Pueblo Villages, Land Grants and Spanish Villages in the Valle de Cochiti

A History of Peña Blanca and Its Lower Río Santa Fe Neighbors

By Hilario E. Romero

This is the second part of the general history of El Valle de Cochiti. This article deals with land conflicts throughout the Spanish, Mexican, U.S. Territorial and Statehood periods—centuries of encroachment that members of Cochiti Pueblo had to endure. It also continues the history of Peña Blanca published in the Sept. 2018 Green Fire Times, explaining that village’s part in the region’s history and some of the villagers’ contributions. 

Background: Spanish and U.S. Encroachment on Cochiti Pueblo and Santo Domingo Pueblo Lands

Las Leyes Nuevas of 1552, by King Carlos I, abolished slavery of the Tainos, Caribs and other Caribbean Indian tribes, created strict rules for the encomienda land-tenure system and restricted the authority of Spanish conquistadores. Those New Laws were quickly revised because of strong resistance from the colonial leaders as well as colonists. Viceroy Nuñez Vela was sent from Spain to New Spain to lead an army to Peru to oppose conquistador Francisco Pizarro in his revolt against the laws, but he died in battle.

Two decades later, in 1573, the newly promulgated Ordenanzas prohibited unauthorized military operations against unconquered groups of Native Americans. In 1680, King Carlos II issued the Recopilación de Las Leyes de Los Reynos de las Indias, which abolished the encomiendas, clarified the Pueblo Grants to measure “four square leagues” along with their ejidos (common lands), and enacted Spanish legal procedures for Pueblo land sales and purchases. The king authorized royal bureaucrats to exert authority over conquistadores and adelantados (wealthy military front men), in an effort to control the Crown’s colonies.

Gov. Diego de Vargas, who had laid waste to Old Cochiti Pueblo and its inhabitants in 1693, ignored the stipulations of the Recopilación and in 1695 granted La Majada, which overlaid Cochiti Pueblo’s northeastern boundary, to one of his soldiers, Jacinto Paláez. On Feb. 20, 1703, Gov. Pedro Rodriguez Cubero made a grant to Doña Juana Baca of land located between the Cochiti and Santo Domingo Pueblo grants. In 1722, Santo Domingo and Cochiti Pueblos entered into a land dispute that included this parcel. Both pueblos asked that the Protector of Indians investigate the sale. It was resolved by Alfonso Real Aguilar, the Protector of Indians, who issued a judgement from his report to Gov. Alberto Maynez, who approved it. (SANM I: Document #1343)

In 1728, La Cañada de Cochiti Grant was given to Antonio Lucero by Gov. Juan Domingo Bustamante. It included the Old Pueblo de Cochiti and extended west to the Jémez mountains. Cochiti Pueblo was not notified of this action. Alcalde Andrés Montoya, also a landowner in the area, placed Antonio Lucero in possession of the land on Aug. 6, 1728, claiming that there were no objections to the grant. Andrés Montoya was the grandson of Pedro Montoya, an encomendero who had received annual tribute from Cochiti Pueblo. (Malcolm Ebright: “Cochiti and Its Neighbors.” Center for Land Grant Studies, 2005)

In 1730, the Santa Barbara de Sile Grant, northeast of Santo Domingo Pueblo, was given to Diego Gallegos and others. Gallegos’ widow deeded it to Santo Domingo in 1748, possibly to settle a lawsuit. Refugees from Navajo raids at La Cañada de Cochiti Grant resettled at Sile in 1790, establishing El Rancho de Cubero, which became the nucleus for another petition: the Santa Rosa de Cubero Land Grant of 1805. During the 1820s, Santo Domingo Pueblo filed a lawsuit that won its return. Families then moved to Peña Blanca. (Fray Angelico Chavez, “Valle de Cochiti” New Mexico Magazine, Jan/Feb, 1973, p.16)

