Chicanery and the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant

2018/11/oldtimer-train3-300x191.jpg Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Pagosa Lumber Company Engine No. 70 with a load of logs headed for the mill. Pagosa Lumber Company was owned by Alexander Sullenburger, who started with a mill in Pagosa Junction, later operated a mill along Stollsteimer Creek and finally built a big mill in town where the high school complex now stands. Still later, the Pagosa Lumber Company mill was sold and moved to Dulce, N.M. Sullenburger was active in local politics.

Last week’s column featured the beginning of a dissertation on the Tierra Amarilla (TA) Land Grant, which included the southeastern part of Archuleta County we are referring to as the Banded Peaks area.

The title of the book I am using as a source of information for this dissertation should give you a clue to where this story is going. The title is “The Tierra Amarilla Land Grant: A History of Chicanery.”

At least 277 land grants in what later became New Mexico were issued by the Spanish and Mexican governments. At the time we are talking about, there was no Colorado, no Archuleta County. At that time, the Banded Peaks we are talking about were part of New Mexico. Before we talk specifically about the TA Land Grant, we’re going to talk about Hispaño settlement of the Northern New Mexico area and describe the two types of land grants then in vogue.

I’m avoiding an in-depth study of the laws concerning land grants. The first type of land grants was conveyed to an individual, with title of the land issued to the individual. The second type of land grant was issued to a multiple number of people, usually from one family with one member of the family as a leader. Each of the group shared equally in ownership.

The chicanery (defined as the use of trickery to achieve political, financial or legal purposes) employed to obtain ownership of the TA Land Grant was the ability of a lawyer named Thomas B. Catron to obtain single ownership of the TA Land Grant when original ownership was meant to be spread equally across a family starting with Manuel Martinez in 1832. The original grant issued by the Mexican government totaled 524,515 acres. Its general location was bounded on the west by a line approximating the path of U.S 84 from Tierra Amarilla to the Navajo River. Its northern boundary approximated the path of the Navajo River eastward from Chromo to the Continental Divide in the Banded Peaks. Its eastern boundary approximated a line starting with the northern boundary on the Banded Peaks Continental Divide and running due south, where it intersected a line starting from Tierra Amarilla and running due east, the southern boundary line.

Catron was helped by a resident of Los Ojos in the Tierra Amarilla area, a very successful merchant named Thomas D. Burns. Burns also owned thousands of sheep and cattle. Burns is said to have spoken fluid Spanish and was trusted implicitly by the Hispanics living in the area. It is said he granted them credit in his store and in other ways and accepted title of their respective portions of the TA Land Grant as payment on their debts. These Hispanics did not read or understand English and did not understand that the value of their titles vastly exceeded the amount of their debts.

Much could be written about Burns, who was the original founder of the Burns National Bank of Durango which ultimately merged with other banks and financial institutions. Suffice it to say for our purposes that Burns sold most of his interests to Catron, who purportedly acquired the TA grant with 42 deeds, but neglected to purchase the interests of most of the original settlers. Then he obtained a court decree granting him ownership of the entire grant without mentioning these recorded deeds, equaling chicanery. Many pages of the land title books in the Archuleta County Courthouse contain Catron’s name.

In the communities of the Tierra Amarilla area of New Mexico located a little south of Chama are a number of citizens related to the Martinez family who still say they are the only legal owners of the TA Grant. The issue has been litigated a considerable number of times.