Spanish land grants – the words evoke a fascinating image of conquistadors and Franciscan friars in any student of Southwestern History. It is a subject which somehow strikes the romantic in all of us. It is a rare New Mexican who has not heard of the Maxwell Grant (there never was a grant by that name, the proper name is: Beaubien and Miranda) or the Baca locations, although most of the community grants or smaller individual grants are less well known. Some object to these granted empires on philosophical grounds, but whether one likes it or resents it, it is a part of the Spanish Southwest and an important chapter in the history of New Mexico.
In February of this year (1994) Ted Turner bought the huge Pedro Armendaris Grant south of Socorro for a reported fourteen million dollars, or rather he bought what is left of the grant. The newspapers reported the ranch to include some 338 thousand acres. If correct this is only two thirds of the area of the original grant which was by far the largest ever made in the Spanish period of New Mexico (not to be confused with the Mexican period of 1821 to 1848). When surveyed by the U.S. General Land Office in 1872 the grant was found to contain 492,266.06 acres.
The Pedro Armendaris grant consists really of two grants dubbed No. 33 and No. 34 by the Land Office. The larger of the two was called the Fra. Cristobal Grant, and contained 397,235.39 acres that were granted to Pedro Armendaris in 1819. The following year Armendaris obtained an additional grant, the 95,030.67 acre Valverde Grant which adjoined the Fra. Cristobal Grant on the northern river boundary. Together these two grants extend over an area of about fifty-three miles from north to south and about twenty-three miles wide at their widest. The southwest corner is within one mile of downtown Truth or Consequences, while the northeast corner reaches to within three miles of the village of San Antonio on Interstate 25.
Within the boundaries of the huge grant flow fifty-three miles of the Rio Grande; almost all of Elephant Butte Reservoir and State Park from below the dam to Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge are on the grant. The grassy expanse of the Jornada del Muerto from Engle to San Marcial, the entire Fra. Cristobal mountain range and half of the Chupadera Mountains are within its borders.
How can anybody acquire so much land?
The basic policy of the Spanish monarchy was to keep large tracts out of the hands of a few wealthy people and instead distribute land to numerous families. A land grant was a merced, a royal favor, not a legal entitlement. It was intended to serve the settlement policy established by the crown and was the means by which Spain founded cities, towns and villages, all the way down to individual ranches. Most of these grants were strictly controlled as to their size and condition of occupation, and while large individual grants were sometimes made, the grantee was expected to settle the land with other families besides his own. By and large the Spanish monarchy under its use-oriented land policy had a better control over the disposal of its real estate than had the United States with its money economy. Under Spain there was not such a thing as a land speculator.
It is only fair to interject that Spain had the same problem the U.S. encountered a century or two later; theory and law are one thing, and enforcement is another. In an area as remote from the seats of power as New Mexico many of the regulations were usually not complied with. Nevertheless, the system worked reasonably well until the Spanish empire came apart at the seams in the second decade of the nineteenth century.
The Pedro Armendaris Grant is an example of the incompetence of three governments, one of them losing control, another never gaining it, and the third one being painfully slow to exercise it.
Pedro Armendaris was a lieutenant in the Spanish royal army. Biographical data on him are difficult to come by, but he was probably born about 1782 and served in the garrisons of Chihuahua, San Elizario and Santa Fe. In 1810 he was adjutant to General Salcedo, military governor of Nuevo Viscaya, of which the future state of Chihuahua was a part. In such an influential position he was certainly acquainted with lieutenant Fecundo Melgares who in 1806 was sent to Santa Fe with 100 dragoons to join a force of five hundred militia. Melgares’ instructions were to explore the north-eastern plains, to pacify the unruly natives and to keep an eye open for American explorers and filibusters. As luck would have it, on his return trip to Chihuahua he was asked to escort a recently apprehended uninvited guest who called himself Zebulon M. Pike. After Pike had been interrogated by Salcedo, Lt. Melgares was assigned to get him safely out of Mexico. This and other accomplishments furthered Melgares’ career so that in 1818 he was appointed the last Spanish governor of New Mexico, an office he held until 1822.
Towards the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century the Spaniard in New Mexico enjoyed a breathing spell, as Navajo and Apaches were too busy fighting each other. But some 1,400 miles to the south, the silence of the chilly predawn hours of the 16th of September 1810 was shattered by the church bells of the village of Dolores. Father Miguel Hidalgo, the village priest, lit the fuse that sparked the revolution. Ten months later, in a dusty court yard in the city of Chihuahua, Hidalgo faced a firing squad of twelve of His Majesty’s soldiers. Lieutenant Pedro Armendaris lowered his sword and the father of Mexican independence lay dead.