In 1739, Gov. Gaspar Domingo de Mendoza gave El Capulín as a grazing grant to Andrés Montoya, whose request had been facilitated by his son, Capitan Antonio Montoya. Its southern boundary was one league distant from the northern boundary of Cochiti Pueblo. In 1765, grandsons Miguel and Domingo Montoya Romero settled on the land, where they built houses and corrals. Alcalde Bartolomé Fernández reported this infraction to Gov. Tomás Veléz Cachupín. After the proceedings, the Romero brothers were directed to move off the land. (SANM I, Document #1352)

In 1742, Gov. Gaspar Domingo de Mendoza gave La Caja del Río Grant to Nicolás Ortiz, grandfather of the well-known Antonio José Ortiz. This grant overlapped both the Cochiti Pueblo Grant and La Majada Land Grant. El Rancho del Ojito de La Santa Cruz, where a close relative of Antonio José Ortiz lived in the early 1800s. Luís María Cabeza de Vaca lived a short time on this ranch with his first wife and children, as his grandfather had married this Ortiz. (J.J. Bowden, Private Land Claims of the Southwest Master’s Thesis/SMU Vol. II and Ortiz Family Papers, NM State Records and Archives.)

The small Juan Montes Vigil grant of 1754 (Peña Blanca, about 400 acres south of Cochiti Pueblo) was inside the southeastern tip of La Majada Land grant. The José de la Peña Ranch (aka Peña Blanca Ranch) was also located within this grant. It would later belong to heiress Ana María Sánchez, who married Luís María Cabeza de Vaca. Luís María would later coerce members of the Pueblo of Cochiti—through bribes, lockups and time in the stocks—to sell lands within the boundaries. When Cochiti Pueblo decided to ask its Protector of Indians, Felipe Sandoval, to report the encroachment to Gov. Maynez, the governor ruled that “the Cochiti League must always remain free.” Little did he know that Luís María’s houses and corrals were encroaching on Cochiti land.” In 1766, Gov. Tomás Veléz Cachupín awarded Cochiti Pueblo an ejido (common lands) grazing grant west of Cochiti Pueblo to be used for pasturing livestock. Alcalde Juan María Ribera reported to Gov. Tomás Veléz Cachupín that the land described in the petition presented by Protector of Indians Felipe Tafoya was good for pasturing livestock and would not interfere with their neighbors. This grant was later rejected by the U.S. Surveyor General and the Court of Private Land Claims. (J.J. Bowden, pp. 1256-1259, Ebright, pp. 22-24)

On Dec. 31, 1816, Francisco Antonio de Landa, the king’s attorney, sent a document to Gov. Pedro María de Allande, sharing his opinion regarding a land purchase by Cochiti Pueblo. Gov. Allande, who had already appointed Pedro Bautista Pino and a number of commissioners, attending witnesses and “attorneys in fact,” and directed the measurement of holdings belonging to Cochiti and Santo Domingo pueblos. The results were reported to the Audiencia Real (Royal Tribune) at Guadalajara. (SANM I, Document # 1362)

On Jan. 16, 1817, the king’s attorney asked the Audiencia to require the governor of New Mexico to transmit all relevant documents from Santa Fe to Mexico City. On Jan. 25, the Audiencia agreed to hear the case. On Jan. 31, Cochiti Pueblo, through its Protector, José Joaquin Reyes, filed a land suit with the Audiencia requesting annulment of a sale of two properties: the Peña Blanca Ranch (aka the José de la Peña Ranch), occupied by Luís María Cabeza de Vaca and situated within the southern boundary of the Cochiti land grant, and El Rancho del Ojito de la Santa Cruz within Cochiti’s eastern boundary. In 1744, Cochiti Pueblo purchased the latter two properties from Bartolomé Fernández, grandson of the original grantee, for the sum of 1,500 pesos. (SANM I, Document #1361)  

