Land Grant Trilogy

In the September issue of BENCHMARKS I wrote about HR 1823, the proposed "Guadalupe Hidalgo Land Claims Act of 2001". It is a part of our professional responsibility to be able to voice an informed opinion on matters affecting real estate and to educate the public. Victor Westphall gave us the means to study the history of New Mexico land grants with three excellent books, widely recognized as definite in their fields:

The Public Domain in New Mexico: 1854-1891, University of New Mexico Press, 1965.

Thomas Benton Catron and His Era, University of Arizona Press, 1973.

Mercedes Reales: Hispanic Land Grants of the Upper Rio Grande Region
, University of New Mexico Press, 1983.

The first and the third of these books are out of print, if you should find a copy in some out-of-the-way bookstore, buy it, it belongs into your professional library.

Victor Westphall is nationally known for the Vietnam Veterans National Memorial, a vast gull-like structure he built in memory of his son into the brow of a hill at Angel Fire in 1971. When I visited him there last September I found him in his office surrounded by stacks of books, papers, and correspondence, as sharp as ever despite his advanced age (he turned eighty-eight on October 13, 2001). He seemed surprised that I came to talk to him not as a Vietnam Veteran, which I am not, but as a surveyor who greatly appreciates his contribution to our profession.

He wrote much more than the books mentioned but in this article I will confine myself to the land grant subject. Victor Westphall was awarded a Ph.D. by the University of New Mexico in 1956. The Public Domain in New Mexico: 1854-1891 was his doctoral dissertation. It covers the era that began in 1854 with the appointment of William Pelham as Surveyor General and ended in 1891 with the creation of the Court of Private Land Claims. Meticulously researched it is a "dramatic, scholarly compendium of the records of public lands in the Territory through the first four decades of American occupation". The book analyzes the social effects of all important land legislation of the period, including how the Hispanic settlement pattern prevented the U.S. from granting title under existing laws. With twenty maps and thirteen appendixes of facts and figures, the book is an invaluable reference tool for the professional surveyor.

The basic research for his thesis provided Dr. Westphall with much of the material for Thomas Benton Catron and His Era, in which he succeeded in presenting the reader with a vivid account of the land grant machinations of the period. Catron [1820-1921] came to New Mexico in 1866 and occupied various political offices, including that of U.S. Senator [1912-1918]. A leader of the notorious "Santa Fe Ring", an alliance of Surveyor General, politicians, lawyers, and land speculators, he became the largest landowner in the history of the U.S., at times owning in excess of three million acres of land. During his lifetime Catron had an interest in, or owned outright at least thirty-four land grants with a combined area of nearly six million acres.

The third in the trilogy, and arguably the best, is his Mercedes Reales. To quote from the jacket of the book: "Westphall’s analytic overview encompasses the history of Spanish and Mexican grants in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. He provides a full account of the Spanish and Mexican legal heritage and settlement patterns out of which the land grants system grew."Of special interest to surveyors is his treatment of the implementation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo by the surveyor general’s office to which he devotes a full chapter entitled: Impossible Task of the Surveyor General. In another chapter Westphall examines the Court of Private Land Claims were there "was a golden opportunity lost", and in his conclusion he calls for the creation of a "Hispanic Land Claims Commission…" exactly what Representative Tom Udall proposes in his pending bill.

In a little known article published in the July 1974 issue of New Mexico Historical Review entitled: "Fraud and Implications of Fraud in the Land Grants of New Mexico" Dr. Westphall laid to rest the widespread notion that many land grants were fraudulent. It was greed rather than fraud that was the problem, often leading to enormous enlargement of the areas of legitimate grants. Nevertheless, he is of the opinion that: "…the greater crime was the apathy of Congress in allowing grants to remain for so long in an unsettled condition."

The subject of Spanish land grants is much too complex to be exhausted by any one writer but Dr. Westphall’s books go a long way towards explaining why some of our fellow citizens, one hundred and fifty-four years after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, are still demanding a re-examination. Whether HB 1823 will become law and as such can at long last address the problem to the satisfaction of the proponents remains to be seen.

About the Author

Fred Roeder, LS

Fred Roeder lives in Tularosa, New Mexico. He emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1957 and spent most of his surveying career in the Southwest, working for the U.S. Forest Service. Now retired, he started writing a regular column for the New Mexico Professional Surveyors Newsletter in 1988. In 1994, NMPS produced Antepasados, a book of his columns. Many surveyors are good writers, especially about technical or legal matters. However, it's not often that we find a surveyor/story-teller who can present historical facts in a manner that makes them fun to read. Fred Roeder is such a writer and we are pleased to present more than 80 of his stories here. Bibliography is a list of the books Fred used in his writings, and includes a numbered index of the articles. Index is a list of all the articles Fred has written and when. Editor's pick: The King Who Had No Title
Contact Fred Article List Below