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   Land Grants

The Spanish king or his representatives conveyed land to individuals, groups and towns through a system of land grants, or mercedes, in order to promote settlement on the frontier. Spanish authorities used the system in Florida, California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. There were more than 150 community land grants totaling 9.3 million acres awarded by first the Spanish and then the Mexican governments.  

There were two kinds of grants – the private grant given to an individual, who was required to live on the land and improve it for four years before receiving title, and the grant to settlers for a new town. Members of the community grant could own a small piece of farmland along an irrigation ditch, but most of the land was held in common for grazing, wood cutting or other uses.

In New Mexico, land grants were issued to encourage settlement, to reward patrons of the Spanish government and military officers, and to create a buffer zone between Indian tribes and populated areas.

Spain also issued land grants to several Indian Pueblo groups who had occupied the areas long before Spanish settlers arrived. In the Albuquerque area the Spanish governor awarded grants to the Pueblo de Sandia and the Pueblo de Isleta. The Spanish also enforced the Four Square League law, which required that the land surrounding an Indian pueblo be allotted to that pueblo for one league in each direction from the pueblo.  No grant could cover this land. This set up political and ethnic boundaries for the Pueblo Indians and helped sustain Pueblo cultures.  

In New Mexico, there were two types of Spanish and Mexican land grants – community land grants and individual land grants.

Community land grants were typically organized around a central plaza, and each settler received an individual allotment for a household and a tract of land to farm; common land was set aside for use by the entire community. Spanish and Mexican law usually authorized the local governor to make such community land grants, and the size of each grant was at the governor’s discretion.

Individual land grants were made in the name of specific individuals. Again, the governor could also make this type of grant.


Atrisco Land Grant

            Long before “La Villa de Alburquerque” ever appeared on a Spanish map, settlers were farming and raising livestock at Atrisco, on the western bank of the Rio Grande. Its agricultural tradition continued at least until World War II, when descendents of these settlers contributed wool to make army blankets.

            In 1692, the same year Don Diego de Vargas reconquered New Mexico following the Pueblo Revolt, the government of Spain granted 41,533 acres to Don Fernando Duran y Chávez in a place where his father, Don Pedro, once lived. The grant was payment for Don Fernando’s services during the reconquista, the reconquest. Known as the Atrisco Land Grant, it was the first of more than 300 such grants in the Province of Nuevo Mexico.

            The name “Atrisco” stems from a Nahuatl word “atlixo,” which translates as “surface of a body of water.” (De Vargas had Nahuatl Indian auxiliaries with him.)

In 1703 the provincial government recognized the small community of Atrisco settlers as a town, which is why Atrisco celebrated its Tricentennial in 2003. Atrisco was administratively supervised first by Bernalillo and, after 1706, by Albuquerque. Settlers built their haciendas along the Rio Grande. Here they grazed sheep and cattle on the lush grasses in the valley. They cultivated and irrigated land to grow corn, chile, wheat, squash, alfalfa, and beans.

By 1760 more than 200 people were living in Atrisco. As land disputes proliferated, settlers asked for and got another 25,958 acres. Atrisco now extended from the Rio Grande to the Rio Puerco, testimony to the abundance of grasslands in those days. They established a second village, San Ignacio, on the Rio Puerco.

            Growth and development in the area during the 1800s didn’t affect Atrisco; in fact, construction of the railroad in 1880 provided new markets to the Atrisco cattle and sheep growers. Atrisco thrived.


Other Area Land Grants

            After Tiwa Indian people abandoned Alameda Pueblo, the governor in 1710 made a large grant of the land to Captain Francisco Montes Vigil as a reward for military service. Two years later he sold the grant to Juan González. (His extensive corrals on the other side of the river gave the village of Corrales its name.) Smaller grants were given to families for ranchos. They became the village of Alameda.

            In 1712 a 70,000-acre grant was made to Captain Diego Montoya. Soon after, it was conveyed to Elena Gallegos, the widow of Santiago Gurulé. (In colonial New Mexico women often took back their maiden names when they were widowed.) The grant stretched from the southern boundary of Sandia Pueblo to the northern boundary of the Villa de Alburquerque and from the river to the mountains. After her death, the grant passed to her son, and after he died it was parceled out among heirs. Like other grants, it was divided into strips so that each strip had access to the river. In time some of the lands were sold, but the portion on the East Mesa and in the mountains was held and used in common. Anyone owning the smallest portion of land could pasture a flock there.

            In 1982 the City of Albuquerque acquired the remaining 7,761 acres in one of the most complex transactions in city history. The city then turned it over to the U.S. Forest Service to be included in Cibola National Forest.

            The portion of the grant in the North Valley soon held a group of farms known as Ranchos de Albuquerque. Other small settlements took the names of their leading families – Los Griegos, Los Montoyas, Los Poblanos and Los Gallegos. (Los Poblanos was named for the Armijo family, who had come from Puebla in Mexico after 1811.)

            Another grant was the one made in 1762 to 19 residents of the Cañon de Carnué (Tijeras Canyon). They established a village at the mouth of the canyon.


In 1846 the United States and Mexico fought a war over boundaries, which ended in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In this treaty the United States agreed to recognize land grants made by the Spanish and Mexican governments in New Mexico and five other western states.

The United States established a system to establish land ownership. The U.S. Surveyor General in New Mexico in 1854 would begin reviewing claims and was to make recommendations to Congress. After Congressional confirmation, deeds would be issued. The Surveyor General soon faced a welter of difficulties.

Land tenure and ownership patterns were very different in Mexico and the United States.

The American system viewed the earth's surface as an imaginary grid laid out on a piece of paper, and cartography and surveying were used to identify physical features of a particular parcel. Land was defined by range, township and section numbers. 

By contrast, the Mexican and Spanish systems were based on a rural, community-based system of land holding prevalent in medieval Europe and not on fee simple ownership. Land was viewed more in its relationship to the community, although parcels could be sold to individuals after the land had been used and inhabited for a certain number of years. Land was used primarily to provide sustenance to the local population, rather than as a commodity that could be exchanged or sold in a competitive market.                                      


Compounding these differences was the fact that New Mexicans didn’t speak English and were unfamiliar with the U.S. legal system and American culture. The situation was ripe for fraud, and scoundrels of all kinds slipped in to take advantage of the confusion and make claims. In some instances unscrupulous attorneys demanded huge fees to clear titles; when clients couldn’t pay, they accepted payment in land.

The Surveyor General found that many boundaries could no longer be found. Some grants overlapped. Owners had lost their original papers. Ultimately the Surveyor General and later the Court of Private Land Claims ruled on 282 grants totaling 34.6 million acres. It rejected most of the claims.

New Mexico still has 22 land grants of 200,000 acres.


The Atrisco Land Grant today

            In 1892, after the Territorial Legislature passed a law allowing community land grants to incorporate, the 225 Atrisco descendents acted, and the Town of Atrisco became a community land grant corporation, which validated its two land grants in court two years later. It was one of the first incorporated towns in New Mexico in 1892.

Atrisco avoided the fate of other New Mexico land grants, although for many years there were disputes between heirs.

In 1967 the Legislature allowed the Atrisco Land Grant to form a private corporation, Westland Development Co., to take over common lands, and heirs of the original settlers received shares in the company. Shares can only be transferred to other heirs. Today Westland manages about 57,000 acres of Atrisco’s land holdings. 

The Atrisco Land Grant is one of the oldest continuous existing land grants in the United States and one of the only Spanish Colonial grants still presently owned by the heirs of the original settlers.

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