March 2017

La Bajada: From Territorial and Statehood Periods to the 1920s (1848-1929)


Part II of Three Articles by Hilario E. Romero



In Part I (GFT January 2017) of this history, I traced general events and settlement of people in the aera of La Bajada, focusing on the struggle at Las Bocas to maintain a rural, trade-based lifestyle during the pre-European, Spanish colonial and Mexican periods of New Mexico history. That account involved settlement in and movement through the area, including caravans, semi-nomadic Indian raids, changes in land use and conveyances as well as subsistence ranching and farming. 


The Río Santa Fe flowed through El Cañón de las Bocas (Santa Fe River Canyon) to the southern end of La Majada land grant (Paraje de La Merced del Ojito 1598-1680) from the village of La Bajada to the Río Grande. The majadal (grazing lands of La Majada) nurtured large quantities of beef and mutton in addition to hides, wool and agricultural produce for trade or barter in nearby communities and also La Villa de Santa Fe. The majada (a natural overnight shelter for sheep) was located upriver from the village of La Bajada near a pond on the north side of the Río Santa Fe.


This corridor would later be used by colonists and caravans traveling El Camino Real. Upon reaching the towering mesa, Oñate most likely sent a scouting party to determine if a route ascending the Santa Fe River Canyon (Cañón de las Bocas) was possible; however, the colonists and their wagons trekked southeast around the towering mesa and then north to the pueblos of Tzeguma and Guicu (sites of La Ciénega and Cieneguilla pueblos). Later caravans passed through the newly established Spanish parajes/villages of La Bajada, La Ciénega, La Cieneguilla, Alamo, the Pacheco Grant, Agua Fría and the future Rancho El Pino; finally arriving at La Villa de Santa Fe after 1610.


In 1854, six years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between the U.S. and México, which guaranteed land and water rights for the pueblos and Spanish/Mexicans, the Surveyor General’s Office of the United States of North America conducted surveys on most of the land grants in the new “territory” of New Mexico. The surveyor was unfamiliar with the structure of the Spanish Land Grant system. In 1860, La Majada Land Grant was finally surveyed—with land ownership, rights to water, pasture and common lands totaling approximately 54,404 acres. The residents of La Bajada were able to continue their way of life in the village based on a barter system in which a person’s word was sacred.


From Conquest to Struggle with the Government of the United States of North America

The influx of population into New Mexico after the 1846 conquest and subsequent treaty was primarily made up of homesteaders from the eastern states, along with some land-grabbers (subsequently known as “carpetbaggers” and “venture capitalists”). The year 1862 would see the establishment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Homestead Act and the invasion of Texas Confederate soldiers into New Mexico, fighting for secession from the Union. Subsequent years would see the arrival of the U.S. Forest Service, cattle barons and the return of the Partido Partdario, a cash economy with an annual property tax system and, finally, the Court of Private Land Claims—all of which had a negative impact on New Mexico’s traditional agrarian way of life—farming, ranching, trade and subsistence—for Pueblos and Spanish communities alike, including Cochiti, Santo Domingo and La Bajada.  


With the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862, prospective settlers were informed that open lands without fences were “public domain” and that they could stake their claim to 160 acres free of charge. However, much of this “free” land was already claimed and used for centuries by Native American tribes as well as the ancestors of the Spanish, since both groups were awarded land grants for continued settlement—including water rights, common lands and pasturelands that required continuous settlement and demonstrated use. On the Majada Land Grant, the villagers of La Bajada went about their agricultural and ranching lifestyle unaware for the most part of what was to come.


With the establishment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1862, Eastern-style concepts and methods of commercialized farming and ranching were introduced, overlaying traditional patterns with the goal of increasing production in tandem with the population increase, not to mention increasing profits for the carpetbaggers. Such concepts and methods were out of place in a region like the Southwest—particularly in the Territory of New Mexico, which included the zona arida (arid zone), later called Arizona, the southern tip of what would later be called Nevada, and southern portions of what would become the states of Utah and Colorado. The fragile environment of the Territory of New Mexico contained populations who knew how to survive and had indeed managed to thrive for centuries in this delicate land because of their deep-seated respect for the earth, the waters and everything that was part of the natural world. 


The Partido Partidario—a contract sharing sheep with sheepherders—was a small-scale practice that began during the 1700s where wealthy sheep owners, patrones, would lend/lease part of their flock to one or more sheepherders for several years in return for 20 percent payments of lambs and wool each year. The contract ended when the sheepherder returned the original number of sheep back to the patrón. If the sheep survived blizzards and droughts, this practice was continued. However, many sheepherders ended up in debt. Although it was somewhat successful during the Spanish Colonial period, it was most likely discontinued. (Exposición de Pedro Bauxita Pino, 1812, Ojeada, Lic. Antonio Barreriro, 1832, José Agustín Escudero additions, 1849.)


