Banded Peaks country and the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Pagosa’s two biggest lumber outfits back around 1900 had their own railroads and provided housing for their employees. We get a look here at those employees and their families moving to another mill site while their tar-paper shacks are being moved by the company railroad. The way those folks dressed looks familiar to me. As a small boy in Oregon, circa 1940, my dad was a mill worker and they all dressed as you see in this picture.

We have established that Cumbres Pass was the first pass across the south San Juan Mountains to be fully developed. This fact is important for our story featuring the history of southeastern Archuleta County, an area we are calling the Banded Peaks area.
Now we are going way back in time to describe another historic fact peculiar to this portion of the county. Most of you who read my column know that southern Colorado history is closely tied to New Mexico history. In fact, the Spanish word Colorado translates “with much red” or “blushing.”
The southeastern part of Archuleta County we are studying was once part of a Hispaño land grant named the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant. Tierra Amarilla translates “yellow land or earth.” Land grants involved giving free land to entice settlement. The Spanish government used this enticement to encourage settlement in the New World, especially in Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona.
Millions of acres were included in the 277 land grants issued by the Spanish and Mexican governments to promote settlement of New Mexico. When the U.S. government took over New Mexico at the end of the Mexican American War, an agreement called “The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo” signed by the U.S. in 1848 guaranteed that the property of Mexican citizens would be “inviolably respected.” The surveyor general was empowered to approve claims to land grants and to submit them to Congress for confirmation.
Problems with the process arose and so a Court of Private Land Claims was established to investigate all claims. Some 64 land grants to Spanish and Indian communities comprising over 9 million acres were confirmed by Congress, and 82 New Mexico grants embracing almost 2 million acres were confirmed by the Court of Private Land Claims.
The procedures failed to achieve their objectives. With the U.S. occupancy came a horde of land speculators, cattle and railroad companies, and unscrupulous lawyers eager to bend the laws for their own gain. It is reported that from 1869 through 1884, the office of the surveyor general was aligned with the “dominant element” in New Mexico known as the Santa Fe Ring.
Its most notorious member was Thomas B. Catron, United States attorney general for New Mexico, a shrewd lawyer, politician and land speculator. Catron purportedly acquired the Tierra Amarilla grant with 42 deeds, but neglected to purchase the interests of most of the settlers whose hijuelas (deeds) had been recorded. Then he had a court decree that he owned the entire grant without mentioning these recorded hijuelas.
The land we are referring to as the Banded Peaks in Archuleta County was a portion of the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant. As a source for this information, I am using a book titled “The Tierra Amarilla Grant: A History of Chicanery,” written by Malcom Ebright, copyright 1980 by the Center for Land Grant Studies.

This story was posted on November 4, 2018.