Review: Twisting the Law on the Sebastian Martín Land Grant by Malcolm Ebright and Alfredo Montoya

By KAY MATTHEWS

Historian Malcolm Ebright is still telling land grant stories. This time, in the spring edition of New Mexico Historical Review, he collaborates with well-known Rio Arriba politician Alfredo Montoya to tell the tale of the Sebastian Martín Grant. This is the grant that encompasses many of the villages along the Rio Grande south from Velarde to Ohkay Owingeh: La Villita, Alcalde, Los Luceros, Los Pachecos. These were the lands that remained in the hands of the extended family members of Sebastian Martín, while a partition suit by nefarious territorial politicians separated them from the common lands, those lands to the north and east that are now largely owned by the federal government, under US Forest Service and BLM management. It’s a story of dispossession, but also one of “resurgence” that Montoya tells as a long-standing resident of the still intact original communities.

L. Bradford Prince, Courtesy, Library of Congress

New Mexico has a long list of nefarious “territorial politicians,” primarily lawyers and land speculators like Thomas Catron, Stephen Elkins, and Miguel Otero. The main bad guy in this story is former territorial governor L. Bradford Prince, who, according to Ebright and Montoya, “twisted the law” to give the appearance that they acquired the grant through the legal means of a quiet title suit and partition suit. Prince, who portrayed himself as a New Mexican statesman, and friend of the land grant heirs—the grant was confirmed in 1860—was aided and abetted by several other unscrupulous lawyers, James Freeman and Alonso B. McMillan. In cahoots with Prince, McMillan filed the quiet title suit, which established that 102 individuals owned the grant and that those individuals had authorized Prince to sell it. He then filed a partition suit and a month later sold his fifty percent ownership of the grant to James Freeman.

As Ebright and other land grant scholars have explained in previous works, the New Mexico State Legislature enacted the partition statute in 1876, which allowed multiple landowners to either divide the property among themselves or sell the land and split the proceeds. This, of course, opened the door for lawyers and speculators to buy up the properties for resale at a profit, often without the knowledge of the heirs.

Prince and Freeman proceeded to buy up all but six percent of the total 50,000 plus acres of the grant, the common lands that were comprised of piñon and juniper forest, speculating that harvesting the timber would make them rich men (which never happened, through various future sales and defaulted promissory notes). The real owners of the grant remained in the villages along the Rio Grande where they continued to grow fruit, vegetables, and pasture. Prince is painted as the lawyer most inclined to “twist the law” to acquire as much of the grant as he could, declining to take testimony from the land grant residents in preparation for a survey, and trying to avoid notification of defendants in the partition suit.

Several minor successes were achieved over the years to award more acreage to the residents of the grant. A group of Velarde residents lobbied Prince to set aside a section of their former common lands for their benefit. Fearful of litigation by Thomas Catron, who represented some of the residents, Price segregated a tract of 2,385 acres that joined the 2,480 acres of private tracts. Years later, in 1945, U.S. Representative Antonio Manuel Fernández initiated legislation that recovered some of the private lands that were left out of the survey. The authors refer to Fernández as an “unsung hero” in his representation of his constituents.

The remainder of the article is dedicated to chronicling the efforts of the members of the communities that comprise the Sebastian Martín Land Grant who have not only maintained but revitalized the traditions and practices of their villages. Reminiscent of the 1970s battle in the Taos Valley over the proposed Indian Camp Dam and Conservancy District, the Bureau of Reclamation proposed the El Llano Canal Project to access the newly acquired San Juan/Chama Project water, which would largely benefit the town of Española. The canal threatened the integrity of the six-mile long Acequia de Alcalde, so the communities organized against the Canal and proposed conservancy district, forced a congressional hearing, and defeated the project.

As longtime mayordomo and commissioner on the Acequia de Alcalde, Montoya has helped keep the waters flowing in this 300 year-old ditch that serves all the communities along the Rio Grande from Velarde to Ohkay Owingeh. The traditional Los Comanches play and Matachines dance continue to be performed in Alcalde (and in many other el norte communities and pueblos). Ebright and Montoya provide much more detail on how someone like Prince and McMillan managed to manipulate the law to their advantage, perpetuating a longstanding practice employed to acquire many New Mexico land grants. But the story is eminently readable by the lay person, another chapter in the long history of this disgraceful era in our state’s history.

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