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Una del Gato Grant

by J. J. Bowden

In the late part of December, 1838, Joaquin Valdez one of the few early attorneys in New Mexico, was retained by Salvador Vernal and Tomas Lopez, residents of the Pueblo of Jemez, to prepare a petition seeking a grant covering a tract of land located on the east side of the Rio Colorado at the place known as Una del Gato. After drafting the petition, Valdez gave it to Juan Pablo Madrid for delivery to the governor of New Mexico. On the last day of 1838, Madrid entered the Governor’s Palace at Santa Fe and presented the petition to Governor Manuel Armijo. After reading the petition, Armijo directed Madrid to return on the following day for his answer. When he returned, Armijo handed him a decree which granted the land to the petitioners and directed the Alcalde of Abiquiu, Manuel Garcia de la Mora, to survey the grant and deliver legal possession of the premises to Vernal and Lopez. Upon receiving the grant, the grantees presented themselves to Garcia and requested him to perform the formalities necessary to complete their title. Garcia met the grantees on the Pueblo of Santa Cruz on January 25, 1839, and they all proceeded to the grant where Garcia surveyed the lands that the grantees had requested in their petition, which were described as being bounded: 

On the north, by the Tinajo Hill and the Cola del Aguila; on the east, by a straight line drawn between Tinaja Hill and the Malpaisos Hills; on the south, by the Chico and Malpaisos Hills; and on the west, by the hills bordering the Rio Colorado.

Following the completion of the survey, Garcia delivered legal possession of the grant to Vernal and Lopez. Governor Armijo’s decree together with a copy of the Act of Possession were sent to Armijo. After being satisfied that the grant did not conflict with the vested rights of any third party, Armijo approved the actions of the Alcalde.

While the grantees did not move to the grant, they used it continuously as a pasturage for their livestock between 1839 and 1841. Vernal and Lopez, joined by their respective wives, sold and conveyed the grant to Antonio Matias Gomes on August 27, 1841, for a consideration of “three hundred goats, a Navajo blanket, a gray mule, a yoke of oxen, and seventy-five silver dollars.” Gomes took immediate possession of the land, built a cabin, and commenced farming a portion of the valley lands. He also pastured some goats and burros on the adjoining hills. Shortly after General Stephen Watts Kearny conquered New Mexico, the Indians forced Gomes to vacate the premises. The continuous hostility of the Indians prevented him from reoccupying the premises at any time prior to his death at Anton Chico on September 19, 1858. Gomes’ son and sole heir, Jesus Maria Gomes y Lopez, tried to pasture livestock on the grant but was driven off about eight or nine months after his father’s death.[1]

Manuel A. Otero subsequently acquired the entire grant from Gomes’ son. Otero petitioned[2] Surveyor General James K. Proudfit on May 29, 1874, seeking the recognition of the grant. In a short opinion dated July 13, 1874, Proudfit found the grant to be genuine and recommended its confirmation to the legal representatives of the original grantees­.

A preliminary survey of the grant was made in 1877 by Deputy Surveyors John T. Elkins and Robert G. Marmon, which showed that it contained approximately 600,000 acres. A dispute arose over whether the line from Tinaja Hill (Laughlin’s Peak) should run in a northeasterly direction to Sierra Grande, which was the most northerly of the Malapais Hills or in a southeasterly direction to the Don Carlos Mountains which were the most southeasterly of the Malpais Hills. If the latter was the case, then the grant would be more “pie shaped” and contain substantially less acreage. The dispute caused the Surveyor General to reject the survey on the ground that the Deputy Surveyors had not followed his instructions and a resurvey was ordered. However, before the survey dispute could be settled, a more serious problem arose.

