Text and photos by ERIC SHULTZ
East of Tesuque in the Sangre de Cristo foothills, the villages of Chupadero and Rio en Medio have received little attention by historians of New Mexico. This is not altogether surprising. A few mentions can be found in acequia-related writings, usually in reference to a rather uncommon relationship: an inter-basin acequia carries water from the Rio en Medio to the Chupadero valley whose natural creek usually dries up in late summer (for example, see this article from the original La Jicarita News). The diversion raises the question: why would Rio en Medio have agreed to let Chupadero take half its stream? Local tradition holds that a “political” marriage brought about the arrangement, but surviving documents suggest a different story.
In 1984, historian John O. Baxter completed “Spanish Irrigation in the Pojoaque and Tesuque Valleys during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries” under the auspices of the Office of the State Engineer. The earliest record Baxter found of settlement in Rio en Medio was an 1863 deed to José Ignacio Trujillo. The deed conveyed two properties and describes each as bounded on the north by “el Río de en Medio” thus making their location appear unambiguous. But people in the Chupadero valley have long known José Ignacio Trujillo as father of the abundantly documented upper Chupadero valley landowner Mónico Trujillo (baptismal records mark Mónico’s birth as José Ignacio’s “hijo legítimo” on May 4, 1865), and believed that Mónico inherited the same property conveyed by the 1863 deed. Because New Mexico water law gives a “better” right to the earlier user, interpreting an early deed can be more than an academic exercise. Hoping to use the Trujillo deed as evidence of an earlier acequia priority date than the State Engineer’s 1878, upper Chupadero valley parciantes (myself included) struggled to explain how a deed could call the river in the next valley as a boundary for property in this valley.
There is considerable evidence placing the Trujillo deed’s properties in the Chupadero valley. For starters, one of the sellers was Estefana Pacheco and the first miles of the Chupadero drainage still bear the name Pacheco Canyon. Contemporaneous with the sale to Trujillo, Pacheco conveyed two other properties, one to Jesús Pacheco, presumably her son, and the other to Guadalupe Roybal. Adequate property descriptions and clear chains of title place these other Pacheco properties in the upper Chupadero valley. The Trujillo deed mentions a Guadalupe Bernal as an adjoining landowner, and while there were certainly Bernals in nearby Tesuque, no Guadalupe appears in the record. Could the adjoiner have been Guadalupe Roybal, whose deed from Pacheco was dated some 10 months before Trujillo’s? In those days, deeds were hand-copied into the county record books. The possibility that Roybal became Bernal by way of a scrivener’s error seems likely, especially considering the former name was often spelled Roival (see photos comparing handwritten examples). If Trujillo’s 1863 property adjoined that of Guadalupe Roybal, its location in the Chupadero valley would be quite certain.
Perhaps more determinant, the 1863 deed states that its properties are located in a “lugar” called el Cerro Peñascudo. While the basic English equivalent for lugar is place, the word has a special usage. Don Quixote begins with the words “En un lugar de la Mancha…” and translator Samuel Putnam rendered these words correctly as “In a village of La Mancha….” The Pacheco properties lay at the base of an outcrop-studded hill that I was taught as a child to call Mt. Peña, apparently for short, but in the nineteenth century the place name Cerro Peñascudo referred both to the hill and to the settlement at its base. While evidence places the Trujillo properties in the upper Chupadero valley and at the foot of the rocky hill, this leaves the Rio en Medio boundary calls unexplained.
A search of county records for mentions of Cerro Peñascudo produced surprising results that suggest a solution to the Trujillo deed mystery. Some two dozen deeds for properties clearly in the Tesuque valley call out Cerro Peñascudo—two to three miles distant—as their eastern or northern boundary. In fact, this represents a modest example of Spanish colonial property description in New Mexico and something accepted in American jurisprudence for nearly a century. In the 1914 U.S. Supreme Court case Montoya v. Gonzales regarding the Alameda Land Grant north of Albuquerque, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the majority:
…The greater part of the Alameda grant, it is found, has been occupied in strips, from beyond the memory of men now living. The interveners claim such strips, most of them but a few yards wide, but extending, as they say, from the Rio Grande westward to the Ceja or ridge of Rio Puerco—a distance of some 16 miles…. The eastern part has been fenced, cultivated, and built upon; but from the foothills to the Ceja of Rio Puerco the land is unfenced, and by a general custom has been used mainly for the grazing of cattle by the interveners and others claiming ownership in the grant.
In northern New Mexico, we know of this custom as lineas: individuals would claim bottom land for house and fields, often measured as so many varas (1 vara ≈ 33 inches) of frontage along a river or acequia, but on a perpendicular axis they would claim rights extending often for miles to a distant geographical feature. As in the case described by Justice Holmes, the bottomland would be fenced, cultivated and built on and thus would resemble a “farm” in the Anglo-American property tradition. But extending along the long axis, rather than strips of private property (privatized strips are presumably a U.S.-era interpretation), the lineas represented the extension of common lands to which the property owner had use rights.
