On Friday, December 8, 1843, Taos residents Ceran St. Vrain and Cornelio Vigil asked the Governor of New Mexico to grant them the equivalent of 922 square leagues (over four million acres) of land in what is now southern Colorado. The acreage in question included the valleys of the Greenhorn, Huerfano, Apishapa, Cucharas, and Purgatoire Rivers. St. Vrain and Vigil said they intended to use it to “encourage the agriculture of the country to such a degree as to establish its flourishing condition” and to raise cattle and sheep south of the Arkansas River and opposite Bent’s Fort.
They got what they wanted. By January 4 of the following year, they were in possession.
And they did raise cattle and sheep on the land. Between 1844 and 1847, fifteen to sixteen hundred head of cattle grazed there.
But then the Americans showed up. After things settled down following the Mexican-American War, the new government informed the owners of all the land grants in New Mexico that they needed to prove their right to the property in question.
Vigil had died in the Taos revolt in 1847, and by this time the land had been sold to or inherited by various parties, but they were all interested in pursuing title to the grant. On June 4, 1857, thirteen and a half years after Vigil and St. Vrain took possession, the owners presented the required documentation and waited for an answer.
Things went smoothly enough at first. On September 17, Surveyor General William Pelham approved what was now being called the Las Animas grant and recommended that Congress confirm it.
The first sign of trouble was during the review by the House’s Committee on Private Land Claims. The committee was taken aback when they realized the land grant documents didn’t identify the number of acres involved. Instead, it laid out the grant boundaries, which included a spot “one and one-half leagues below the junction of the San Carlos River . . . thence following in a direct line to the south, until it reaches the foot of the first mountain, two leagues west of the Huerfano River…” The committee stalled for a while on this traditional terminology, but eventually did recommend approval.
And then the Bill reached the Senate. Here the boundaries description wasn’t the problem. The grant simply contained too much land to be handed over to private control. The Senate was willing to approve 22 square leagues (97,514.53 acres), but not over four million. Donaciano Vigil and the others protested, but the Civil War broke out right about then and the case was set aside for more pressing concerns.
When Congress finally returned to the issue in 1869, it confirmed its original 22 square league decision, but granted the owners the right to choose which part of the land to retain.
However, in the meantime, grant owners had sold parcels to other people, people whose land was now in danger of being considered public domain. There would be further court battles and examinations of evidence until the United States Supreme Court handed down a final ruling on December 3, 1900, almost exactly 57 years after Ceran St. Vrain and Cornelio Vigil first requested the land.
The answer was still “no.” Sometimes it’s just not worth it to keep pressing your case.
Sources: J.J. Bowden, “Las Animas Grant,” New Mexico State Record Center and Archives, accessed via dev.newmexicohistory.org/ filedetails.php? fileID=25012, 11/4/19; Marc Simmons, Kit Carson and His Three Wives, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2003; Ralph E. Twitchell The Leading Facts of New Mexican History, Vol. 2, Cedar Rapids: Torch Press; Victor Westphall, Mercedes Reales, Hispanic Land Grants of the Upper Rio Grand Region, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1983.