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Spanish - Mexican Land Grants:  A Brief Introduction

Sangre de Cristo/Lee & Beaubien Grant
Nolan Grant
Las Animas/Vigil & St. Vrain Grant
Maxwell Grant/Beaubien & Miranda Grant
Conejos/Guadalupe Grant
Tierra Amarilla Grant
Luis Maria Baca No. 4/Vegas Grandes Grant

The evolution of America's westward expansion is expressly tied to the development of Mexico and it's people. Prior to 1821 Southern Colorado was part of Spain's New Mexico Territory. In order to foster the development of these Northern hinterlands Spain rewarded its officials with large land grants. The differences between the Spanish-Mexican land grant system and that of the New World-American method would later cause many land disputes to arise. Firstly, Spanish-Mexican land grants did not use a mathematical grid system to plot land claims and instead used a system that featured geographical points such as rivers, mounds, and mountains. For example the Vigil & St. Vrain Grant was written "Commencing on the line at one league east of the Animas (Purgatory) river a mound was erected; thence following in a direct line to the Arkansas River, one league below the junction of the Animas and the Arkansas…" The second major difference was that these grants were provided to the owner who was then expected to improve the land and develop it. Land owners were expected to ride along the property borders to show ownership, commit to improvements, and  promise to defend the land against foreign attacks as the Spanish and Mexican Governments did not have the military forces capable of defending their outermost territories. These grants often were intended not for just the initial individuals for whom they are now named, but were also designed to foster communities which had communal resources, to create self-sustaining farming settlements, and also to promote what was considered  the Spanish way of life. Finally, land ownership in the Spanish-Mexican culture was often reflective of one's social status and a family's relationships with the surrounding community. As such, many of the land grants were arranged informally and in some cases only verbally.

The Republic of Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821 and inherited the administration of Spain's New Mexico Territory. Mexico continued with a policy of promoting the settlement of its unoccupied northern territories but was not as isolationistic as Spain. Mexico allowed for French, British, and American born men to own  land so that these "foreigners" eventually became the major landowners in Mexico.  All these land recipients had to do was to pledge to defend Mexico against American westward expansion. While Mexico was willing to sell its lands to many such buyers, Mexican Governor Manuel Armijo was especially eager to sell land. He sold a total of 9,700,000 acres in his two years of office,  more than half of which was sold within a six-week period. After a quarter century of Mexican rule, Governor Armijo later chose not to resist General Stephen Kearny's American military forces in 1846.

After the Mexican-American war ended in 1848 the land grants were administered and reviewed by the region's newest conquers, the United States of America. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was supposed to guarantee ex-Mexican citizens their private property rights. Large legal and surveying fees and endless legal quarrels, however, caused many independent land owners to lose  much of their land. Furthermore, many people couldn’t identify what lands were rightfully theirs since they lived in communal farming and resource areas. On July 22, 1854 the United States Congress appointed William Pelham as Surveyor General of New Mexico to review the validity of the various claims and to advise Congress as to how to decide  these matters. These land disputes continued to plague the region until 1891 when Congress created the Court of Private Land Claims. After thirteen years of work this court was finally able to settle over three hundred pending claims with the exception of the Conejos Grant.

Sangre de Cristo / Lee & Beaubien Grant

This 1,038,195.55 acre land grant was created on December 27, 1843 by Stephen Luis Lee and Narciso Beaubien of Taos. Their petition to Governor Don Manuel Armijo stated that the San Luis Valley's geography had "fertile lands for cultivation, and abundance of pasture and water, and all that is required for its settlement and the raising of horned and wollen cattle." For three years after the official acquisition, Lee and Beaubien did not create any settlements or make any improvements, which was against the original intention of the land grant. In a tragic turn of events both land grant owners were killed on January 19, 1847 in the Taos Pueblo Uprising. As Lee's estate was in debt, his administrator was forced to sell his half of the grant property to Narciso Beaubein's father for only one hundred dollars.

Charles Beaubein was a more effective landowner than his son and fostered a variety of agricultural settlements on the Costilla River and Culebra River between 1849 and 1851. He also leased the land to the United State Army in 1852 for the creation of Fort Massachusetts, known today at Fort Garland. By 1856 the United States Surveyor General William Pelham began to investigate the authenticity of the grant, but after only two days of investigation the court came to the conclusion "that the land has been occupied from the time the grant was made up to the present day." With the court upholding the legitimacy of the Beaubein family's claim to the Sangre de Cristo land grant, the matter was recorded as an act of Congress on June 21, 1860.

