The Una de Gato Forgery

Opportunity came to Jesus Maria Gomez y Lopez on a memorable day in March 1862. While Confederate troops occupied Santa Fe, the nineteen year old janitor in the office of Surveyor General John A. Clark took advantage of the turmoil to get his hands on the faded blue sheets of royal Spanish stamp paper. If he noticed the seals that decorated the left margin were those of Charles IV, whom Napoleon had forced to resign in 1808, it seemed to him of no importance.

Gomez took his time. He moved to Colorado where he taught school at San Luis and became county treasurer, but on April 3, 1873 he recorded a Mexican land grant in the Colfax County Court House. The grant was said to lie east of the Rio Colorado (meant was not the Red but the Canadian River) at a place called Una de Gato.

Una de Gato (Span.: cat’s claw) is a creek a dozen miles southeast of the town of Raton. The creek derives its name from an abundance of black locust, which with its sharp, claw like thorns forms thickets along its banks. It drains via Chicorico Creek westerly into the Canadian River.

The grant papers stated that in January 1839 Governor Manuel Armijo had ordered the alcalde at Abiquiu, a man called Manuel Garcia de la Mora, to survey and give legal possession of a tract of land to Salvador Vernal (or Bernal) and Tomas Lopez. Garcia was said to have met the grantees in the Pueblo of Santa Cruz and traveled with them to Una de Gato to carry out the governor’s instructions.

The grant was described in reference to the local Spanish names of a number of hills, the identity of which would later confound the surveyors. In 1841 the two grantees allegedly sold the grant in exchange for three hundred goats and seventy-five silver dollars to Antonio Matias Gomez of Santa Cruz, a grandson of Vernal. Gomez senior supposedly built a cabin and commenced farming until hostile Indians caused him to leave the land. He died at Anton Chico in 1858 leaving the property to Jesus Maria Gomez y Lopez, his son and heir.

Gomez peddled his grant in Santa Fe and sold it in early 1874 to Manuel A. Otero, a brother of New Mexico’s first Territorial delegate to Congress, in return receiving $5,000 worth of livestock and commodities. He was less fortunate a few months later in Costilla County, Colorado where he was convicted of forging title papers in another "grant" (Zapato) and sentenced to three years in the penitentiary.

In New Mexico, Otero petitioned Surveyor General James Proudfit to recognize the grant, who did so after a brief investigation in July 1874. In 1877 Stephen W. Dorsey, Arkansas Senator and member of half a dozen cattle corporations in Colfax County tried to acquire the grant. A preliminary survey by John T. Elkins and Robert G. Marmon, Deputy Surveyors who had just completed the survey of the adjoining Maxwell grant, gave rise to a dispute over the location of the north and east boundaries. Otero had believed he owned the legal maximum of 96,000 acres (eleven leagues per grantee), but because of the vague legal description Dorsey now claimed six hundred thousand acres, some of them in conflict with the recently approved Maxwell grant. Curiously, Una de Gato Creek was not within the claim but several miles to the north of it.

The survey created a stir among local ranchers and homesteaders, approximately fifty of which had located within the proposed boundaries of the grant. Surveyor General Proudfit had been replaced a year earlier with Henry Atkinson who became convinced of the ‘clear and indisputable evidence of the fraudulent character of the grant’ and had so reported in January 1877 to Washington.

Mostly as a result of a letter written by deputy surveyor (and local rancher) Lewis Kingman, the Commissioner of the GLO ordered a re-investigation, which was held in January and February 1878 in Santa Fe. There was the usual parade of witnesses relating real and imagined memories pro and con a grant that had more holes than a Swiss cheese. There were plenty of reasons to suspect Gomez had manufactured the claim, among them the Royal Spanish seals, so conspicuously out of place in republican Mexico. Others argued that while the grant papers had obviously been altered, they were not necessarily invalid.

Because this was an inquiry and not a trial nothing was settled, but Senator Dorsey decided he did not need the adverse publicity and was throwing good money after bad. In the end he wrote to Atkinson: "I want nothing more to do with land grants." Some historians see Dorsey as the prime villain in the whole affair, claiming that he got cold feet in the public outcry. Dorsey already dominated the area because he had gained control of most of the available water. Be that as it may, when nobody submitted the case to the final authority of the Court of Private Land Claims the Una de Gato grant died a natural death. 

Source: Taylor, Morris F. The Una de Cato Grant in Colfax County. New Mexico Historical Review. April 1976.