New Mexico Land Grants
The subject of the titles of land located upon private grants, or alleged grants, in New Mexico, for many years had proved the cause of so great trouble to the courts of New Mexico on account of the apparently endless litigation arising from claims and counter-claims and the obvious opportunities for fraud on a gigantic scale that Congress, by act of March 3, 1891, created a special court known as the United States Court of Private Land Claims, for the purpose of judiciously determining and adjusting claims for lands within the limits of the territories derived by the United States from the Republic of Mexico, and embraced within the territories of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, and the states of Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming, by virtue of Spanish or Mexican grants, as the United States was bound to recognize and confirm according to the stipulations of the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, and the treaty of 1853, known as the Gadsden Purchase. The state of California was not included in the jurisdiction of the new court for the reason that soon after the admission of California into the Union a tribunal was provided by act of Congress to settle the grant titles in that state alone. But New Mexico and the balance of the ceded territory was left with no means of relief for more than forty years after the treaty of peace between the United States and Mexico.
During this period many private acts were passed by Congress to confirm some of these grants. But this method was found to be very unsatisfactory, and in many cases most unjust acts were passed and some frauds were perpetrated upon the government either through lack of care in the preparation of cases by the government's attorneys or indifference as to what became of what were considered lands of little or no value. The worst feature of this plan of congressional action was that no claimant could secure legislative confirmation unless he had money to go to Washington, organize a lobby, and exercise sufficient influence to secure the passage of a bill favorable to his claims.
Until the new court began its work the claimants and possessors of lands under these ancient and usually very vaguely defined grants were constantly harassed by the refusal of "squatters" to recognize their claims. Immigrants from the east believed that the lands of New Mexico belonged to the Federal government and were therefore subject to entry under the homestead and other general land laws. To complicate matters the local land offices encouraged these abuses not through ignorance, but from disregard for grant rights and for the sake of obtaining fees. They allowed entries to be made upon grant lands the same as upon the public domain. Subsequently Congress, with the disregard of legally vested individual rights for which it has sometimes been notorious, in confirming these grants provided that all such squatter entries, although absolutely illegal when made, should be exempted from the confirmation and the grantees should be allowed to select a like area on some part of the public domain. This land might be in widely separated tracts. Or the ousted grantee or his heirs was offered the alternative of accepting from the United States pay for the land of which he had been deprived, at the valuation of one dollar and twenty-five cents per acre, though the lands, at the time of adjudication, not infrequently had a market value of from twenty-five to fifty dollars per acre. These outrageous legislative provisions were generally the fruit of the labors of members of Congress from eastern states, who knew nothing regarding these lands and apparently cared less.
Fortunately for New Mexico, which had been the chief sufferer on account of unstable land titles, the new court was invested with full powers, occupying the same place as United States circuit and district courts. It was made to consist of five judges-a chief justice and four associate justices, appointed by the president; an attorney to act for the United States; a clerk, an interpreter of the .Spanish language and an ample corps of assistants. The chief justice, Joseph R. Reed of Iowa, had served many years on the bench, including the supreme court of his state, and had served a term in Congress. Associate Justice Thomas C. Fuller, of North Carolina, was one of the greatest lawyers in the South Atlantic seaboard states. Associate Justice William W. Murray, of Tennessee, had achieved distinction at the bar and for many years had served as United States district attorney. Associate Justice Henry C. Sluss, of Kansas, had occupied the bench in that state and was regarded as a most able lawyer. Associate Justice Wilber F. Stone, of Colorado, had served as one of the first judges of the supreme court of Colorado, and was chairman of the judiciary committee of the convention which framed the constitution of that state. Matt G. Reynolds, of St. Louis, Mo., the United States attorney for the court, was a lawyer of splendid ability. As special assistant he had won distinction in Washington, and he compiled a volume comprising the Spanish and Mexican laws relative to land grants. This tribunal, it will instantly be seen, was unique among the courts of America.
In many of the cases coming before this court the documentary evidence was of necessity supplemented by the oral testimony of witnesses, relating to occupation, abandonment on account of Indian hostilities, and heredity and family pedigree of claimants. Another unique feature of the court was that it was not perpetual. It was created for the accomplishment of a specific undertaking. Its life was originally limited to five years, but through necessity, was extended from time to time until thirteen years to a day were consumed in its work, from July 1, 1891, to June 30, 1904. Upon the organization of the court in Denver, James H. Reeder, of Kansas, was appointed clerk. He was afterward succeeded by Irenio L. Chaves, of Santa Fe County. In New Mexico the sessions of the court were held in Santa Fe.
The whole number of cases filed in the court for confirmation of title to grant lands was 301, these claims embracing an aggregate of 35,491,020 acres. The claims confirmed by decrees of the court, which were satisfied by the approval of the surveys made in execution of said decrees, amounted to 2,051,526 acres, leaving the amount rejected by the court 33,439,493 acres. Of the 282 cases from New Mexico which went through the court, 149 of the claims, or over one-half, were rejected entirely. In but twenty-one cases was title to the entire area claimed confirmed. The land of all grants finally rejected reverted to the public domain of the United States, subject to disposal under the public land laws of the government. Many of the large grants which were not wholly rejected by the court were reduced in area, either by the restrictions of the act of Congress creating the court and the eleven league limitation of the colonization laws of Mexico, or by the terms of the grant itself being found to call for less than claimed by the petitioners. A conspicuous instance of the latter class was the case of the Canon de Chama grant, which had been sold to a British cattle syndicate as containing 472,000 acres. Upon trial it was found to be a grant to a narrow strip in a canyon, aggregating 1,422 acres. Another case was the Petaca grant, which was claimed to be about thirty miles long and twenty miles wide, its area including nearly one hundred square miles of pine forest. It had been purchased by a wealthy Chicago man, one of the Farwells, who established sawmills and lumber camp; in the pineries and for ten years shipped lumber by rail from Tres Piedras, reserving the best portion of the forest for future development. The court found that the original grant comprised only a strip about five miles long and a few miles wide. Among the other noted grants rejected or reduced in area were these:
Source: History of New Mexico, Its Resources and People, Volume I, Pacific States Publishing Co., 1907.
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