From the sixteenth century to the mid-nineteenth, the king of Spain and the Mexican government awarded land grants to individuals and communities throughout the American Southwest. All seven of Colorado’s land grants, comprising more than 8 million acres, were awarded by the Mexican government after 1821. They are all near the state’s southern border, with three lying in the San Luis Valley and five sharing territory with New Mexico. Land grants in Colorado and throughout the southwestern United States have fostered shared identity, cultural heritage, and conflict that extend into present-day debates about race, language, ancestry, and land ownership.
History of Land Grants in the Southwest
In 1540 Francisco Vásquez de Coronado set out from Compostela in New Spain (Mexico) and conquered native pueblos near modern-day Santa Fe, claiming all lands to the north, including Colorado, for the Kingdom of Spain. The first Spanish explorers to reach Colorado were Juan de Humana and Francisco Leyva de Bonilla, who in 1594 progressed as far as the Purgatoire River, and Juan de Zaldívar, who reportedly entered the San Luis Valley in 1596.
It was only in 1598, however, that the Spanish established a permanent settlement in what is now the United States, when Juan de Oñate proclaimed all lands north of the Rio Grande as the province of Santa Fé de Nuevo Mexico. Oñate established the encomienda system of property rights, which gave conquistadors the right to land and labor (including American Indians) in exchange for “protecting” the land and its subjects.
The encomienda system ended after the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. When the Spanish returned to Santa Fé thirteen years later, they introduced a new form of land rights based on individual and community land grants called mercedes. Settlers, including pueblo natives, could petition the territorial governor for land and be awarded rights in the name of the king of Spain. Several individual land grants covering thousands of acres were awarded to the aristocratic elite. Communal grants were often awarded to the lower classes (soldiers, mestizos, and pueblos) and located around the periphery of the province, intended to act as a buffer for indigenous groups.
Spanish land grants never extended into present-day Colorado because the presence of Utes in the San Luis Valley deterred Spanish settlement there. The first recorded petition for a land grant in present-day Colorado dates to 1814, when a request for land that extended into southwest Colorado was rejected under Spanish rule.
After Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, it continued to use the land grant system developed by Spain to encourage the settlement of its borderlands. For Mexico, however, the main threat was not native people but the rising influence of the United States. It was the American threat that led Mexico to secure its borders through an aggressive policy of land grants.
Overall, seven grants amounting to more than 8 million acres were awarded in what became Colorado. Most of these were awarded by New Mexico governor Manuel Armijo in a two-year period from 1841 to 1843. In late 1843, Armijo awarded 5.5 million acres within six weeks as he rushed to name Mexican citizens as landowners on properties that extended north to the Mexican border with the United States at the Arkansas River. While Colorado’s land grants are few in number, they stand out for their size: it is home to the largest land grant ever awarded in the New Mexico Province and later confirmed by the United States government.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848)
The history of land grants in the American Southwest was transformed by the Mexican-American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In 1845 the United States annexed Texas, which included parts of today’s Colorado. Soon thereafter, boundary disputes with Mexico led the American government to provoke the Mexican-American War in 1846. In 1848 the United States won the war, and in the resulting Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo it gained control of thousands of square miles of northwest Mexico, which eventually formed part or all of the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.
The terms of the treaty obligated the American government to honor all existing Spanish and Mexican land grants. In practice, however, that did not happen. The US Surveyor General’s Office and the Court of Private Land Claims often dismissed grant claims, owing to imprecision and legal ambiguity. In New Mexico, only 6 percent of land grants were recognized by US courts. Of the land grants that were legally recognized, much was subsequently lost through illegal appropriations and legal but unjust means of deceit and fraud. Many times, well-funded companies and individuals, such as the “Santa Fé Ring” of Anglo lawyers and politicians, wrangled the legal titles to large grants and sold them at a profit.
In addition to their contested ownership, many of the land grants in question were occupied by indigenous peoples, especially the Ute Indians, who had lived there for centuries. For decades before the Mexican War, the Utes had defended their lands from would-be Spanish and Mexican colonists. After the war, however, the presence of the US military in the region convinced local Utes to sign the Treaty of Abiquiú with the United States in 1849. Until that year, the Utes thwarted most nonnative occupation of the land grants, especially in the San Luis Valley.
Colorado’s Land Grants
1. Tierra Amarilla
In April 1832, Manuel Martínezand his children petitioned for a grant in northwestern New Mexico, extending into what is now southwestern Colorado, west of the San Juan Mountains. In July Martinez received 594,515.55 acres. The US surveyor general approved the grant in 1856, and it was confirmed by Congress in 1860. Santa Fé lawyer Thomas Catron acquired nearly all the land in 1883.
2. Conejos (Guadalupe)
Almost entirely in Colorado, the Conejos grant spanned from northern New Mexico into the San Luis Valley. The grant was petitioned in 1832 on behalf of forty families, approved in 1833, and later revalidated and possessed by eighty-three families in 1842. The grant encompassed 2.5 million acres, making it Colorado’s second largest. Under the US government, the grant was eventually rejected entirely in 1900.
3. Beaubien and Miranda (Maxwell)
In 1841 a recently naturalized Mexican citizen named Carlos (Charles) Beaubien partnered with Guadalupe Miranda, a Mexican government official in Santa Fé, to petition for land in northern New Mexico, extending into Colorado east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Newly naturalized citizens sought to partner with Mexican officials to receive grants and to increase the size of grants, which was technically restricted by Mexican law to 48,712 acres per person. Beaubien and Miranda possessed the 1.7 million–acre grant in 1843. The entire grant was subsequently owned by Lucien B. Maxwell, who inherited half from Beaubien, his father-in-law, and bought the other half from Miranda in 1858. The Maxwell grant was approved by Congress in 1860 and upheld by the Supreme Court in 1887.
