Mexico, and prior thereto had performed all the functions of a municipality and had been recognized as such by the Mexican authorities. Continuing, they stated that by virtue of its creation and existence, the town was entitled., under the laws of Mexico, to land for the common use of its inhabitants and, in the absence of an actual grant for a larger amount, was entitled by operation of law to a grant of four square leagues of land.

 The government in its answer generally denied the plaintiffs’ allegation as to the origin of the town, existence and right to the grant. As a special defense it averred that, even if such grant had been made as set forth in the petition, the land claimed thereunder was entirely within the limits of the Ortiz Mine Grant which previously had been confirmed and patented and that such confirmation and patent was conclusive and binding upon the court. The plaintiffs filed an exception to the special defense on the ground that the answer failed to allege that the plaintiffs’ right to the lands had been acted upon or decided by Congress and that such special defense was insufficient at law. The exception promptly was overruled by the Court upon the ground that the alleged grant was imperfect at the time sovereignty and jurisdiction over the lands were acquired by the United States, and also that it appeared from the government’s answer that the United States had confirmed and patented another grant covering, among others, the lands included within the plaintiffs’ claim. The plaintiffs elected to stand upon their exception and introduced no evidence in support of their claim. Therefore, the Court, having no alternative, entered a decree on May 17, 1897, rejecting the claim and dismissing the petition.[3] Whereupon the plaintiffs appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court which, in an opinion dated January 12, 1899, held:

As it appears in this case that these lands were within the limits of the Ortiz Mine Grant which had been confirmed by Congress and a patent therefore issued to the principal defendant, it follows, without adverting to other defenses, that under the opinion in United States v. Conway (175 U.S. 60) ... the claim was properly rejected.[4]

Anticipating that the plaintiffs would attempt to amend their petition to seek damages on the ground that Alcalde Francisco Baca y Ortiz had no authority to make the Ortiz. Mine Grant and therefore its confirmation and patenting amounted to a grant de novo which prejudiced their rights, the Supreme Court stated:

Nor can the petition be sustained for an indemnity under Section 14 of the Private Land Claims Act, as no such claim is made by the petition. We are of the opinion that Section 14 ..., which provides for a personal judgment against the United States in cases where the land decreed to any claimant, under the provisions of the act, shall have been sold or granted by the United States, applies only to cases where such lands have been sold or granted as public lands for a consideration which equitably belongs to the owner of the land, and not to cases where the government has merely released its interest to one apparently holding a good title under a Spanish or Mexican Grant, which subsequently turns out to be invalid by reason of an older or better title ... This was the ruling of the Court of Private Land Claims in a prior case, and we think it is correct.


[1] Town of Real de Dolores del Oro v. United States , No. 111 (Mss., Records of Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[2] There is a local tradition that some freighters lost their oxen in 1832, and found them, after several days search, in a canyon in the Oso Mountains, which later became known as Ortiz Mountains. In a few hours after finding their animals, one suddenly died. The Mexicans, after cutting open his stomach to ascertain the cause of death, found a large nugget of gold. They reasoned that the animal had swallowed the gold while drinking from one of the springs located in the canyon. After a long search, they finally found the place. This set off the gold rush at Old Placers in 1833. The town of Real de Dolores del Oro was established near this spring by the prospectors working in the district. Ritch, Illustrated New Mexico 173 (1885).

[3] 3 Journal 212 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl.).

[4] Town of Real de Dolores del Oro v. United States, 175 U.S. 71 (1899).