Five months later, on May 28, 1817, the expediente (file) was sent to the Audiencia so that entity could decide the matter in dispute, which now included the land in Sile, on the west side of the Río Grande south of Cochiti. (SANM, Document # 1362) The governor also appointed Vicente Villanueva to represent Cochiti Pueblo in this suit as Protector of the Indians. Behind the scenes, Pedro Bautista Pino and Ignacio María Vegara, who looked after the king’s interests as Promotor Fiscal, were trying to convince Gov. Allande to make the land public domain. Luís María Cabeza de Vaca, Vicente Villanueva and other landowners in the area were also pressuring the governor to do this. Once the case went before the Audiencia, José Joaquín Reyes reported that the land should be returned to Cochiti and Santo Domingo pueblos. The Audiencia agreed, and the order was enacted. Those occupying the Rancho de Cubero remained in Sile, Ortiz’s descendants remained on the Ojito, and Cabeza de Vaca remained on the ranch at Peña Blanca until his death in 1827. (Herbert O. Brayer, Pueblo Indian Land Grants of the “Rio Abajo” New Mexico. Alb.: UNM Press, pp.116-118 and Ebright, pp. 28-30)

It is probable that Cochiti Pueblo purchased Ojito Ranch in 1744 in order to retrieve a portion of aboriginal lands, which had belonged to them until the Spanish authorities overlaid grants for Spanish settlers. That portion included the spring (ojito) as well as pasturelands and sacred sites.

By the time U.S. invaded New Mexico in 1846, those overlapping claims remained unsettled. In 1854, with the appointment of a Surveyor General, the U.S. government began to survey all Spanish and Pueblo land grants. Cochiti Pueblo would have to deal with a new set of laws and a government that not only did not recognize Native Americans as citizens, but also actively created policies to isolate, destroy or assimilate them. However, in 1858, the Cochiti Pueblo Grant was surveyed and confirmed by the U.S. Congress. It was patented on Nov. 1, 1864 in the amount of 24,256.61 acres. The U.S. Court of Private Land Claims was convened in 1891. Somehow, the people of Cochiti were not advised that La Majada and La Caja del Río grants would be considered by the court, which confirmed and patented them in their original form. (Bowden, p. 1266, Brayer, p. 122)  

In 1903, another suit was brought before the District Court in Santa Fe regarding the Caja del Río and La Majada overlaps. In 1904, Cochiti Pueblo intervened in the suit because the area in dispute would harm their claims. Cochiti Pueblo was represented by Francis C. Wilson, special attorney for the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico. For the first time, the pueblo introduced the 1744 deed. The suit was to partition La Majada Land Grant to the heirs of Jacinto Paláez and Benjamin Pankey. The latter had a large ranch on the San Cristobal Land Grant. The court did not give any reason for denying the pueblo’s claim for its 25,000 acres. (Brayer, p.120)   

In 1930, the Pueblo Lands Board sought to clear the title to all lands within the exterior boundaries of the Cochiti Pueblo Grant and “extinguished” 172 non-Indian private holdings of 261.69 acres but found an additional 79 “unextinguished” claims. The U.S. District Court for New Mexico awarded the Indians of Cochiti 37 claims and awarded 34 to non-Indian claimants. Cochiti Pueblo recovered 5,312.84 acres and the non-Indian claimants 379.36 acres. According the secretary of the Interior, in 1936 the population of Cochiti Pueblo was 309. (Brayer, p. 122)

Still, there were more titles to clear. In 1959, before the Indian Claims Commission, Cochiti Pueblo filed a petition seeking compensation for the loss of the approximately 25,000 acres that they purchased from Bartolomé Fernández in 1744. Despite their clear evidence and aboriginal claim, their lawyer failed to protect the pueblo’s interests. The commission used the confirmations of the two overlapping grants—La Majada and Caja del Río—as the main reason for denying Cochiti any compensation. It claimed that it had no jurisdiction to correct the wrong done to the pueblo. (Ebright, p.41-44)

