The Face of Capitalism: Oil Billionaire v. Heirs to the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant

By KAY MATTHEWS

Tomorrow, September 5,  the heirs and successors to the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant, represented by the San Luis Land Rights Council, will be in the Colorado Court of Appeals to defend their access rights to La Sierra, the 80,000 plus acre mountain tract in the San Luis Valley, rights they won in 2002, after a  37-year legal struggle. Why? Because the new owner, William Bruce Harrison, a 30-year old oil billionaire, challenged these rights just months after a final court order in November of 2017 had identified the individual heirs’ title to these grazing and timber rights under the original 2002 decision by the Colorado Supreme Court.

The story of how one wealthy individual came to own such a vast and beautiful area so culturally and economically significant to the surrounding Culebra communities is a story of capitalistic greed abetted by government sanction. The following history of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant, excerpted (and edited) from La Jicarita co-editor Mark Schiller’s article in the September 2005 edition tells the story.

“The Sangre de Cristo grant (998,780.46 acres) was one of several gigantic grants made by Mexican Governor Manuel Armijo after the establishment of the Republic of Texas (1836) and just before the Mexican-American War (1846). Although some historians have questioned the legitimacy of these grants and the motives of both Armijo and the land speculators to whom the grants were made, they were ostensibly created to protect the northern and northeastern frontiers of the Mexican Republic from further American or European incursion. Although not the original grantee, Charles Beaubien  became the sole owner and the person to whom the grant was confirmed by the United States government. Unfortunately, because a scandal was created by the confirmation of both the Sangre de Cristo and Maxwell land grants,  these two enormous and questionable grants made to land speculators who reaped enormous profits, the federal government was able to institute prejudicial policies that allowed them to defeat or reduce many legitimate claims and thereby make additional land available for Anglo capitalist exploitation.

Beginning in 1849 Beaubien  recruited Hispano farmers and ranchers to settle in the Costilla and Culebra Valleys on the grant. It’s important to note that these settlements began after the United States had taken possession of the area and therefore were not protected by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. However, Beaubien did issue deeds to some of the settlers, which included use rights guarantees for commons lands similar to those contained in Spanish and Mexican community land grants. In 1863 Beaubien wrote what came to be called the Beaubien Document, which granted the settlers access rights to the commons land as well as issuing deeds to their farmland. These use rights guarantees, which stated in part that ‘all inhabitants will have enjoyment of benefits of pastures, water, firewood and timber, always taking care that one does not injure another,’ are the subject of litigation regarding access to these common lands by the current owners of title to the tracts with which the use agreements were connected.

Beaubien died in 1864 and his heirs sold the grant to former Colorado Territorial Governor William Gilpin. Gilpin divided the grant into two sections, north and south of the Rio Culebra, and with financial backing from Englishman William Blackmore and other investors developed elaborate plans to exploit the grant’s resources and colonize it with Dutch settlers. In order to facilitate these plans and maximize profits Gilpin claimed that, despite years of continuous residency, the established Hispano settlers were squatters and attempted to evict them. The sales agreement between the Beaubien heirs and Gilpin, however, clearly stated that Gilpin took possession on the condition that ‘settlement rights before then conceded . . . to the residents of the settlements . . . shall be confirmed by said William Gilpin as made by him.’ Although Gilpin’s investment company was able to force most of the Hispano settlers to purchase the land they resided on, the company ultimately had to recognize and honor the use agreements.

Fast forward to 1960 when Jack Taylor, a North Carolina lumberman, purchased 77,000 acres of the grant from a successor in interest to William Gilpin. While Taylor’s deed specifically stated that he took ownership of the land subject to ‘the claims of the local people by prescription or otherwise to right to pasture, wood, and lumber and so-called settlement rights in, to and upon said land,’ Taylor denied access to the locals by fencing the property and initiating a suit to eliminate the use rights guarantees from the title.

In 1981, the Land Rights Council filed a class-action lawsuit against Taylor in a case that dragged on through the mid 1990s until victory in 2002 when the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in Lobato v. Taylor that gave the heirs and successors to the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant the right to gather firewood and construction material and to graze livestock. In 2005, more than 350 families received keys for access to the land grant and the exercise of these rights.

Taylor sold La Sierra in the late 1990s to the infamous Lou Pai for $23 million,  a multi-millionaire former Enron Corporation executive who sold his company shares between 1999 and 2001 for $353 million before the stock collapsed. Pai then sold the ranch in 2004 for $60 million to a group of Texas investors who changed the name to Cielo Vista and then put it up for sale for $105 million.

Now we have William Bruce Harrison, the owner of Cathexis Oil & Gas LLC of Houston, Texas, an investment firm, who hasn’t revealed how much he paid for this property that includes Culebra Peak, 14, 053 feet high and other thirteeners. Not only did he buy this magnificent property, but in February of 2018 bought a $22,750,000 mansion in Redondo Beach in Los Angeles. At the tender age of 30 Harrison wasted little time displaying the real source of his wealth: his father Bruce Harrison’s—and grandfather Daniel Harrison’s oil fortunes—that he inherited in 2017 (he sued his uncle, the executor of his father’s estate, to try to access his inheritance at an earlier date).

As Shirley Romero Otero, president of the Land Rights Council, and Devon Peña, of the Acequia Institute, said in the press release announcing Harrison’s appeal, the goal of those who seek to defend their access rights is to sustain acequia agriculture, work to restore the degraded forests that were over-logged by the Taylor family, and in this time of climate change, work together to protect the health of both the ecosystem and economy of the Culebra watershed communities. Parcels of “Cielo Vista” are now being sold, often sight unseen, to second homeowners, or to those seeking a “place to play,” as Harrison himself has been quoted as saying as to why he bought La Sierra in the first place. So much expendable money, so much excess, so much heaven for the 1%.

The appeal is taking place at the Colorado Supreme Court in Denver, Colorado at 9:00 am on September 5. The court is located 2 E 14th Ave, which is on Broadway and 14th. The Land Rights Council is taking a busload of folks from San Luis to attend the hearing.

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One comment

  1. Hi Kay,

    How sad. I remember vaguely this stuff, even stayed in San Luis when Tom Wolfe was trying to help organize the community prior to the original 2002 decision. The details escape memory. Reading your piece, some of it came back. Had I known I might have gone to Denver for this one. Since the rule of law or settled cases means little to the right, we might as well start organizing to “impeach” Kavanaugh now. Banana Republic is us. Best, Bill

    >

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