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Tierra Amarilla Grant and Thomas B. Catron
By Robert Torrez
The history of the Tierra Amarilla Grant is relatively well known and will not be discussed here in great detail. Suffice it to say that in 1832, the Mexican government made a community grant of that name to Manuel Martinez, his sons, and a number of individuals from the Abiquiu region. In 1856, however, Francisco Martinez, Manuel's son, applied to the Surveyor General for confirmation of the grant as a private grant. Through a series of machinations we are now only beginning to understand, the United States Congress confirmed the grant as such in 1860.
It should be noted that the name of the grant does not historically refer to the present-day village of that name. Instead, it refers to the region encompassed by the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant and its original communities of Los Ojos, La Puente, Los Brazos, Ensenada, and Las Nutritas. Las Nutritas' name was changed to Tierra Amarilla when the Rio Arriba County seat was moved there in 1880.
Sale of interests and speculation on the grant began almost immediately after it was confirmed by Congress. By 1880, Thomas B. Catron had purchased sufficient interests in the grant from Martinez heirs so that in February 1881, when the United States Congress issued a patent for the grant to Francisco Martinez, Catron himself signed the receipt. By 1883, Catron filed suit to quiet title to the grant, exempting only a few "informal conveyances of some very small pieces of land.” These parcels, which have become known as the "Catron exclusions," were the donaciones, or allotments, made by Francisco Martinez to more than one hundred settlers of the grant. These were the same individuals to whom Martinez gave hijuelas, or deeds, which stipulated their rights to free use of the grant's common lands.
Even before Catron received quiet title to the grant, he had begun developing its vast natural resources. He leased right of way to the Denver and Rio Grande Railway, sold rights to the region's coal mines and massive pine forests, and leased its lush pastures to large cattle companies. During this period, however, there is little evidence Catron aggressively curtailed Tierra Amarilla's settlers from grazing their personal livestock on the traditional common lands of the grant. Introduction of the railroad and extensive lumbering operations in the region apparently brought prosperity to Tierra Amarilla during the 1880's and 1890's. As long as local residents had access to grazing for their small herds and flocks, the nuances of who retained legal ownership of common lands did not seem to be an important issue.
Interestingly, in northeast New Mexico at the time, the gorras blancas, or white caps, were waging a campaign of political activism and violence to protest the fencing of traditional grazing lands. The tranquility of Tierra Amarilla prompted pioneering archaeologist and historian, Adolph Bandelier, to comment about it. In 1891, Bandelier traveled through northern New Mexico and recorded the Tierra Amarilla grant’s resources for Thomas Catron, who was desperately seeking a buyer for the heavily mortgaged property. Bandelier was clearly impressed by “Catron’s grant” and in his journal he describes it as “a most valuable piece of property, a little kingdom of its own.” Then he added a statement clearly designed to assuage the concerns of potential buyers about whether the influence of the gorras blancas extended to Rio Arriba. “There is no trouble to be apprehended from the people [of Tierra Amarilla],” Bandelier noted, “unless there should be a leader.”
However, this began to change after 1909, when Catron finally succeeded in selling the grant. When the Arlington Land Company obtained ownership, it continued the practice of selling timber and mineral rights to various companies. The company also sold large tracts of land to corporations and individual buyers, many of whom further subdivided the land. When these new owners began to fence off large portions of the grant, they initiated a process which began to severely restrict the access to pasture on which the settlers of the grant depended for their livelihood.
The residents' ability to access pasture for their livestock appears to be the principal reason why there is little documented evidence of resistance or protest to Catron's purchase and ownership of the Tierra Amarilla grant. In 1889, several residents of the grant filed a suit against Catron but did not ask for return of the grant or make access to land an issue. Instead, the plaintiffs cited the stipulations of the original grant and the hijuelas, which were issued to individuals by Francisco Martinez in the early 1860's, and sought a share of the proceeds Catron was receiving from leases and sale of timber and mineral rights. The few extant records of this case tell little beyond the fact of its dismissal in April 1892.