The Mexican revolution failed to cause even a ripple of excitement in Spain’s northern frontier. Here, after a long interval of relative peace, the Navajo again went on the warpath that caused the settlers to abandon the more vulnerable ranchos for the relative safety of the towns. In 1818 First Lieutenant Pedro Armendaris was again sent to Santa Fe and in 1819 he was appointed to a five year term as tax collector. He also owned a little rancho in Valverde, a tiny settlement on the east bank of the Rio Grande about twenty-five miles below Socorro.
As the royal Spanish grip on Mexico began to loosen, royalist Pedro Armendaris apparently saw the handwriting on the wall and decided to make his move while his friend and fellow officer was still in office. Late in 1819 and again in May 1820 he applied to governor Melgares for a grant of land.
To a present day reader the translation of his petition sounds contrived and devious: “Pedro Armendaris, being the owner of Valverde which is tillable land, and keeping therein a certain number of horses and cattle, which animals increase, prays his Excellency to grant him where he can keep his sheep and enable them to bring forth their young, the following unoccupied land, to wit: . . .” There follows a legal description designed to sound like he was asking the smallest of favors. With the greatest nonchalance and the liberal use of the diminutive (that beautiful feature of the Spanish language) he describes ‘little’ springs, ‘little’ mountains, and ‘little’ bends in the river which later surveyors found to be tenth of miles apart. Although the word league (1 Spanish league = approximately 2.6 miles) is used in one of the petitions, no hint of the size of the grant appears in either. “Therefore I pray your Excellency to grant my request. God our Father preserve your Excellency’s life for many years.”
The requests were granted with a speed that barely allowed the ink to dry on the paper. Two days after Armendaris signed his petition governor Melgares wrote the following instruction: “The petitioner having shown that the land is unoccupied, therefore the alcalde of Belen will place him in royal possession thereof and will execute the proper deed therefore for his security.” Nobody bothered about any king in distant Spain, nor any Viceroy in the far-off Cit
y of Mexico. Why, they may have asked themselves, would anybody want to grudge Pedro a few acres for his “sheep to bring forth their young”?
There exists no real evidence that Pedro Armendaris spent as much as a day on the grant. Jose Rodrigo Garcia, his son-in-law, appears to have run things until about 1824 or 1825, when Valverde and the grant were abandoned because of Apache attacks. Be that as it may, Pedro Armendaris was no man to feel at home in a place like Valverde, Apaches or no Apaches. He returned to Chihuahua City where in the 1830s and 1840s he served as magistrate of the State Supreme Court, and there he died on May 3, 1853. The huge grant was left to the wind and the Apaches. When Lt. Emory of Kearny’s Army of the West saw the place in 1846 Valverde was in ruins.
Enter the Americans. With the acquisition of New Mexico in 1848 the United States also bought itself Spain’s and Mexico’s war with the natives. In 1851 Colonel Edwin V. Sumner established Fort Conrad a half mile west of the Rio Grande opposite Valverde. There is not a hint of evidence that Sumner knew he was on private land. In March of 1854 Fort Conrad was abandoned and a new fort was established about seven miles to the southwest and named Fort Craig. It is not clear when it was discovered that Fort Craig too was on the Armendaris Grant, because as late as 1859 surveyor general William Pelham wrote that he had no knowledge of any Spanish or Mexican grants in the vicinity of Fort Craig. When the mistake was finally discovered, General Garland leased 22,895 acres of the grant from the heirs of Pedro Armendaris at a yearly rental of $2,000 in gold. The lease was renewed several times, but was later criticized and the validity questioned, especially after the heirs submitted a claim for $10,000 payable in gold “for the use of Fort Craig from May 18, 1864 until May 28, 1869.” The claim was paid but questions were asked in Congress why the military was paying such enormous rent for land which their own examiners had declared to be “of no earthy value”, when millions of acres of public domain were available.
Why did the United States in 1878 issue a patent for the grant? The answer lies partly in the lackadaisical attitude of Congress about New Mexico, and partly in the failure of the General Land Office to support its surveyor general (William Pelham). For a thorough treatment of the latter problem I recommend to the reader Victor Westphall’s excellent: Mercedes Reales, especially chapter five: Implementation: Impossible Task of the Surveyor General. Manuel Armendaris, son of Pedro and spokesman for the heirs succeeded in convincing the surveyor general to recommend approval.
It is interesting to note that there is considerable doubt about the authority of Fegundo Melgares to make the grant. In the Gaceta de Mexico, a government publication of March 7, 1919 the governorship of New Mexico is declared vacant, and aspirants are notified to send in applications. In documents of 1819 and 1820 Melgares is called governor ad interim. However as has been pointed out in the courts, the validation of the grant by Congress constitutes a new grant and prior legal documents no longer matter. And so it remains to this day.