Overview of Land Grant Controversy
In order to understand the land claims dispute in New Mexico, an overview of the history leading up to these disputes is necessary. From the 1600s on, Spain made land grants to individuals and groups in an attempt to put people on land claimed by Spain. When Mexico gained it’s independence from Spain in 1821, they continued the land grant process. In 1835 Mexico’s leader, Santa Anna, changed the constitution. All state legislatures were abolished and all power centralized in Mexico City. Texas and two other Mexicans states revolted against the central government in Mexico City. Only the revolt by Texas was successful - making Texas the sixth Mexican state to successfully secede from the country. Mexico vowed perpetual war on Texas until they reconquered the land. When Texas joined the U.S. in 1845 for its’ own protection, Mexico repeatedly declared that war against the U.S. was inevitable. In January, 1846, the Mexican government was overthrown by General Mariano Parades, whose sole stated objective was to start a war with the U.S. and conquer Texas. Mexico was eager to start the war because they were confident they would defeat the U.S. On April 25, 1846, 1,600 Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande and ambushed American troops. This was the start of the Mexican American War.
On September 13, 1847, the U.S. Army entered Mexico City and the war was over. But negotiating a peace treaty proved difficult and the U.S. and Mexico ultimately ratified two different versions of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The initial treaty was negotiated by Nicholas Trist for the United States and special commissioners representing the collapsed government of Mexico. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed on February 2, 1848 near Mexico City and sent to Washington for ratification. The U.S. Senate deleted Article X and made other changes to the treaty before it was ratified on 10 March 1848. Mexico was not happy about the changes and negotiated the Protocol of Querétaro. Mexico ratified the amended Treaty along with the Protocol which basically returned the Treaty to it’s original wording. The U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Protocol of Querétaro and the U.S. was not obligated to abide by it. In addition, the treaty provided no standard for validation of land grants. These disputes over the Treaty and land grants continues to this day.
These disputes came to a head in the early 1960s, when a charismatic racist named Reies Tijerina(1) (1926 – 2015) started a movement in New Mexico claiming the U.S. had stolen land grants to Mexicans following the Mexican American War. In 1963 he founded the Alianza Federal de Mercedes organization to demand land for Mexican descendents. But this was NOT Tijerina’s true goal. Reies Tijerina declared numerous times in his autobiography that his true goal was to drive all “Anglos” back to Europe and return the Southwest U.S. back to Mexico.(2) He quickly became known for his incendiary rhetoric and he led the organization down an increasingly violent path. Basing his beliefs on one-sided research, hearsay and hatred, he became a domestic terrorist.
The land grant controversy became front page news nationally on 5 June 1967, Tijerina and about 20 heavily armed men took control of the Rio Arriba County Courthouse where they attempted to make a citizen’s arrest of the County's district attorney but he had left the Courthouse earlier.(3) A state police officer and a jailer, Eulogio Salazar, were shot and a sheriff’s deputy and a reporter were taken hostage. Another guard lost several teeth when punched in the face by one of Tijerina’s “warriors” as he called them.(4) Unbelievably, Tijerina took his 18 year old daughter Rosita and his two sons, 13 year old Daniel and older son David on his “mission.”(5) Eulogio Salazar later testified at a preliminary hearing that he was shot through the cheek as he jumped out a court house window by Tijerina. Another couple of inches and Tijerina would have shot Salazar in the head and possibly killed him. The case never went to trial. On Jan. 2, 1968, Salazar was abducted and beaten to death.(6)(7)(8) Salazar’s death was intended to silence a key witness and to intimidate all others. It worked. No one was ever charged with Salazar’s murder. Not surprisingly, Tijerina had an alibi - and he knows who did it. It was the CIA and FBI who ordered the death of Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Eulogio Salazar.(9)
Tijerina was also suspected of involvement in an arson attack on a military installation, but was never charged.(10) The racist Tijerina called children of mixed marriages - “anglos” and Mexicans - “coyotes.”(11)
The key disagreement with the Treaty was over Article X which was deleted by the U.S. for two very good reasons:
1) Article X forced Texas to go back to boundaries that existed in March, 1836. Since Mexico’s intentions was to conquer Texas again, they saw no need to negotiate with Texas over land grants or on anything else. So Mexico brought this situation on themselves by their obstinate refusal to negotiate with Texas and later the U.S. Land boundaries were now 10 years old and many boundaries had changed. Never the less, Texas on it’s own instituted a program of recognizing Spanish/Mexican land grants in the state.
