History of New Mexico Land Grants
Under Spanish rule lands were given to citizens, not in fee, as by the laws of England, but by federal tenure. The title remained in the king and the subject took the rents and profits, while on forfeiture all passed to the sovereign. After the revolt of Mexico, the republic succeeded to the rights of the king of Spain. A change in the policy of the government followed. Lands were granted to individuals for themselves and for the establishment of colonies. Private grants were limited in amount, generally to less than eleven leagues, dependent upon the purposes for which the grants were made. Grants to towns and settlements were more extensive, and consisted of farming or irrigable lands, which were parceled out to individuals, and pasture lands, or vegas, which were held in common, and which no person was permitted to appropriate to his individual use. Such lands were generally situated apart from irrigable lands.
These town grants were applied for by several individuals, asking of the local state government the privilege of establishing a colony. If the petition was favorably received and granted, an order was issued by the governor placing the petitioners in possession of the land. The petitioners then divided the lands among themselves, and made a record of their doings, and the possessors held the land from thence forward in fee simple. By the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, May 26, 1848, under which New Mexico was acquired, the rights of holders of land were preserved unbroken, the United States being bound to recognize such rights so that one holding under a Mexican title should have right to a similar relation to the United States.
In order to make this beneficent provision of the treaty available to the holders of Mexican titles, on July 22, 1854, Congress passed what is known as the surveyor-general's act, providing that people claiming titles to public lands might go before the surveyor-general of New Mexico, prove their titles, and he should report to the commissioner of the general land office, that official to the secretary of the interior, and the secretary of the interior finally to Congress, Congress reserving the right in itself to finally say whether those lands should be patented or not. Interested people went down into New Mexico in the ante-railroad days, bought all of the best so-called claims, had the surveyor-general approve them, submitted proper proofs, and the result was that they had them confirmed for vast principalities of land, bigger than it ever was intended they should have been.
The Maxwell land grant, embracing about three thousand square miles, furnishes one of the most glaring examples of the injustice of this order of things. Other grants, each having from half a million to upwards of a million of acres of land, some of which is highly valuable for agricultural purposes, some abounding in mineral or timber wealth, passed in this manner into the hands of corporations or associations of individuals. Titles were found to be so insecure that, until the adjustment of all grant claims by the United States Land Court, established in 1891, capital could not be induced to enter the Territory in any appreciable amount, aside from such capital as was invested in these grants.
New Mexico was frequently referred to in official Spanish documents as the "Kingdom of New Mexico," on account of the vastness of its territory, the variety of its topography and climate and the supposed richness of its natural resources. When it was surrendered to the United States by treaty the original province was still intact, except the portion east of the Rio Grande, which was claimed by the republic of Texas, which a few years before had attained its independence. It also included southern Colorado and nearly all of Utah, Nevada and Arizona. Nevada became a state in 1864, Colorado in 1876, and Utah in 1896.
By the Organic Act of 1850 the United States government offered to pay to Texas the sum of ten million dollars for a relinquishment of her claim, which offer that state accepted. In later years the point has been raised that if it could be successfully maintained that we derive the true title from Texas and not from Mexico, then the late Court of Private Land Claims was without jurisdiction to confirm or reject any private land claim within the immense tract conveyed to us by Texas; for the jurisdiction of that court was expressly limited to territory which we had derived from Mexico.
Governor Armijo successfully withstood the Texas invasion and his exaggerated triumph was greeted in the City of Mexico by the ringing of bells and the salutes of artillery, and in reward he was vested with honors and, as he claimed, with almost dictatorial powers in the disposition of the public lands in his department. Santa Fe and Albuquerque were never occupied by a civilized enemy until our civil war. Nevertheless, Texas did exercise jurisdiction within the area of conflict. She made, for instance, a grant of the Salt Lakes to the southeast of Estancia Springs, and Congress recognized that grant and confirmed it, while the Land Court and the Supreme Court rejected the title to the same property which Governor Armijo had assumed to confer on the Prefect Antonio Sandoval. The Supreme Court of the United States held, in one case, that the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo did not relate to property within the state of Texas. The republic of Texas had been recognized some time before by the United States, and by that act this government had conferred upon the people of Texas all the privileges which it was permitted by the constitution to grant. Texas, by an act passed December 19, 1836, defined the jurisdiction of that republic to extend to the territory bounded as follows: Beginning at the mouth of the Sabine river and running west along the Gulf of Mexico three leagues from land to the mouth of the Rio Grande, thence up the principal stream of said river to its source, thence due north to the forty-second degree of north latitude, thence along the boundary line as defined in the treaty of 1819 between the United States and Spain to the beginning.
By this act that republic authorized and required the president of Texas to open a negotiation with the government of the United States of America, so soon as in his opinion the public interest might require it, to ascertain and define the boundary line as agreed upon in said treaty.
When Texas was admitted into the Union in 1845, there was no reservation as to the question of boundary except that regarding the true interpretation of the treaty with Spain. It was not until near the close of the Mexican war that complaint arose over the claim of Texas to the Rio Grande as her western boundary. When General Kearny became military governor of New Mexico, his jurisdiction extended into portions of Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Arizona. The Kearny Code was operative throughout all this domain, excepting the region where the laws of Texas could prevail. With the passage of the organic act New Mexico was relieved of the claim of Texas. By the Gadsden purchase of 1853, the United States paid to Mexico fifteen million dollars for a great tract lying south of the middle line of the Gila River in Arizona and a gradually narrowing strip extending eastward in New Mexico to the Rio Grande, which was at once annexed to New Mexico.
Spain, and later Mexico, always assumed a beneficent attitude to the poor, declaring her mountains, woods and pastures to be free to the common use. It was this spirit which actuated the home government in making such a large number of land grants to individuals or associations of individuals or communities.
Source: History of New Mexico, Its Resources and People, Volume I, Pacific States Publishing Co., 1907.
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