By some accounts Don Luis María Cabeza de Baca was ‘a miserable fellow’. One of Nuevo Mexico’s ricos [rich], he claimed as his ancestor the celebrated pedestrian Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, who in 1535 walked across the fair landscape of what would become the American Southwest. His family had been in New Mexico from the start; an ancestor had arrived with Oñate, and several members of the family returned with Diego de Vargas during the reconquest of 1692.
Don Luis had been born in Santa Fe in 1754, and in three marriages may have sired twenty-two children. He lived at Peña Blanca where he owned a ranch he had purchased from Cochiti Pueblo, a sale the Indians were trying to annul, claiming intimidation and fraud. In the late 1700s he had been assistant alcalde at the Pueblo of Santo Domingo and was prosecuted for abusing the Indians there.
It is possible that Don Luis had already grazed sheep in the Las Vegas area while he was alcalde in San Miguel del Bado (granted in 1794), nevertheless on January 16, 1821 he petitioned the provincial deputation in Durango for a grant in his name and that of his ‘seventeen sons’ [see note], a grant he called Las Vegas Grandes. The application was unusual in that it bypassed the governor in Santa Fe, but under a Spanish reorganization of 1776 New Mexico had become a part of the Provincias Internas, and was subject to the acts of the provincial deputation in Durango (Mexico). A year earlier he had been granted the identical area in conjunction with eight others, but now he wanted the grant for himself, claiming that his partners were no longer interested.
The Las Vegas Grandes was bounded on the north by the Sapello River that flows in an easterly direction from its source in the Pecos Mountains, the summits of which constituted the west boundary of the grant. On the south it extended to the boundary of the Antonio Ortiz grant (granted in 1819) and on the east to Aguaje de la Llegua, a watering place on the plain to the east of the present town of Las Vegas. An 1860 survey by the General Land Office showed that the grant contained 496,446.96 acres.
The provincial president in Durango approved the grant on May 29, 1823 and so informed the governor in Santa Fe. The latter in turn directed the alcalde of San Miguel del Bado to place Don Luis in possession and on October 17 this was ceremoniously done.
The legitimacy of the 1823 approval by the Spanish authorities in Durango would later be questioned because Mexico became independent in the Treaty of Córdoba of August 24, 1821, ending any power derived from the King of Spain. However, the Territorial Deputation of New Mexico had in 1825 confirmed the grant to Cabeza de Baca, making the argument moot.
There is some doubt that Don Luis or members of his family ever occupied the Las Vegas Grandes. Apparently he had a shepherd living in a shack at a place called Loma Montosa, taking care of as many as three thousand sheep and other livestock, until the Plains Indians stole enough of it to make the operation unprofitable and dangerous. It is not clear whether the grant was abandoned sufficiently long to void the granting, in any case Don Luis was living in Peña Blanca when a Mexican soldier killed him in 1827 in an argument over contraband pelts that were found stored in his house.
On March 20, 1835 a man by the name of Juan de Diós Maese and twenty-eight others petitioned the town council of San Miguel del Bado for a grant that essentially covered the same area as the Las Vegas Grandes, probably in the belief that it was still unoccupied public land. The council recommended approval to the Territorial Deputation and on March 23 the grant was legally made, subject to the selection and survey of a town site, complete with plaza, roads, ditches and gardens. The town of Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de las Vegas was born, and along with it a century of haggling over ownership rights on the Vegas Grandes.
When surveyor general William Pelham examined the grant documents in the late 1850s he came to the conclusion that both grants had been legally made, and submitted them to the authorities in Washington to sort things out. Considering that the area in and around Las Vegas already had nearly six-thousand inhabitants, Congress passed the Act of June 21, 1860, authorizing the Baca heirs to select within three years an equal area out of the non-mineralized public domain, to be located in not more than five squares, all of them in New Mexico Territory, which at that time still include Arizona, all of Nevada south of the 37th parallel, and a portion of Colorado east of the Continental Divide. For the purpose of selecting prime grazing land the option of locating five separate parcels was very attractive.
Of the five Baca Floats, each containing 99,289.39 acres (about 12 ½ miles square), Float No. 1 is located in the Jemez Mountains five miles west of Los Alamos. It is a part of Valles Caldera, an enormous depression created by a massive volcanic eruption millions of years ago. An area of unique natural beauty, the Float was purchased in 2004 by the U.S. Government after years of negotiations for $101 million and turned into the Valles Caldera National Preserve. It is administered by a trust created for that purpose, a trust that includes officials of the Santa Fe National Forest and of Bandelier National Monument.
Baca Float No. 2 straddles the Canadian River ten miles north of Tucumcari. The Float was bought in the 1870s along with the adjoining 655,468-acre Pablo Montoya grant by Canadian land speculator Wilson Waddingham and in 1889 turned into the well-known Bell Ranch. Over the years ownership changed several times until in 1970 the ranch was purchased by the present owners, the William H. Lane family of Lane Industries, Illinois. The 292,000-acre spread is a working cattle ranch but also offers recreational opportunities to the public.
Arizona had already become a separate territory when Baca Float No. 3 was located in 1863 in the Santa Cruz Valley north of Nogales. The location was chosen by John S. Watts, an Indiana lawyer who had become the mentor of the Baca heirs in their dealings with the U.S. Government. Three years later Watts had acquired the grant and contended that he had erroneously located the initial point, asking for an amended location. The 1866 amendment started an administrative and legal nightmare when it was discovered that the initial point had moved a dozen miles to the northeast and was in fact not an amendment but rather an illegal relocation. Confused about the legal status of the land, homesteaders and miners flocked into the area, (the float was not confirmed until 1914), while the courts and Congress spent three-quarters of a century trying to sort out the resulting mess. Much of the Float is now a part of a community development called Rio Rico.
New Mexico’s northern boundary was still (until February 28, 1861) at the 38th parallel when Baca Float No. 4 was located in the San Luis Valley, just barely below the territorial boundary, twenty-five miles north of Alamosa. The Float borders on the southeast on Great Sand Dunes and became a cattle ranch. Trouble started on the ranch in the 1870s when gold and silver where discovered in paying quantities and several mining camps located on the grant. Litigation challenging the validity of the location [the 1860 Act called for non-mineral land] was not resolved until an 1898 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirmed the patent, and the San Luis Valley Land and Mining Co. began evicting all squatters, in the process turning several settlements into ghost towns. But by the early 1900s the mining boom on the ranch had played itself out. A few years ago Nature Conservancy purchased the Float for a reported $31.3 million and in September 2004 it was added to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
This brings us to the last of the Baca locations, No. 5, located in Arizona’s Yavapai County, about fifty miles northwest of Prescott. Some eighty-six of the Baca heirs sold the Float to John S. Watts [above mentioned] in 1871 for $6,800, starting a long chain of buying and selling, including sheriff’s sales for delinquent taxes, until it got into the hands of the prominent Perrin family in 1885. In 1937 the Greene Cattle Company acquired it and operated it as a cattle ranch. At present it goes by the name of Oro Ranch, owned and kept under lock and key by the secretive JJJ Corporation. Visitors are not welcome.
Note: this may be a mistranslation of Spanish hijos [sons, or children]; he didn’t have that many sons.