2) Article VIII already bound the U.S. to recognize private property rights of Mexicans whose property now was in the U.S., so what was Mexico’s intentions for having Article X in the initial treaty? Article X bound the U.S. to recognize massive community land grants in New Mexico. Between 1837 and 1848, Manuel Armijo, the last Mexican governor of New Mexico gave away over half of the 31 MILLION acres of land granted to all Mexicans under Spain and Mexico.(12) These huge land grants violated Mexican law and should never have been granted!(13) The U.S. correctly viewed Article X as a back door method by Mexico of maintaining Mexican hold on vast amounts of land that now belonged to the U.S. Article 12 of the Treaty states the U.S. will pay Mexico $15 million for the land transfered to the U.S. - not the land minus the land grants. The U.S. had the right, as the owner of ALL the land to limit grant sizes as was done in Florida. Mexico knowingly violated their own laws with these huge land grants - and then expected the U.S. to recognize these grants. While the U.S. was bound to honor private property of individual Mexicans, the U.S. had no legal or moral obligation to recognize Mexican claims to vast amounts of land which often had no Mexicans there. U.S. Secretary of State John M. Clayton made it clear the U.S. viewed article X as a cheating tool by Mexico: “Could it however reasonably be expected that this government, in addition to the treasure and blood expended in prosecuting the war, would engage to pay fifteen millions of dollars for lands, the title to the most valuable part of which had been extinguished?”(14) Mexico lost the war. The U.S. could have kicked out all the Mexicans and sent them back to Mexico but was trying to be fair.
Not only were these huge grants illegal under Mexican law, but in some northern New Mexico grants, the settlers never fulfilled the requirements necessary to take ownership under both Mexican and U.S. law. All of these massive grants were in Indian controlled territory. Under Mexican law, the land grant became final if there was continuous occupation of the land for 4(15) or 5(16) years.(17) After the land came under U.S. jurisdiction following the Mexican American War, the Surveyor General was directed to examine the claims by applying Spanish and Mexican laws, customs, and usages, and to treat the prior existence of a settlement as clear evidence of a grant.(18) The most famous and controversial grant in New Mexico - Tierra Amarilla - should never have been approved by the U.S. since there had bever been any permanent settlements there.
It’s important to recognize that the land grant issues following the Mexican American War was not the first time the US dealt with this issue. When the US made the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803 and Florida from Spain in 1819, the US agreed to respect the property rights of people that would now be living in the US. For instance, 589 Spanish land grants were approved and 343 land claims were rejected in East Florida.(19) In colonial times, Florida was divided into East and West Florida. In 1828, Congress established a limit of one square league (about 4500 acres) for grants in the Louisiana Purchase and Florida.(20 However, most claims did not exceed 640 acres.(21) Claimants had to pay the cost of a survey after their claim was approved.(22) It wasn’t until 1860 that all land claims in East and West Florida and the Louisiana Purchase were resolved.(20)
Nearly all of the critics who condemn America over Mexican land claims are intellectually dishonest. The U.S. government approved grants that should not have been approved and approved grants for far more acreage then they should have been but these critics don’t care about that. They only care when they believe Mexicans were cheated out of land.