4. Vigil and St. Vrain (Las Animas)
Colorado’s largest land grant spanned 4.1 million acres from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the Arkansas River. Ceran St. Vrain was a fur trapper from St. Louis who became a naturalized Mexican citizen in 1831 and partnered with Cornelio Vigil, a Taos justice of the peace, to petition for a vast expanse of land on December 8, 1843. The grant was awarded one day later and taken possession of on January 2, 1844. The claim was approved by Congress in 1860, then adjusted by Congress in 1869 based on the acreage limit of Mexican law, which American jurisdictions sometimes enforced to reduce the size of grants. Some of the remaining land was claimed in small quantities by later immigrants, but most was repossessed by the US government as public domain.
5. Gervacio Nolan
Canadian-born fur trapper Gervacio Nolan settled in Taos, became a trader, and married a Hispano woman. He was among the first outsiders to petition for Mexican citizenship. He also petitioned for the northernmost grant in Colorado, which flanked the St. Charles River between the Wet Mountains and the Arkansas River east of Pueblo. Cornelio Vigil awarded the grant to Nolan in 1843, but the exact size—anywhere from 300,000 to 1 million acres—is disputed, and the boundaries were not established in writing. The grant was approved by the US surveyor general in 1861, albeit for the much smaller amount of 48,712 acres, and confirmed by Congress in 1870. Some of the rest was claimed by later immigrants, but most of the land was repossessed by the US government as public domain and designated for settlement.
6. Sangre de Cristo
The Sangre de Cristo grant was petitioned by Narciso Beaubien and Stephen Luis Lee in late 1843, awarded a week later, and taken possession of in January 1844. Four years later, Narciso Beaubien’s father, Carlos Beaubien, original owner of the Maxwell grant, bought his son’s Sangre de Cristo grant, which spanned more than 1 million acres in the San Luis Valley and Sangre de Cristo Mountains, mostly in Colorado. The grant was approved by Congress in 1860 and sold to former Colorado territorial governor William Gilpin in 1864.
7. Baca Grant #4
In 1823 Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca, a descendent of explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza, petitioned the Mexican government for 500,000 acres of land in present-day Las Vegas, New Mexico. Driven from their grant by Navajo raids, the Bacas returned in 1835 to discover their land settled by ranchers and homesteaders. The Bacas disputed the occupation for decades under two different national governments, but in 1860 Congress established the town of Las Vegas on the settlers’ behalf. To compensate the Bacas, the United States offered them five 100,000-acre parcels of land in New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. In 1864 Baca Grant #4 was awarded in the San Luis Valley after a petition from the Baca family lawyer, John S. Watts, was accepted. Watts was subsequently awarded ownership of the grant as payment for his legal services. Most of the grant is now part of the Baca National Wildlife Refuge and Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Colorado Land Grants Today
Today most of the former Colorado land grants are privately owned, including several large ranches, or are public lands such as national forests, wilderness areas, national parks, Bureau of Land Management parcels, state wildlife areas, and state trust lands. Yet their complex history—used by American Indians, claimed by Spanish explorers, bestowed on Mexican citizens, and bought or homesteaded by American immigrants—remains the source of deeply rooted feelings of ownership, belonging, and conflict. To this day, disputes continue over issues of use, ownership, race, memory, and justice regarding the land grants.
In the 1960s, Reies Lopez Tijerina established the Alianza Federal de Mercedes (Federal Land Grant Alliance) to ensure all the heirs of the land grants covered by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo knew their rights. In 1967 activists led by Tijerina stormed a courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, to protest abuses involving the Tierra Amarilla land grant, which included territory in southern Colorado. The attackers shot and wounded a state police officer and jailer, beat a deputy, and took the sheriff and a reporter hostage. Tijerina was arrested but ultimately acquitted of charges directly related to the raid.
Colorado’s longest-running land dispute concerns descendants of the families hired by Narciso Beaubien to settle the Sangre de Cristo land grant in Costilla County. Locals who call themselves herederos—heirs or descendants—long used the upland areas in common, basing their claim on the Spanish and Mexican custom of respect for the ejido, or common land not subject to private ownership within a land grant. In 1960 this tradition came into conflict with Anglo concepts of property rights when Jack Taylor bought the land and forbade access and use. In 2002 the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in favor of the descendants’ access to pasturage and timber on the privately owned Cielo Vista Ranch (formerly Taylor Ranch). Cielo Vista’s owner appealed the decision, and the descendants successfully defended their claim in the Colorado Court of Appeals in 2018.
Because the former land grants cover a diverse and important ecological area spanning the Rio Grande and its tributaries, the high desert of the San Luis Valley, and the towering peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range, some of the former grants have become private ranches dedicated to conservation. Part of the Maxwell grant is now the 600,000-acre Vermejo Park Ranch, owned by media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner, who has dedicated the ranch (among other uses) to conservation in collaboration with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. A portion of the Sangre de Cristo land grant became Trinchera Ranch; in 2005 the Forbes family (of Forbes magazine fame) placed 80,000 acres of the ranch in a conservation easement, and in 2012 new owner Louis Bacon, a billionaire investor, donated 90,000 acres to form the Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area.