The language of one of the earliest Tesuque deeds (1854) with a Cerro Peñascudo call shows unequivocally that the linea custom was in force: after calling the east, west and south boundaries of a parcel just 28 varas wide, the property, as described, extended “por el Norte a linea recta hasta el Serito peñascudo [to the north in a straight line all the way to Cerro Peñascudo]” several miles distant. Other deeds make explicit that the extension to Cerro Peñascudo represented a grazing common. For example, an 1866 instrument describes property bounded on the north “con el Serro Peñascudo quedando por este rumbo libre para pasteos comunes [by Cerro Peñascudo remaining in this direction open for common pasture].” These and other deeds with Cerro Peñascudo calls identify the hill country rising north and east from the Tesuque valley as a commons for the Hispano village then called Río de Tesuque. The specific history of how the community lost its commons remains to be written.
Returning to Trujillo’s 1863 purchase from Pacheco, it would have been customary for the transaction to include not only bottom land with irrigation rights (the deed treats the water issue explicitly), but also a right within a much larger common. Areas to the west and south had already been claimed as a common by Río de Tesuque, so the logical direction for an extended linea would be north or east toward the Rio en Medio. Viewed in this context, a Chupadero-valley deed claiming rights that extend to the Rio en Medio could easily make sense. In his 1984 study, Baxter took the Trujillo deed for the earliest evidence of settlement in the Río en Medio valley. The next-earliest record I found was from the late 1870s. If the Pacheco/Trujillo properties were based in the Chupadero valley, as deed evidence indicates, there is no evidence of settlement in Río en Medio with which an 1863 Chupadero claim to the area between the two streams would cause conflict.
By 1891, the Rio en Medio village was well established. We know this from a document by which its 16 vecinos (a terms usually indicating both property owner and head of household) created a parcel of land containing their Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows, and deeded said parcel to the Archbishop of Santa Fe, Jean B. Salpointe, and his successors. If we assume that many of the vecinos had families, the community could easily have included 50 to 100 souls. This clear evidence brings us back to the question I began with: why would an established community let the folks in the next valley take half their stream’s flow?
In 1897, commissions from the two valleys executed a written agreement that sets out the terms for the inter-basin aqueduct. But this is not the date of the ditch’s creation. In 1894, water users from the Chupadero valley recorded a document to comply with the Territorial Assembly’s 1891 “Act to provide a method for establishing the rights of appropriation of water for ditches, canals, or feeders of reservoirs, and requiring registration of all such hereafter made, changed or enlarged.” Of interest here is the claim by “the owners of the Acequia to be known as the Acequia de los del Chupadero” that the ditch bringing water from the Río en Medio “was originally built sixteen years ago.” But 1878 is around the time of the very first records of settlement in the Río en Medio valley. The 1879 government township survey does show an acequia along the Río en Medio, but acequias were often the first public work of communities just getting started. If there was hardly an established community at that time, but only the beginnings of one, Chupadero’s construction of the inter-basin ditch would have been more a matter of ingenuity and determination than politics and diplomacy. By the 1890s, Río en Medio’s then sizeable community would understandably see things differently, so it is not surprising that we find a formal agreement on the trans-mountain diversion dating from that decade, an agreement that preserves the diversion for Chupadero while including robust protections for Río en Medio as well.
In these paragraphs, I have suggested a reinterpretation of a document of some importance for understanding the history of two northern New Mexico villages. By placing this document in the light of property relations that differ from those of the Anglo-American tradition, a decades-old riddle yields to a clear explanation. Understanding the document as pertaining to one valley and not another suggests that Río en Medio’s settlement may have been more recent that was once thought. An acequia built to bring water from one valley to the other has puzzled many, swayed by the assumption that water is fiercely guarded and a perennial source of conflict. But an opposing view, that Hispano acequia traditions favor equitable distribution of precious resources, while certainly accounting for this water-sharing arrangement’s 135-year survival, may have limited relevance concerning the inter-basin ditch’s origin. Records suggests that settlement along the Río en Medio was still in its early stages in 1878, a time when longer-established Chupadero landowners undertook their project to import water from the neighboring valley. But within two decades, Río en Medio had grown into an established community, complete with a chapel attached to the archdiocese. While the origin of the trans-basin ditch may reflect inequality between senior and junior communities, the 1897 agreement suggests more of a peace between equals.
Regarding the upper Chupadero valley parciantes’ efforts to get the State Engineer to recognize an 1863 priority date for their acequias, the State accepted the February 1863 deed from Pacheco to Roybal as proof, but never accepted the Trujillo deed as referring to Chupadero valley properties. Because irrigation in the Chupadero valley largely depends on the water diverted from the Rio en Medio, a diversion documented to have begun in 1878, both the upper valley and the downstream village of Chupadero proper share that priority date. Due to efforts by the downstream valley acequia commission, both the lower and upper valley water users have agreed to have their mayordomos coordinate repartimiento (water allocations) during times of shortage in customary fashion.