Congress confirmed land grants based on the validity of the claim, without knowing the amount of land being claimed.(23)(24) After confirmation it was learned that five grants - Maxwell, Sangre de Cristo, Pablo Montoya, Preston Beck, Jr. and Bosque Del Apache - should have been awarded a total of 342,778 acreas to be in conformance with Mexican law. They were later surveyed for a total of 3,747,830 acreas. The U.S. was defrauded out of 3,406,052 acres.(25)
Statistics on Land Grants
The commissions used to investigate Mexican land claims in the southwest US following the Mexican American War were similar to those used to validate or reject land claims in the Louisiana Purchase and Florida. If there was a dispute, it was settled either by the U.S. Supreme Court or the US Congress.
The process for validating Mexican claims in New Mexico started in 1854, when Congress established the Office of the Surveyor General to investigate Spanish/Mexican land claims in New Mexico to determine their validity. Notices were repeatedly put into newspapers, in English and Spanish, for land grant claimants to file with the Office of the Surveyor General.(26) The Surveyor General would then recommend those claims that should be approved to Congress. This entire process turned out to be extremely difficult. The Surveyor General was required to understand the “laws, usages and customs of Spain and Mexico” in determining the validity of a land claim. However, this proved nearly impossible as Spain and then Mexico passed and then sometimes repealed legislation and often ignored their own laws, producing confusion and delay.(27)(28)
Although some claims sat idle for long periods of time, Congress confirmed the vast majority of grants recommended for confirmation before the Civil War in 1860 when the process stopped. The process started again after 1865 but stopped again in 1870 over allegations of fraud and corruption.(29) Congress was concerned that fraudulent claims had been approved in both California and New Mexico,(30) and some claimants were receiving much more land then they were entitled to due to the difficulties in determining boundaries. After numerous attempts at consensus failed, Congress, in 1891, created the Court of Private Land Claims. The CPLC was charged with addressing all unresolved land claims in New Mexico, California and other states.(31) The CPLC finished its work in 1904.
The CPLC, which took a closer look at grant documents, found most of the eleven forgeries of land grant documents, including the notorious Peralta-Reavis grant request for 12 MILLION acres.(32) But the CPLC didn’t get the chance to examine the Ramon Vigil Grant. This grant of 31,802 acres was confirmed by Congess on June 1860. In the 1990s, historian Marjorie Bell Chambers (1923-2006) proved that the grant document was a forgery and the grant should never have been approved.(33)
Determining the validity of some claims was difficult and some critics say the US was hyper legal with respect to approving land claims in New Mexico but this is not correct. No one could expect the U.S. to assume every Mexican who claimed land had a valid title. Fraud was a huge problem.(34) There had to be a mechanism for determining the legality of title to millions of acres of land made by Spanish and Mexican governments over some 150 years. Mexico had no authority to violate our Constitution and force it’s laws on us.
An exhaustive investigation into New Mexico land grant issues by the GAO - completed in 2004 - found that the U.S. government did NOT violate treaty obligations with land grant claimants under U.S. law.(35) Many of the problems in this process were caused by Spanish/Mexican officials who gave out land grants with vague, overlapping and sometimes no boundaries. Some titles didn’t mention all the people in the grant - another opportunity for fraud. Unlike Florida and the Louisiana Purchase, where claimants had to pay the cost of the land survey, the US financed survey costs from 1854 to 1862, when the money was shifted to the war effort. As reports of boundary fraud and forgeries became a concern, Congress, in July 1876, required land claimants to pay the full cost of a land survey.(36) Also, Many Mexican claim holders waited many years before submitting their claims for approval.