One century later, the Partido Partidario returned with the arrival of the U.S. In the larger towns, markets for beef, lamb and their byproducts were brisk. As early as 1865, the practice was initiated again with venture capitalists like Charles Bond and Edward Sargent, who purchased merino sheep in Missouri, brought them to New Mexico and began contracting with sheepherders who could no longer find markets for their native churro sheep. The venture capitalists encouraged land grantees to use their common and pasture lands for grazing this new breed that drank more water and needed more pasture. Through contacts with the infamous Santa Fe Ring, these carpetbaggers landed contracts with the U.S. Army, large mercantile stores and markets to the north and east of New Mexico territory. The new market-centered system encouraged a few of the wealthier native ranchers to take on more stock and overgraze their pasturelands, thereby contributing to their depletion, including parts of La Majada and La Bajada land grants and mesas.


According to William Dunmire’s New Mexico’s Livestock Heritage, cattle barons such as John Chisum from Texas arrived in southeastern New Mexico in 1870 with large herds and the authority of the Homestead Act to move onto “public domain” lands in order stake their claims. Many wealthy individuals were able to purchase large tracts for pennies per acre. Canadian cattle baron Wilson Waddington arrived, and later former U.S. Senator from Arkansas Stephen Dorsey (involved in a scandal involving post office contracts) left politics and bought up land grants through forgery, chicanery and falsification of documents. In San Miguel and Colfax counties, they had the the help of Thomas Catron—attorney general of the New Mexico Territory from 1869 to 1872, and U.S. attorney for the district from 1872 to1878—and his Santa Fe Ring. 


A severe drought from 1870 to 1883 made matters worse. The cattle barons brought in thousands of cattle—too many for the grazing lands they had purchased. In the 1880s, other cattle barons such as Thomas Lyons and John Grayson arrived in southwestern New Mexico. A decade later, the drought of 1890-91 decimated the land where too many “animal units” per acre—an estimated 5.7 million at that time—had been grazed. This estimate did not include many herds that they temporarily drove to Texas to lower the count. Residents on La Majada land grant and in the village of La Bajada suffered with their livestock during that period due to cyclical droughts but not due to overgrazing. They had cared for the land in the same manner as their ancestors and reduced their herds during this drought even though they had to sell at a lower price.


In 1878, Gov. Lew Wallace granted a tractable right-of-way to the AT&SF Railroad through New Mexico Territory with division points every 100 miles starting at Willow Springs (Ratón). The next point was at Las Vegas, and another was near the Pueblo of Kiwa (Santo Domingo), where the railroad needed a water tank. In 1880, a water line was laid under the riverbed at La Bajada from Las Bocas, running two miles southwest to a 9,000-gallon tank at Wallace. From 1880 to 1921 the tank primarily served AT&SF facilities. The village of La Bajada protested, and eventually railroad officials were required to draft an agreement recognizing La Bajada’s ownership of the water rights from the Río Santa Fe. The agreement stipulated that AT&SF railroad provide a one-inch pipeline to divert from Station 294, plus 38 feet running to La Bajada Village, ending at a 1,000-gallon concrete storage tank on the northwest end of the village. (Arnold Valdez, “La Bajada Community Ditch and Water System” Chronicles of the Trail, Summer/Fall 2011.)


The railroads also had a negative impact on residents of this area’s Pueblo and Spanish land grants who survived on ranching and farming. The arrival of the railroad in 1879, first leading south from Ratón to Las Vegas (New Mexico), gradually changed the way of life of Pueblo and Spanish farmers and ranchers. In large open areas, the railroad was granted miles-wide rights-of-way on each side of the approved track route. Only a few Indian pueblos were informed in advance that they could negotiate railroad passage through their lands. Consequently, railroad companies leased right-of-way lands on both sides of the tracks to venture capitalists and cattle barons who brought herds in the thousands to graze, making it impossible for other land grantees to graze their stock.  


The Forest Reserve Act of 1891 came at a bad time, when New Mexico’s forests and watersheds were suffering during the severe drought of 1891-1892. In 1892 the USDA issued a report stating, “The sheep industry is the most flourishing pastoral occupation of the Territory.” However, previous droughts and overgrazing had decimated the land, and the United States of North America was now on the verge of confiscating over 10 million acres of forestland, which included common and pasture lands on land grants owned by Pueblo and Spanish land grantees.


The abuses of logging companies clear-cutting forests in the East without regard for the future resulted in the relocation of their operations to New Mexico Territory. Notwithstanding the droughts, New Mexican forests were in relatively good condition. The resources they offered were needed by the people who, like their ancestors, cut wood, grazed stock and used the watersheds centuries before the arrival of the United States of North America and its institutions. Some of the targeted lands were adjacent to La Majada Land Grant, where residents practiced sustainable uses for wood gathering and summertime grazing of sheep and cattle in forest meadows.


