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“La Tierra Amarilla: Its History, Architecture, and Cultural Landscape”

by Chris Wilson

When the Spanish arrived in the American Southwest, the King of Spain claimed all the lands. Lands that belonged to the native peoples became property of the Spanish crown, at least in the eyes of the Spanish. The king awarded land grants to individuals and groups of people who were willing to settle and populate the region. On these lands, they built houses, dug acequias or irrigation ditches, farmed, and grazed their stock. As the years passed, other people moved into the region and sometimes claimed land that the king had given to earlier grantees. The American occupation of the territories in 1848 and the arrival of many Anglo settlers sparked numerous conflicts and lawsuits over land ownership that continue to the present day.

In 1860 and 1861, Francisco Martínez received a grant of lands in Tierra Amarilla. Hispanic families had already been living in the area for many years. Newcomers later called into question the legality of Martínez’s land grant. They claimed that the grant had been made to an individual, not to the community, and that many of the inhabitants did not have legal title to their lands. For many years the original Hispanic families and their descendants fought legal battles trying to hold onto their lands. Meanwhile, outsiders moved in and tried to buy up the land. These purchases involved them in court proceedings to nullify the original Martínez grant. Here is an account of a land grant dispute.

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Two events in the early 1880s marked a turning point in the development of the region. The effects of the first, the arrival of the railroad in 1880, were quickly felt; the effects of the second, the final confirmation of the Tierra Amarilla Grant in 1883, took seventy-five years to be fully felt. The Denver and Rio Grande Railway dipped south into New Mexico and the Chama Valley before heading north again for Durango, Colorado, and the San Juan gold and silver district. A railroad service center named Chama was established ten miles to the north of the original Spanish villages. It represented the first permanent Anglo-American settlement in the area and brought the valley more directly into the national mercantile economy. Coffee and sugar, cast iron stoves and calico, steel plows and barbed wire all became more readily available. For architecture, the most important imports were carpentry tools, finished doors and windows, roofing shingles and wooden ornaments. In exchange for these manufactured items, the valley began to produce goods for export, chiefly lumber and wool.

Meanwhile, the Tierra Amarilla Grant, which Congress had confirmed in 1860, needed a detailed land survey before the final confirmation, known as a patent, could be issued. Despite the lack of surveyed boundaries, T. D. Burns nevertheless began purchasing deeds to the grant from descendants of Manuel Martínez about 1865. In 1874, Thomas Catron, prominent Santa Fe lawyer and later US Senator, joined the speculation in deeds, and by 1880 Catron could lay claim to all of the grant except the small farm plots belonging to the original settlers.

Catron’s control hinged on two legal issues. The first issue was whether the grant had been a community grant to the entire group of settlers or a private grant made solely to Manuel Martínez and his family. Typically in the Spanish/Mexican tradition, the only name that appears in documents is that of the leader and spokesman of the group of settlers. The general term for this person was poblador principal, although local tradition recognizes Martínez with the term el Mercenado. Scholars generally agree today that a series of Mexican documents indicate that this was a community grant. But in 1860, through mistranslation of one document and suppression of another, Congress was led to confirm the Tierra Amarilla grant as a private grant. The phrase me quieren acompañar, in Martinez’s request for the grant, was incorrectly translated into the subjunctive as “Manuel Martínez together with eight male children and others who may voluntarily desire to accompany him.” The correct translation, “others who desire to accompany me,” as land grant historian Malcolm Ebright has pointed out, gives a clear indication of a group of settlers ready to occupy the grant, a group of which Martínez was the leader.

By the time the grant was confirmed by Congress, Manuel had died, and his son Francisco set about issuing deeds to the other settlers. Between 1860 and 1865 Francisco deeded them individual fields and added that “the said varas [fields] retain the right of pastures, water, firewood, timbers and roads, free and common.” The second legal issue turned on this passage. Although it had been confirmed as a private grant and heirs of Manuel Martínez would soon begin selling their share of the grant to land speculators, Francisco Martínez nevertheless appears to have deeded traditional use of the common lands to the others as though it were a community grant. When Catron filed a quiet title suit in 1883 to consolidate his claim to the grant, however, these rights to common lands were ignored. He excluded the villages and irrigated fields from the land he was claiming. This allowed the villagers, who had a possible claim to the property in question, to be omitted from the list of those who would have to receive written notice of the proceedings. The court ignored the possible claims of the villagers even though more than one hundred of them had registered their deeds from Martínez at the county courthouse.

When their claims to the common lands were pursued in court in the 1950s (after the last of the commons were fenced), they were disallowed on two grounds: first, that because Congress had confirmed the grant as an individual grant, the question could not be raised in court; and second, that the deeds from Francisco Martínez to the settlers, which gave them a renewed claim to the commons, had been improperly worded. The deeds used the verb quedar (to retain), which does not have the same legal force as “I give” or “I grant,” which is the wording required under English common law for a transfer of property. There is now general agreement among those who have studied and written on the history of this grant that the settlers' loss of common lands was unjust, whether one attributes the loss to unfortunate differences between the property laws of the United States and Mexico or to outright legislative and judicial chicanery.

In 1880, three years before the completion of his quiet title suit, Catron sold portions of the grant to the Denver and Rio Grande Railway for construction of their rail lines and for the Chama depot and shops site. Commercial logging of the common lands, which commenced at the same time to supply the railroad with ties and bridge timbers, continued into the twentieth century. In 1912, the northern portions of the grant began to be fenced by an outside cattle company. Fencing by private owners progressed steadily between the World Wars.