Spain and Mexico made a total of 295 land grants in New Mexico - 141 Individual and 154 Community land claims.(37) Community land grants was where a group of people received private lots for a home and then communal land was set aside for hunting, farming, etc.(38) A total of 105, or 68% of the Community land grants were approved by the US government, totalling 5.96 MILLION acres, or 63.5% of the acreage claimed.(39) Combining both Individual and Community land grants, the US government awarded 55% of the land claimed by Mexicans in New Mexico. Critics claim only 24% of claimed acreage was approved in New Mexico(40) versus 73% in California,(41) asserting that the disparity in the approval rate showed defective procedures were used in New Mexico. This assertion is wrong for four reasons: (1) a large amount of land critics count is located outside of New Mexico;(42) (2) critics count claims that were never pursued or withdrawn(43); (3) acreage was “double-counted” because they were claimed by more then one person;(42) (4) some claimants greatly exaggerated the size of their claim.(42)(44) Another factor was that the land claim process in California was set up under a different law - the 1851 Act - due to the fact that the Gold Rush, starting in 1848, necessitated quick resolution of land claims. The California Commission was very liberal in approving land grant claims and on occasion, even dispensed with conditions essential for valid title under Mexican Law.(45)
Some claimants only had a portion of the required information which prevented the investigative process from starting.(46) Some Community land grants were approved even though they did not satisfy all the legal requirements.(47) Others were rejected due to insufficient proof of a grant and for various other reasons.(48) Individuals living on Community land grants that were rejected by the government were allowed to keep their individual home lots (160 acres) under the small-holding claims provision of the 1891 Act. The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management estimates about 73,000 acres of land was awarded through small-holding claims.(49) Several land grants were not approved because the titles were deemed forgeries.(50) Some land grants were issued by Spanish/Mexican authorities who were not authorized to do so (51), but some of these land claims were approved anyway.(52) Some land grants were rejected because claimants failed to comply with the conditions of the grant.(53)
After a grant was approved by Congress, a survey was ordered to determine exact property lines.(54) But determining the boundaries of a property was another difficult task. Unlike the US which used surveying equipment, Spain/Mexico used landmarks which were difficult - and sometimes impossible to locate and many boundary descriptions were vague or nonexistent.(55)(56) False claims was suspected in some land boundary claims.(57) Some land was claimed by more then one person. Some land claims overlapped other claims and some claims were completely within other land claims.(58)
It’s interesting that the claims of Mexican land grants being stolen occurred primarily in New Mexico, not California, Florida or the Louisiana Purchase. Why? These massive land grants were done only in New Mexico and was the root cause of most of the disputes.(44) It was apparent that these massive community grants were being used as a cheating tool by Mexico - trying to maintain hold of huge amounts of land - through the Protocol of Querétaro - that now belonged to the U.S. Certainly, much of the alleged land theft by New Mexico authorities and local attorneys in the 1870s had it’s roots in these claims for massive Community land grants. Ultimately, the U.S. government decided the simplest and fairest way to deal with a lot of these huge amounts of claimed Community land was to turn them into national forests for all to enjoy.
Critics of the confirmation process condemn most judicial rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court. But they had their own frustrations. Justice Brewer, delivering the Court’s decision on Ely's Administrator v. United States, (1898) stated: “Few cases presented to this Court are more perplexing than those involving Mexican grants. The changes in the governing power as well as in the form of government were so frequent, there is so much indefiniteness and lack of precision in the language of the statutes and ordinances, and the modes of procedure were in so many respects essentially different from those to which we are accustomed, that it is often quite difficult to determine whether an alleged grant was made by officers who at the time were authorized to act for the government, and was consummated according to the forms of procedure then recognized as essential.”(59)
So before we consider any future compensation for heirs of Mexicans over land claim issues, we need to take these factors into consideration. There are four fraudulent reasons advanced by advocates for compensation: 1) basing their claims on violations of the Protocol of Querétaro - which the U.S. Senate wisely refused to ratify and was not obligated to obey; 2) inaccurate and politically motivated “research” where only information beneficial to their claims are brought forward: 3) The claim that heirs don’t have to pay taxes on land; and 4) claiming that community land can never be sold.
