Land Grant Controversy Begins!!!!

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.

Dec 8 illustration.Colorado Land Grants

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.

 

Two Robidoux Brothers Become Mexican Citizens

On Friday, July 17, 1829, Antoine and Louis Robidoux of Missouri became naturalized citizens of Mexico, thus beginning a long and somewhat fruitful association.

Antoine and Louis were two of six brothers, all of them involved in one aspect or another of the Rocky Mountain fur trade. Becoming Mexican citizens made good business sense, because trapping licenses for non-citizens were at times non-existent.

Antoine, who was 35 years old in 1829, had been in New Mexico since 1822. He’d spent the previous two years trapping and trading with the Sioux and his application for citizenship may have been prompted by the fact that he’d married a New Mexican woman in 1828 and it was time to settle down. Or he may have wanted to get involved in local politics. Antoine’s citizenship made him eligible to be elected 1st alcalde and regidor (councilman) of Santa Fe in late 1830 and three years later to serve as 3rd alcalde of Santa Fe and a member of the Santa Fe Commission for forming election districts.

 

He was also busy making money. During the 1830s, Antoine purchased a mine in the Santa Fe area. He also built Fort Uinta (aka Fort Robidoux) and Fort Uncompahgre in what is now Colorado and used them as a base for trade with the Indians and the trappers in the area.

July 17 illustration.Antoine-Robidoux inscription

However, in 1844, both forts were attacked by Utes and a number of men were killed and women captured. These events seem to have curbed Antoine’s enthusiasm for the frontier life. He left for Missouri shortly thereafter.

But he came back. Eschewing his Mexican citizenship, Antoine served with Col. Stephen Watts Kearny as an interpreter during the 1846 U.S. advance on New Mexico and remained with him during the California campaign which followed. After the war, Antoine returned to Missouri, where he died in 1860.

Louis Robidoux, on the other hand, seems to have remained loyal to his Mexican citizenship. Much of his early career mirrored Antoine’s. He arrived in New Mexico about the same time (probably 1823), married a New Mexican woman (Guadalupe Garcia in 1834), and participated in Santa Fe politics, where he served as first alcalde in 1839. He also participated in various moneymaking schemes, including operating a grist mill and iron works in Santa Fe.

July 17 illustration.Louis Robidoux

And he also left New Mexico. But instead of heading back to Missouri, Louis went to California, a move reportedly bankrolled by a $30,000 win in a Santa Fe card game. He arrived in California with a group of Mexican traders in 1843 and remained there until his death in 1868.

He settled in what would become San Bernardino County, where he set up a large livestock operation and planted orchards, wine vineyards, and a grist mill. He was also involved in politics, becoming the first San Bernardino County Supervisor. The City of Rubidoux, the Louis Robidoux Library, various streets, and Mount Rubidoux are all named after him.

Leroy R. Hafen, Fur Traders and Trappers of the Far Southwest, Logan: Utah State University Press, 1997; David J. Weber, The Taos trappers, the fur trade in the far Southwest, 1540-1846, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.

John Fremont Stumbles Into Taos

On this day in 1849, Saturday, January 13, celebrated explorer John C. Fremont stumbled into the Taos plaza so battered by exposure and starvation that no one recognized him.

Fremont had left what is now Pueblo, Colorado, 52 days earlier on a mission to identify a practicable railroad route across the Rockies to California. He had 32 men and 120 supply-laden mules with him.

Even before he’d left Pueblo, there was trouble. He’d already lost a guide. When former mountain man “Uncle Bill” Wootton took a look at the signs and realized just how bad the coming winter was likely to be, he backed out. But former Army Colonel Fremont refused to give up. He’d been forced to resign from the military in a cloud of disgrace two years earlier and was determined to redeem himself. Come hell or high water, he was determined to prove that a year-round transcontinental railroad operation across the mountains was feasible. If men and mules could cross the path he had in mind under winter conditions, then surely trains could, too.

Fremont hired “Old Bill” Williams to take Wootton’s place. While Williams was a brilliant tracker, he  wasn’t exactly known for his tact. Since Fremont was known for his stubbornness, the partnership seemed destined for trouble. And trouble happened pretty quickly. When Williams announced that the expedition should veer from the route Fremont had laid out, trouble ensued. Fremont relieved Williams of his guide duties and gave them to men who Fremont had worked with before but who didn’t know the region.

As Wootton had predicted, the weather turned treacherously nasty and grew increasingly difficult as Fremont’s men tried to force their way through snow-bound canyons and across icy mountainsides. All of the mules either died of starvation or froze to death. Frostbite and snow blindness plagued both the animals and the men. Not only was the expedition’s goal doomed, but the conditions were so bad that the men feared for their lives. In a desperate attempt to make it to safety, Fremont divided his company into small groups and sent them south to try to reach Taos.

John C. Fremont.Simmons 3 wives

Only 21 men of the original 32 would make it out alive and Fremont himself would need weeks of nursing by Josefa Carson before he fully recovered from the ordeal. Even with the survivors in Taos and whole, the loss of life would continue. Williams would die trying to retrieve valuable records and medical equipment  that had been left behind in the rush to escape the winter conditions Uncle Bill Wootton had warned Fremont about.

Although a year-round transcontinental railroad was eventually built across the Rocky Mountains, it was not constructed on the route that Fremont tried to blaze that winter of 1848/49. The glory of that deed would go to other men.  Fremont’s exploring days were over .

Sources:  Alpheus H. Favour, Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man, U of Oklahoma Press,  Norman, 1962; Leroy R. Hafen, Ed., Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State U Press, Logan, 1972; Marc Simmons, Kit Carson and His Three Wives, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 2003.