Real Estate Speculation, Lawyers, and Los Pobladores: The Labyrinth of Land Loss on the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant
by Dr. María Mondragón-Valdéz
The history of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant reflects rural dynasty building during a period of rapid industrialization. Characterized by deceit and greed, the landscape was not merely an arena of domination but also of resistance. As a result, the grant is home to one of the most contentious and longest running disputes on the New Mexico/ Colorado border.
When the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant was awarded in 1843, the vast tract extended along the flanks of the Sangre de Cristo Range, from an area north of contemporary Questa, New Mexico into the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. Encompassing Ute Territory the grant included mountains, watersheds, and an array of wildlife. Like the Quebecois manorial class from which he descended, Carlos Beaubien (the subrosa owner of the grant) controlled all aspects of development on his inland estate. After an unauthorized colony attempted to inhabit the land grant the group was forcefully evicted by Beaubien's men. Preferring to lay claim to this vast landscape on his terms, Beaubien recruited pobladores (settlers) from the Taos Valley, handpicked leaders, and authorized French and German merchants to establish trading posts.
Just after the onset of the American Period, Taosenos moved in two surges into lateral watersheds on the grant; first at the Rio Costilla late in the 1840s and on the Rio Culebra in 1853. Initially plazas in the Rio Costilla and Rio Culebra were similar despite being situated eighteen miles apart. Though separated by distance los primeros pobladores (first settlers) in both communities were interrelated by kinship, culture, and religion. In 1861, the grant was severed when Congress appropriated part of New Mexico to create the Territory of Colorado. Two years after annexation, Beaubien authored a covenant granting an easement to pobladores to use the surrounding uplands to graze and gather wood, designated a community commons near villages, and deeded varas, or long lots, extending from rivers to foothills.
Subsequent to Beaubien's death, his heirs sold the grant to William Gilpin, the first Territorial Governor of Colorado. In accordance with Beaubien's wishes the sale required Gilpin to acknowledge the pobladores' private property and communal rights. Disingenuous from the onset, Gilpin circumvented the terms of the agreement. After surveying for mineral deposits, Gilpin and his partners divided the grant into the Trinchera Estate (at the north) and the Costilla Estate (at the south). Selling the Trinchera Estates to other investors, the partnership incorporated the U.S. Freehold Land and Emigration Company (USFLEC) in Denver. Containing 228,636 acres in New Mexico and 296,000 acres in Colorado, the USFLEC brokered the Costilla Estates in collaboration with English capitalists and investment bankers in Holland. To seize the pobladores' private and communal holdings, the USFLEC and its successors in interest fabricated an illegal labyrinth on the Rio Costilla and Rio Culebra to erase Beaubien's conveyances.
Once the Sangre de Cristo was patented, litigation was incessant and illegal tactics, including tax evasion to clear the pobladores' communal claims, were instigated by the USFLEC and its successors in interest. The scheme was identical on the Colorado and New Mexico side of the Costilla Estate. Initiated after years of defaulting on property taxes, the plot commenced once the sheriff published a notice of the county's intent to recover arrears. Acting in collusion with the land company, a pillar of the community placed the low bid on the property. The sheriff summarily issued a certificate of sale to the sole bidder. The middleman subsequently conveyed the deed to a company agent posing as an investor. Litigating to confirm the title to the grant, USFLEC attorneys acting through the agent obtained a decree declaring Beaubien's covenant with settlers "null and void." In the interim, a trustee of the USFLEC incorporated a subsidiary entity to conduct real estate sales on the Costilla Estate. Despite a change in name the USFLEC stood behind the newly formed land company. Cleared of the "cloud over the title," the perfected deed was transferred to a USFLEC directed corporation.
The tax sale ploy first commenced in Taos County in 1879 when the Costilla Estates was sold at a sheriff's auction to Pedro Sanchez (a prominent politician) for $912.50. Because the USFLEC failed to redeem the certificate of sale within a year, the Taos County Treasurer transferred the deed to Sanchez in 1880. Within five months Sanchez sold out to Las Vegas attorney Louis Sulzbacher for $2,500. Unbeknownst to USFLEC, Thomas B. Catron, ringleader of the notorious Santa Fe Land Ring, was Sulzbache's partner. The appearance of the central figure of the Santa Fe Ring must have shocked USFLEC, as the company sued Sanchez, Sulzbacher, and Catron in District Court in Taos County in a frantic attempt to annul the tax sale. With litigation botched, the USFLEC obtained a change of venue and the case was reheard in Santa Fe County. In 1901, Sulzbacher and Catron were forced to convey the deed to Thomas Keely for $5000.00. (Masquerading as an investor, Keely was in reality a company agent.) Filing suit against pobladores in Costilla, New Mexico, Keely obtained a decree voiding Beaubien's covenant, restraining locals from asserting their rights, and validating his title to the grant. In 1901 Keely purchased the Colorado portion of the grant using the same modus operandi, albeit without fierce competitors like Catron. Keely eventually transferred the 510,000 acre Costilla Estate to the Costilla Land and Investment Company and its successor the Costilla Estates Development Company.
The maneuvering of the land grant titans was far more complex and circuitous than described. However, the outcome was the same for communities who were jilted of property taxes, while having to battle absentee investors to protect multi-generation family farms.
New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe, New Mexico: Renehan-Gilbert Papers. Correspondence to Reverend J.B. Pitival. Unsigned Letter dated November 1, 1915, Folder 95.
Docket Books Series I, Records of the Unites States Territorial and New Mexico District Courts for Santa Fe County, 1846-1951. Fernando Meyer, Jr., et. al., Plaintiffs v. Thomas Keely, et al., and The Costilla Land and Investment Company, Defendants and The Costilla Estates Development Company, Successor in Interest, and The Costilla Land and Investment Company, Petitioners, v. Juan Francisco Martinez, et al., Respondent. Pluries Writ of Assistance for Case No. 4741, 1915.
Kit Carson Memorial Foundation, Taos, New Mexico: Sangre de Cristo Land Grant. "Abstract of Title to the Costilla Estate, which is the South Half of the Sangre de Cristo Grant," Document 66.27.1, Folder 2.
Brayer, Hubert O. William Blackmore: The Spanish Mexican Land Grants of New Mexico and Colorado: 1863-1878. Denver: Bradford-Robinson, 1949.
Hick, Gregory A. "Memory and Pluralism on a Property Law Frontier: The Contested Landscape Of The Costilla Valley." New Mexico Historical Review 81: 3 (Summer 2006): 299-335.
Stoller Marianne. "Grants of Desperation, Lands of Speculation: Mexican Period Land Grants in Colorado." In Spanish & Mexican Land Grants in Colorado and New Mexico. eds. John R. and Christine M.Van Ness, 22-39, Manhattan, Kansas: Sunflower University Press, 1980.
Valdez-Mondragon, Maria. "Challenging Domination: Local Resistance on the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant." University of New Mexico, 2006 (Ph.D. dissertation). Students at New Mexico Highlands University created a virtual exhibit about this Land Grant.