Claims 3 and 4 come from an obvious misinterpretation of Article VIII of the treaty:(60)
Article VIII, first paragraph:
“Mexicans now established in territories previously belonging to Mexico, and which remain for the future within the limits of the United States, as defined by the present treaty, shall be free to continue where they now reside, or to remove at any time to the Mexican Republic, retaining the property which they possess in the said territories, or disposing thereof, and removing the proceeds wherever they please, without their being subjected, on this account, to any contribution, tax, or charge whatever.”
Mexicans ‘now established’ who now own land that now is in the US can retain their property OR sell it (disposing thereof) without being charged ‘any contribution, tax, or charge whatever.’
Article VIII, second paragraph:
“Those who shall prefer to remain in the said territories may either retain the title and rights of Mexican citizens, or acquire those of citizens of the United States. But they shall be under the obligation to make their election within one year from the date of the exchange of ratification's of this treaty; and those who shall remain in the said territories after the expiration of that year, without having declared their intention to retain the character of Mexicans, shall be considered to have elected to become citizens of the United States.”
Mexicans have a year to decide on U.S. citizenship.
Article VIII, third paragraph:
“In the said territories, property of every kind, now belonging to Mexicans not established there, shall be inviolably respected. The present owners, the heirs of these, and all Mexicans who may hereafter acquire said property by contract, shall enjoy with respect to it guarantees equally ample as if the same belonged to citizens of the United States.”
Mexican land owners ‘not established there’ who now own land that now is in the US will have their property rights ‘inviolably respected,’ unless they sell it. The word ‘inviolably’ has nothing to due with forbidding land from ever being sold. It simply means their property rights will always be protected as if they were an American citizen.
These four fraudulent reasons by land grant advocates have successfully transformed Mexican land grant heirs and supporters into a class of people who believe they are above the Constitution and the laws of the land - a privileged class.
However, the REAL reason for the activities of most land grant activists is that they believe the entire southwest U.S. was stolen from Mexico as a result of the Mexican American war. The land claims campaign started by Reies Tijerina was simply a convenient tool to recruit and then brainwash followers. If you want more proof, ask any land claims advocate, or Mexican American who started the Mexican American War, you will realize that nearly all believe the U.S. stole the southwest U.S. from Mexico.
However, the facts conclusively prove that Mexico’s leader, General Santa Anna, provoked the Texas rebellion in 1835. The cause of the Mexican American War 10 years later was Mexico’s refusal to honor the peace agreement with Texas after being defeated in the 1835-36 war. Mexico vowed never ending war on Texas until they reconquered the land. When Texas voted to join the U.S. in 1845 for their own protection. Mexico declared - repeatedly - that war with the United States was inevitable. On Jan. 1846, General Mariano Parades overthrew the existing government with one stated objective - start a war with the United States and retake Texas.(61)
The claim this was a war of aggression against Mexico in the name of Manifest Destiny is also not true. The reality is that the concept of Manifest Destiny is universal. Spain believed it was their Manifest Destiny to conquer all of the New World (minus Brazil) for Spain and Catholicism. In fact, Spain’s vision of Manifest Destiny was immense - far more aggressive then the U.S. Claiming all of the New World for Spain (except for Brazil) wasn’t enough. Spain wanted more. In 1513, Vasco Balboa crossed Panama and was the first European to see the Pacific Ocean from the west coast of the New World. With a wave of his arm, Balboa claimed the entire Pacific Ocean and all lands adjoining it for Spain. Although Balboa didn’t know it, he claimed modern day United States, Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Japan, Korea, China, The Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia - all for Spain. It was really inevitable that Spain/Mexico’s “Manifest Destiny” would come into conflict with America’s more limited expansion. While Spain/Mexico was claiming land just to claim it - land they had a difficult time putting people on - the US was rapidly expanding based on a growing population.(62)(63)
The demand for land or monetary compensation is interesting since all the land Mexican Americans are demanding compensation for used to be Indian land. Any future monetary compensation to Mexican Americans should be shared with the former owners of this land - the Indians - unless it can be shown the Indians did not occupy that land in the past.But why should we go back only 170 years to the Mexican American war? Why not go back 500 years when the Spanish conquistadors wiped out many Indian tribes and destroyed the Inca, Mayan and Aztec empires - and then imposed the encomienda system on the surviving Indians that turned them into powerless peasants. Is there compensation owed to Indian tribes by Mexico?