Valentín Montoya was a sheepherder in La Bajada during this period and a pariente (relative) of Paulín Montoya, one of the four owners of La Majada land grant in the 1700s. During the summer months, Montoya grazed his sheep on grassy clearings near the Valle Grande in the Jémez Mountains as well as on the mesas of La Majada and La Bajada. He was quite successful despite the droughts, but with the coming of the Forest Service, he was no longer able to graze his small flocks in the Valle Grande during the summers. Another farming family in La Bajada in the late 1880s was Sixto Leyba, his wife Antonia Sánchez, and their four sons (Pablo, José, Trinidad and Miguel), who all appear on the 1900 census. Antonia Sánchez was a pariente of Jacinto Sánchez, who lived on and owned a small portion of La Caja del Río Land Grant.


By 1904, preservationists backed by President Theodore Roosevelt succeeded in establishing the Forest Service. Ten million acres of forestland were set aside, including large portions of common lands and pasturelands located on Pueblo and Spanish land grants. Roads were built in order to open forests for clear-cutting, mining, watershed use and recreation. Villagers in communities such as La Bajada were now obligated to obtain permits for most of their customary (traditional) activities in nearby forests. Their philosophy of caring for the land, whether it lay in villages, mesas, or forests, predated the early preservationists, many of whom had never set foot in New Mexico Territory.


La Bajada Village, La Majada Land Grant and the Court of Private Land Claims, 1891-1904

On Sept. 24, 1894, La Majada Land Grant was surveyed again, after validation by the U.S. Court of Private Land Claims. Deputy Surveyor Albert J. Easley surveyed the grant once more in October 1895 at 54,404.10 acres. However, the Caja Del Rió Land Grant had overlapped La Majada Land Grant back in 1742, and the Cochiti Pueblo grant was overlapped by both the Majada and Caja del Río grants. The Santo Domingo Pueblo grant was also overlapped by La Majada grant. To remedy this tangled situation, in 1903 a suit was filed in Santa Fe District Court by the owners of the Caja del Río Grant in order to clear their title. Cochiti Pueblo promptly intervened to protect its land.


The results were mixed. La Bajada Village and La Majada Land Grant would end up with less land because the Caja del Río overlap was to go to its heirs, with La Majada giving up over 28,404 acres plus an additional 4,000 acres to Cochiti and Santo Domingo pueblos. The Caja del Río claims to the southern portion of its grant remained the same. Once the dust cleared, La Majada was left with just 22,000 of its original 54,404 acres. The court upheld the claims of the Caja del Rió Grant owners, but ruled against them on their western boundary where they overlapped into the Cochiti Pueblo Land Grant. A patent covering lands embraced within La Majada grant including the village of La Bajada was finally issued on Oct. 26, 1908. (Sources: Journal 231 misc. records of the Court of Private Land Claims and La Majada Grant, No F-224, Miscellaneous records of the Surveyor General of New Mexico). By 1904, the last year for the Court of Private Land Claims, 95 percent of New Mexican Land Grant lands had been lost through chicanery, forgery, false claims and documents, confiscation by U.S. government agencies, squatters, illegal sales and various combinations of same.


By 1912, when New Mexico gained statehood after 62 years of struggle, local representation in national, state and county politics began. Some of La Bajada Village’s young men enlisted in the army in during World War I (1914–1918), leaving their families behind. The villagers were fortunate in 1917 to have parientes (relatives) like Cipriano Lucero of Peña Blanca and Escolástico C’ de Baca in the New Mexico House of Representatives, who fought for state appropriations for road improvements, laws for land and water protection and assistance from the agricultural extension service. (Records of the House of Representatives, 1917, NM State Records and Archives; Laws of the State of NM passed by the 3rd session of the NM Legislature, 1917).


After the war, in 1918 those who survived returned to the village at La Bajada. Many worked their fields, but others were able to find work making improvements to the road on the 900-foot ascent up the mesa and assisting tour buses and cars (driving their vehicles or pulling them up with mules and horses) as they struggled up and down the switchbacks that became New Mexico Highway 1. A few families left La Bajada and went to work in the coal mines in nearby Madrid. By 1926, some were hired to work on the new highway alignment for U.S 66/285 and build a timber bridge over the Río Santa Fe atop the old concrete ford of the river.


In 1927, La Majada grant owners, including the village of La Bajada, were successful before the Pueblo Land Board, managing to protect some of the overlapping land on their southern border, adjacent to the northern border of the Santo Domingo Pueblo Land Grant. However, in 1930, before the same Pueblo Land Board, La Majada Grant owners entered a disclaimer and the villagers lost title to the lands on their grant that were involved in the conflict. As happened during the Spanish Colonial period, rulings in many cases involving Pueblo lands eventually came down in favor of the Pueblos. (Sources: District Court Records, No. 1430, U.S. District Court Records, No 2133 and Report to the Pueblo Land Board by Santo Domingo Pueblo)



Hilario E. Romero, a New Mexican mestizo (Spanish/Basque/Jicarilla Apache/Ute), is a former New Mexico state historian. He spent 42 years in higher education, as an administrator and professor of History, Spanish and Education at the Community College of Denver, Northern New Mexico College, University of Colorado-Denver, New Mexico Highlands University and UNM.




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