It seems that prior to the execution of the Elkins & Marmon Survey approximately fifty homesteaders had located within the Una del Gato Grant. On July 8, 1877, Lewis Kingman, a local resident, wrote his friend, H. M. Arms, informing him that title to his small tract of patented land conflicted with the Una del Gato Grant, which, in his opinion, was fraudulent. Kingman asserted that Tom Catron and Senator S. W. Dorsey were behind the scheme to secure the recognition of the “fraudulent claim.” Arms forwarded the letter to Assistant Commissioner of the General Land Office, William M. Evarts, and requested him to assist him in protecting his interests. Arms’ letter touched off a full scale investigation into the validity of the grant by Surveyor General Henry M. Atkinson. At the investigation it was shown that a number of obvious material alterations had been made on the grant papers. For instance, the dates on the stamped paper had been changed from 1821 to 1835 and the phrase “Viva El Rey” had been changed to “Viva El Dios.” The word “Majestad” had been altered to read “Mandato” and “Sapato” to “Traspaso.” A number of changes had been made after the grant papers had been recorded in Colfax County. The Colfax records showed the deed by Vernal and Lopez to Gomes as being dated on December 27, 1839, and the grantors’ wives were Maria Josefa Baca and Maria Manuella Gomes, while the wives signing the deed which later was filed in the Surveyor General’s Office were Chipita Baca and Toruacita Baca, and it was dated August 27, 1841.

The claimants did not attempt to explain the variances in the deed but stated that Garcia apparently had made the changes on the grant papers. Continuing, they stated that it was possible he had used “old forms’ to prepare the papers and then made the changes when he realized the language referring to the king was not appropriate for a grant from Mexico. Four witnesses for the protestants testified that the signatures and rubrics affixed to the grant papers were forgeries since they did not compare favorably with other signatures and rubrics known to be genuine. The claimants answered this objection by showing that Armijo’s signature and rubric varied greatly at times when he was either “mad or intoxicated” and, since the grant was dated on New Year’s Day, he might have been intoxicated when he signed the grant. They could not explain why Armijo’s approval certificate was not shown on the copy of the grant paper recorded in Colfax County. The high point of the investigation came when witnesses for the protestants testified that in 1872 Gomes had tried to sell the Una del Gato Grant together with another grant located in Colorado, which was commonly known as the Sapata Grant, to a number of people in Santa Fe. The protestants then introduced a certified copy of a decree of the District Court of Costilla County, Colorado sentencing Jesus Maria Gomes to three years in prison for forgery. Witnesses testified that he had been tried and convicted of forging the grant papers in connection with the Sapata Grant. In his Supplemental Report[3] 3 to Congress dated January 6, 1879, Atkinson stated that the record of his investigation furnished “clear and indisputable evidence of the fraudulent character of the grant.”

Confronted with such unfavorable evidence, its claimants had no alternative but to request the Secretary of Interior to dismiss the proceedings. Shortly thereafter the lands were “thrown open for settlement.” In a letter to Atkinson, Dorsey stated: 

As for myself, I want nothing more to do with land grants. I have been able to get all the experiences in that line I want in a short time, and were it not for the money I have invested in improvements on this grant, it would receive no further attention from me. The whole thing, from the time I first had to do with it, has proved most harassing as well as most expensive. I blame no one and find fault with no one except myself.[4]

After the reservation of the lands covered by the Una del Gato Grant was lifted, the area was homesteaded by a large number of settlers, who made valuable and expensive improvements upon the land. Thus, there is no foundation for Surveyor General George W. Julian’s scurrilous statement that after the forgery of the Una del Gato Grant papers had been exposed, Dorsey decided: 

… to avail himself of the Homestead and Pre‑emption laws. This he could not legally do, because the land was reserved; but the Commissioner of the General Land Office was touched by his misfortune, and in defiance of law ordered the land to be surveyed and opened to settlement. Mr. Dorsey, who was already in possession of thousands of acres of the choicest lands in the tract, at once sent out his squad of henchmen, who availed themselves of the firms of the Pre‑emption and Homestead laws, in acquiring pretended titles which were conveyed to him, according to arrangements previously agreed upon.[5]

[1] S. Exec. Doc. No. 2, 43rd Cong, 2d Sess., 10‑16 (1874).

[2] The Una del Gato Grant, No. 94 (Mss., Records of the S.G.N.M.).

[3] lbid.

[4] lbid

[5] Julian, “Land Stealing in New Mexico,” 1455 The North American Review, 27‑28 (1887).