This whole debate on compensation for wrongs allegedly committed hundreds of years ago begs the question - when is history history? How far back into history do we go? When do we draw the line on compensation? Why attack or penalize people 170 or 500 years after the fact when they obviously had nothing to do with it? Why stop at the New World. Should we go back 500 years around the rest of the world. Who would fix all that? Digging up wrongs from the past has become something of a sport in New Mexico.
Another interesting fact is that although roughly half of Mexico’s land area was north of the present day boundary with the US, only 1% of the population of Mexico lived on this land. Spain had numerous plans to colonize this land since the early 1600s. But after well over 200 years, California and New Mexico was sparsely settled. Ninety nine percent of Mexicans - or about 7 million people - lived in the southern half of the country. Obviously, most Mexicans had no desire to settle on the land north of the Rio Grande.
Some partisans alleged that land claim documents had to be in English. There is no truth to this claim. The first Surveyor General, William Pelham, had two translators assisting him: David Miller and David Whiting.(64)
Info on Specific Land Grants
The Ramon Vigil Grant. This grant of 31,802 acres was recommended for approval by Surveyor General William Pelham on May 1856 and the grant was confirmed by Congess on June 1860. In the 1990s, Historian Marjorie Bell Chambers (1923-2006) proved that the grant document was a forgery and the grant should never have been approved. There had been a grant in this location in the past, but then was abandoned and the Mexican Governor revoked the claim, marking the original document to that effect. Ramon Vigil forged a new document, without adding the notice of abandonment.(33)
The Tierra Amarilla grant in northern New Mexico has been the flashpoint for violence and controversy for over a century, but advocates ignore facts when they choose to do so. Tierra Amarilla is a perfect example OF A GRANT THAT NEVER HAPPENED. This grant was approved by Mexico in 1832 to Manuel Martinez. Although Martinez wanted the grant to be private, authorities made it a common grant. This huge land grant of 594,515 acres violated Mexican law and should never have been granted! Under Mexican law, the land grant became final if there was continuous occupation of the land for 4(15) or 5(16) years(17) and this didn’t happen. Hostile Indians made settlements impossible. The local alcalde refused to go to Tierra Amarilla and perform the possession ceremony for fear of getting killed by Indians. Martinez spent 14 years, until his death in 1846 attempting to establish permanent settlements in Tierra Amarilla.(65)
After the U.S. took control of the land following the Mexican American War(1846-48), William Pelham became the first surveyor general and was tasked with determining the legitimacy of Mexican land claims. Francisco Martinez, a son of Manuel was one of the first to request approval of Tierra Amarilla in 1856. Although one of the requirements necessary for approval was a preexisting settlement, Pelham never traveled to Tierra Amarilla. Had he done so, he would have discovered that no permanent settlements existed. Pelham wrongly recommended approval of the Tierra Amarilla grant and Congress approved it as a private land grant in 1860.(66) With Indians still in control of the area, permanent settlements were not possible until the early 1860s.(67)(68) Between 1860 and 1865, Francisco made 130 private property grants to individual Mexicans, with the requirement of 3 years of continuous occupation for legal ownership.(66). Even after settlements began, Indians controlled large sections of the grant resulting in constant battles with Mexican settlers. Many settlers only controlled the land in the immediate vicinity of their village.(69) It wasn’t until 1872 that the last Indian tribe was evicted from Tierra Amarilla by the U.S. Army.(70)
The Tierra Amarilla grant should never have been approved by the U.S. since Mexicans never occupied it.