Mellon Fellow Jacobo Baca Explores the Tangled History of Land Grants in New Mexico
August 26, 2011
Categories: Inside UNM
It was 1904 when the court of private land claims finished its work and the 1960s when Reies López Tijerina tried to make Spanish land grant claims part of the civil rights movement. But Mellon Fellow Jacobo Baca is preparing to change that. The Mellon Fellowship he was granted last year allowed time to dig deeply into the issues of land ownership in the early to mid 1900's.
Baca's research illuminates ways in which land ownership was shifting as Spanish land grant heirs tried to hold onto land their ancestors were granted by the Spanish. There is not much written in the history books about land grant disputes in New Mexico between Spanish crown and Native Americans, who tried to firmly establish their rights on land grants issued initially by the Spanish crown with the new American government.
His work explores the different ways the Spanish and American courts handled land claims by the Native Americans and Hispanos. For example, he says, it was common for Spanish courts to resolve land claim issues by giving the losing party land in another part of the settlement areas - because it was the policy of Spain to encourage settlement and the courts did not want to push families out of the community. When land claims were heard in American courts, one side won and the other lost land. The loser was offered no recompense.
Baca's research focuses in part on what happened in the 1920's when the American government tried to understand who had title to which lands. At the time he says there were about 12 thousand non-Indians living on Indian land. The pueblo lands board was created in 1924 to try to sort out disputes, finishing its work in 1933, but many people were unhappy with the result.
Baca says part of the confusion came from the actions of various pueblo governors and councils. "For instance the pueblo of Nambe went under witchcraft trails during the Spanish period, and so in order to pay for the trials they sold some of the land," he says. "Witchcraft trails came again in the late 1800s, and again they sold some land. Then in the early 1900's their church collapses and they hire four local Mexican laborers to fix the church and they pay them in land." The many transactions over time in Nambe meant there was great dispute over which parcels were owned by the pueblo and which were privately owned.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Pueblo Indian population continued to decline as the Hispano population boomed. Hispano villagers, many of whom lost access to communal property, turned to exploiting vacant pueblo lands or overstaying leases on pasture lands. "As a result you have full villages within pueblo lands," Baca said. "The whole town of Espanola sits in the pueblo of Santa Clara's boundaries. Taos sits within Taos Pueblos boundaries. So they are angry about that. And on the other side Hispanics are angry because they are heirs to these land grants that were lost through shady land adjudication processes. So there's this legacy – this kind of embitterment among those communities."
He is also looking at federal government actions during the New Deal when the government purchased Hispano land grants and divided them for pueblo or Hispano use. Some of the land became Forest Service or land given to the Bureau of Land Management. Other land went to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and was eventually added to the pueblo lands.
Baca says much of his dissertation will compare the way the American courts handled Spanish land grant claims and pueblo land grant claims. He says the Mellon fellowship gave him an extraordinary chance to do in-depth research on his dissertation. It's something he hopes to eventually turn into a book.
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