Although there is little evidence that Catron moved aggressively against grant settlers who grazed their livestock, he occasionally took action to counteract perceived threats to his ownership. In 1892, he filed suit against Miguel Chavez and Pablo Rivas for allegedly pasturing their sheep on his property and sought a restraining order to prevent their further use of the land. Chavez and Rivas responded that while Catron may have been given patent to the Tierra Amarilla Grant, they were grazing their sheep by right of the grant made to Manuel Martinez by the Mexican government and the deeds, which allowed them "free and common" use of water, pasture, and other resources of the grant. They claimed to be doing nothing illegal and asked the court to force Catron to produce proof of his ownership. The suit lingered in District Court for nearly ten years and was finally dropped from the docket in 1902. The record shows Catron paid the court costs, which amounted to less than ten dollars for various filing fees.
So why did Catron go after Chavez and Rivas when he tended to leave everyone else alone? The case documentation provides few clues, but part of the answer may lie in the fact that Miguel Chavez was not your typical Tierra Amarilla settler. He was a wealthy merchant who also had extensive real estate holdings in Santa Fe. It seems Catron did not often object to someone grazing a few sheep but adamantly opposed any efforts by someone with Chavez' resources to gain a foothold in the grant.
There was also an element of political enmity between Catron and the principals in these suits. Chavez and Rivas' attorneys, Jacob H. Crist and N. B. Laughlin, were Catron's bitter political enemies and had represented the Tierra Amarilla settlers in the previously mentioned 1889 suit which had sought to force Catron to disclose and share the revenues he was receiving from the grant.
Neither of these cases was resolved in court, and both were dropped for reasons not reflected in the documentation. It seems clear from this activity that many Tierra Amarilla residents were aware of Catron's ownership and exploitation of the grant. Adolph Bandelier's statement, which was quoted earlier, implies as much. He didn't say people were unaware, only that they apparently had no leadership which could galvanize protests or other such activity.
Is this lack of leadership the principal reason why there is so little indication of grass roots protest about what was happening to the grant? There is no doubt that in that age of robber barons and powerful patrones, the development of effective leadership among the settlers of the Tierra Amarilla could easily have been thwarted by the political and economic control exerted in Rio Arriba by a number of Catron's political allies. In Tierra Amarilla these would have included Thomas D. Burns, who had significant interests within the grant, and Wilmot E. Broad, Catron's agent for the grant.
It seems, however, that a principal factor in this process was Catron's apparent ability to placate local concerns with assurances that although he now owned the grant, nothing would change for the rank and file. What form these assurances took is a mystery, but every indication is that as long as Catron owned the grant local residents were not actively denied access to common lands.
Evidence that Catron made such assurances surfaced in 1919, a decade after he sold the grant. That year, the first signs of protest in Tierra Amarilla finally made their way into the documentary record. We can only speculate why it took ten years after the sale of the grant for protests to galvanize and surface. The timing may have been a factor of how long it took the various new owners to fence off enough of the common lands to impact the settler's ability to graze their livestock.
Large-scale fencing in the region had apparently begun in earnest soon after the grant was sold in 1909 and may have progressed significantly by the time the United States entered the Great War. It is probable that the war, and the subsequent enlistment of many of the region's young men in the armed forces, was enough of a distraction to delay an organized reaction to the fencing until after the war.
In August 1919, a significant stretch of fence erected by George Becker and H. L. Hall near Ensenada, two miles north of Tierra Amarilla, was destroyed. El Nuevo Estado, the local newspaper, reported the damage had apparently been done by the same individuals who had previously left some warning notes signed "La Ley Secreta" and "La Mano Negra" at various locations. The newspaper does not elaborate on the locations or the contents of the notes, but this report is the earliest documented instance of such activity attributed to the infamous secret organization of the "black hand" in the Tierra Amarilla.