Beaubin agreed to sell his land holdings to United States Territorial Governor William Gilpin in 1863 for approximately four cents an acre ($41,000). Gilpin, along with several foreign financiers, divided the Sangre de Cristo grant into two halves, the northern Trinchera and the southern Costilla. Capitalist ventures spearheaded by the Gilpin syndicate proceeded to treat the land's pioneering hispanic settlers as trespassing squatters, despite their efforts to improve the land and introduce livestock. The resulting land battle created such a legacy of bad blood that the Congress began to vote against ratifying Mexican land grants.  These grants are still the subject of litigation between the heirs of the original settlers and various speculators such as Malcolm S. Forbes.

Nolan Grant

Gervacio Nolan, a French fur trapper and resident of Taos, applied for his half million acre land grant on the St. Charles River Valley on November 14, 1843 on the basis of his military service. While Nolan's plans to develop any type of colony seemed ill-fated due to Indian attacks, he was blessed with a large family that lived peacefully and cultivated his land steadily. After Nolan's death in 1857, his family was forced to prove their claim to United States Surveyor General William Pelham. With testimony from Ceran St. Vrain and Kit Carson the surveyor general recommended that Congress uphold the Nolan family claim. Unfortunately for the Nolan heirs, the United States Congress chose to honor the original laws and traditions of the 1824 Mexico National Congress which stated that an individual land owner could not receive a grant any larger than eleven square leagues (48,695.48 acres).

Las Animas / Vigil &St.Vrain Grant

Petitioning Governor Armijo on December 8, 1843, Cornelio Vigil and Ceran St. Vrain were poised to become two of the largest landowners in the history of the United States. With over four million acres at stake, Vigil and St. Vrain told the Mexican government that they had big plans for the development of the land by agriculture and raising livestock . The land was used primarily for cattle grazing by William Bransford, William Bent, and Ceran St. Vrain. St. Vrain was unable to lure colonists onto the land until ten years after the grant agreement, and even then most of them were his own employees and their families. Furthermore, there were no claims or settlements on the Las Animas Grant until the early 1860's which painted a picture to the courts of a deserted land with absentee landlords. As such Vigil and St. Vrain were seen as breaking the original land grant agreement.

Like the Nolan Grant the Vigil heirs (Vigil was murdered during the 1847 Taos Pueblo Uprising) and Ceran St. Vrain were stripped of their original land grants and provided with a much smaller 97,000 acres by the United States Congress. This situation was complicated by Vigil & St. Vrain overselling  the original land grant.  By 1846 they technically didn't even have stake in their original claim as they had sold several one-sixth shares to fort owner and trader Charles Bent, New Mexico Governor Manuel Armijo, New Mexico Secretary Donaciano Vigil, and Trinidad townsite promoter Eugene Leitensdorfer. The subsequent owners assumed that the Congressional Act would eventually be overturned by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo or a Supreme Court decision, and continued to sell as many parcels of land to speculators as possible before the land could be officially surveyed. In one case settlers on the land grant claimed by both Leitensdorfer and his rival Captain William Craig  created the Settlers' Purgatorie Relief Association in order to protect themselves from the ensuing attacks on their property.  In another case, David Moffat and Jerome Chaffee were both accused of obtaining fraudulent land patents for fictitious property owners so that they could assert their claims to the West Las Animas townsite.  The land grant had quickly become a dangerously out-of control land grab.

It soon became obvious that the federal government had to settle this land dispute which resulted in Congress ordering an official survey of the awarded 97,000 acres. The land was split up with the Vigil and St. Vrain heirs getting first priority, pioneers who had interests deeded to them secondly, and settlers third. After half a century of court proceedings twenty three land owners had their claims rejected, thirteen had their land claims approved, with not one of the original land grantee heirs benefiting at all.  

Maxwell Grant / Beaubien & Miranda Grant

While the majority of this grant's land mass is in present day New Mexico, the Maxwell grant does include many Southern Colorado landowners. Guadalupe Miranda and Charles Beaubien, administrator of his deceased son's Sangre de Cristo Grant, petitioned Governor Armiijo for this over 1,700,000 acre property on January 8, 1841.