When Becker complained to Governor Octaviano Larrazolo, the Governor had the incidents investigated and stated his intention to mediate a solution between Becker and the residents of Ensenada. However, no meeting of conciliation ever took place, and it was speculated that Larrazolo had been pressured to change his mind. Further incidents occurred in 1924.
For nearly the entire decade of the 1930s, there seems to have been no reported activities which can be clearly identified as related to land grant protest. Then suddenly, on the night of June 25, 1940, nearly twenty miles of "four strand barbed wire" was cut at several locations throughout the grant. Once again, George Becker's fences were targeted, although much of the destruction concentrated on new fences which had been erected near Chama and at Keeth A. Heron's property, west of the Chama River.
State Police Lieutenant J. P. Roach was sent to investigate this most recent outbreak. His report specifically attributed these activities to the "apparent revival of the Black Hand gang, commonly known as the Tierra Amarilla Organization." Lt. Roach, however, failed to identify any suspects and reported that he found "public sentiment as a whole is much in favor of the offenders." Lt. Roach concluded that subdivision and fencing of adjoining lands were "the basic cause for the present trouble." His report continued:
The people feel as though the land belongs to them, and should not be fenced. They are living under the illusion that years ago the Tierra Amarilla Grant was disposed of by the Grant owners to Col. Catron without the heir's or relatives consent. Colonel Catron, in turn, disposed of parts of the Grant to individuals with a verbal permit to them to use adjoining lands for their grazing and wood privileges (sic - emphasis added).
Once again, the issue of Catron's assurances raised its head. It had been more than thirty years since Catron had sold the grant in 1909 and a full generation since the first outbreak of fence cutting had occurred in 1919. Yet, the memory of Catron's long broken promises obviously lingered. As in all previous investigations, this 1940 incident produced no suspects. It also is the only time an official report specifically mentions the mano negra in association with, or being responsible for, this type of activity on the Tierra Amarilla Grant.
Following the 1940 outbreak, national and international affairs once again seem to have interfered with further developments. After World War II, there appears to have been a lull in these activities except for a few incidents of burning and fence cutting that were reported in the 1950s and early 1960s. This restless slumber was broken on June 5, 1967, by the incident which has become known as the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse Raid.
Anselmo Arellano. "The Never-Ending land Grant Struggle." La Herencia del Norte (Summer 1996): 15-17
____________. La Tierra Amarilla : The People of the Chama Valley. Tierra Amarilla: Chama Valley Public Schools, 1982.
Catron, Thomas vs Miguel Chavez and Pablo Rivas. Rio Arriba County Civil #490. Rio Arriba District Court Records, SRCA. Ebright, Malcolm. The Tierra Amarilla Grant: A History of Chicanery. Santa Fe: Center for Land Grant Studies, 1980.
Gardner, Richard. !Grito! New York: The Bobbs Merrill Company, Inc., 1970.
Lange, Charles H., Carroll L. Riley and Elizabeth L. Riley. The Southwest Journals of Adolph F. Bandelier, 1889-1892. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984.
El Nuevo Estado, Tierra Amarilla, NM, August 11, 1918; April 26, 1920.
Roach, Lt. J. P., Report: June 5-25, 1940. John E. Miles Official Governor’s Papers, Correspondence, State Police, 1939-1942. SRCA.
Seth, Theodore, Manuel Romero, Juan Trujillo et al. –-vs- Thomas B. Catron. Rio Arriba County Civil #490. Rio Arriba District Court Records, SRCA.
Torrez, Robert J. "El Bornes: La Tierra Amarilla and T.D. Burns." New Mexico Historical Review 56:2 (April 1981): 161 175.
_______. "The Tierra Amarilla Land Grant: A Case Study in the Editing of Land Grant Documents." Southwest Heritage (Fall 1983 / Winter 1984): 2 16.
Westfall, Victor. Thomas Benton Catron and His Era. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1973.
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