   "Most Excellent Sir: The undersigned, Mexican citizens and residents of this place, in the most approved manner required by law, state: That of all the departments in the republic, with the exception of the Californias, New Mexico is one of the most backward in intelligence, industries, manufactories, etc., and surely few others present the natural advantages to be found therein, not only on account of its abundance of water, forests, wood and useful timber, but also on account of the fertility of soil,…The welfare of a nation consists in the possession of lands which produce all the necessaries of life without requiring those of other nations; and it cannot be denied that New Mexico possesses this great advantage, and only requires industrious hands to make it a happy residence. This is the age of progress and the march of intellect, and they are so rapid that we may expect, at a day not far distant, that they will reach even us. Under the above conviction we both request your excellency to be pleased to grant us a tract of land for the purpose of improving it, without injury to any third party, and raising sugar beets, which we believe will grow well and produce an abundant crop, and in time to establish manufactories of cotton and wool, and raising stock of every description."

It is interesting to note that this may be the first recorded document that proposes the development of Colorado's sugar beet resources, a crop that still is a mainstay of Colorado's agricultural development. Like the aforementioned grants, the United States Surveyor General Pelham reviewed the Maxwell Grant in 1857, and by an act of the United States Congress on June 21, 1860 the claim was upheld in its entirety.

The purchase of the Miranda family's half of the grant, the disallowing of the Bent family claims, and by marrying into the Beubien Family, Lucien B. Maxwell had become the sole grant owner by 1858. Maxwell's business acumen was rewarded when he sold the entire estate in 1870 for $650,0000, a property that reportedly cost him only $50,000 to acquire.

Conejos / Guadalupe Grant

One of the earliest Mexican land grants in Colorado was the 1833 Conejos / Guadalupe land grant. While up to eighty people may have at one time occupied the land before 1842, it was  abandoned once Mexico started a war with the indigenous Indians. When the war ended Jose Martinez, Antonio Martinez, Julian Gallegos, and Seledon Valdez petitioned to reassert their claim for over 2,500,000 acres. While the claim was upheld by the Mexico's Prefect Archuleta it  stipulated:

"That the tract aforesaid shall be cultivated and never abandoned; and he that shall not cultivate his land within twelve year or that shall not reside upon it will forfeit his right, and the land that had been assigned to him will be given to another person - that the pastures and watering places shall be in common for all the inhabitants - that said land is donated to the grantees to be well cultivated and for the pasturing of all kinds of livestock and therefore owing to the exposed frontier situation of the place, grantees must keep themselves equipped with firearms and bows and arrows…that the towns they may build shall be walled around and fortified - and in the meantime the settlers must move upon said tract and build their shanties there for the protection of their families."

Within a year communal farms and settlements began to sprout up within the fork of the Antonio and Conejos Rivers, as their renewed agreement mandated. In 1846 Julian Gallegos realized that he needed to once again reaffirm his ownership of the land grant with his new neighbors the United States. He petitioned Governor Charles Bent who chose not to act on the request, and later the United States Surveyor General's Office,  but no recommendation was sent to Congress. During the years that the Conjeos / Guadalupe Grant controversy simmered,  towns were incorporated,  the State of Colorado was added to the Union, and  many competing land claims were initiated. The Court of Private Land Claims heard the arguments in 1900, and believing the original grantees had not complied with the tenets of the Conejos Grant in its entirety, the court chose not to honor the claim.

Tierra Amarilla Grant

The earliest of all Mexican Land grants that had its boundaries within present day Colorado, the Tierra Amarilla Grant was awarded to Manuel Martinez and his family on July 20, 1832. This 594,515 acre grant encompassing the Chama River Valley was confirmed by an Act of the United States Congress on June 21, 1860 in its entirety. By 1883 the Martinez family and the other original land grantees had given almost all their original titles to Thomas Burns and Thomas B. Catron.

Luis Maria Baca No. 4 / Vegas Grandes Grant

The earliest of all land grants in Colorado, this 100,000 acre Spanish land grant at the western base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range was established when Luis Maria Caveza de Baca petitioned for it in 1821.  De Baca moved his livestock and horses to this property within the year, but Indians forced him to move off of his granted property.  After his death a group of  land speculators petitioned for the Baca grant, but were denied as de Baca's heirs chose to fight for their ancestral lands.  Antonio de Baca won not only fights with competing land speculators, but also had his land confirmed by Surveyor General Pelham.  Despite western political support the United States Congress chose to give the original lands to the Town of Las Vegas, while the de Baca heirs were provided with five other 100,000 acre land grants.  Governor William Gilpin, also owner of the Sangre de Cristo Grant, purchased the remaining 100,000 de Baca grant lands in Colorado and later sold them to an out-of-state company for $1,400,000. 


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Last modified June 4, 2001