In 1963, the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Indian Affairs came up with a plan to build a dam and lake on the Río Grande just above Cochiti Pueblo under the authority of the Flood Control Act of 1960. The Tribal Council rejected this plan. But the Bureau and Army Corps returned several years later to present the plan again. They tried to convince the tribe that it would bring economic development. The Tribal Council was divided. Pressured by the threat of condemnation of their land, they acquiesced, and construction began in 1965. According to Pueblo leader Regis Pecos, all the elders could do was watch passively:

“They spoke with a deep sense of hurt that they had failed as the stewards and protectors of this incredible, beautiful and sacred place to our Pueblo people. It was the heart of what gave meaning to our lives… One of the most emotional periods of our history was watching our ancestors torn from their resting places, removed during the excavations… The places of worship were dynamited, destroyed and desecrated by the construction.” (Regis Pecos, History of Cochiti Lake from the Pueblo Perspective, 47 Natural Resources Journal 639, 2007 p. 642)

In 1973, Cochiti Dam was opened to the public. While it was being built, another plan touted as an economic boon for the tribe had moved forward to create a subdivision next to the lake. Great Western Cities Corporation sought to create Cochiti Lake City, which it projected would serve 50,000 residents on 7,000 acres leased to the developer for 99 years. Construction commenced in 1972 and approximately 300 lots were gradually sub-leased for buyers who began building homes. However, in 1984, the corporation filed for bankruptcy and the leasing stopped.  

Cochiti Pueblo then created the Cochiti Pueblo Development Corporation, investing a million dollars to become the developers themselves. The plan was to prevent other developers from stepping in, allowing the pueblo to control the scale of the project.

However, another proposal—for hydro-electric generation—diverted attention away from the pueblo’s plan. Cochiti Pueblo prepared to go court in opposition but realized that it would have to release sacred religious information, so it walked away from the fight. Congressman Bill Richardson took it up in the U.S Congress on behalf of the tribe. Just before adjournment, his legislation passed, preventing hydro-electric power at that site. Today the population of the Cochiti Lake development is diverse. Of the approximately 598 people, 60 percent are white, 20 percent Native American, 12 percent Hispanic, and 8 percent other races. Cochiti Pueblo was able to downsize the development after all. (Pecos, p. 647 and the U.S. Census Update, 2018)

Peña Blanca – 1800 to 1920

Despite the conflicts of the overlapping land grants in the area, Peña Blanca was originally settled on approximately 400 acres. Gradually, through encroachments, it expanded into Cochiti land. Luís María Cabeza de Vaca moved from Santa Fe to the Rancho del Ojito Santa Cruz in the late 1700s, onto the same land Cochiti Pueblo had claimed in its 1817 suit. When Luís married his second wife, an heiress to the Juan Montes Vigil Land Grant, he moved his family from El Rancho del Ojito to the José de la Peña Ranch (aka Peña Blanca Ranch). Shortly thereafter, he offered to buy Cochiti land north of the ranch. In 1827, he was shot at his ranch by a Mexican soldier after an altercation involving contraband from an American trapper.

Upon arrival of the U.S. Army of the West in 1846, many of the village’s residents took up arms and joined the New Mexican patriots at Cañoncito, 12 miles east of Santa Fe. However, when Gov. Armijo abandoned New Mexico and took his troops south to El Paso, that group, realizing that they were few and poorly armed, decided to return to their homes and regroup. With the U.S. military occupation of New Mexico, Peña Blanca’s location off the Camino Real made it less vulnerable to troops that passed through. The village continued to trade with Chihuahua, México via El Camino Real until the turn of the 20th century.

After the Territorial Constitution was approved in 1850, the counties of New Mexico were created. One of the first 10 was Santa Ana County, with its seat at Peña Blanca. By 1880, however, Bernalillo County had merged into Santa Ana. In 1909, Sandoval County was formed to include the Valle of Cochiti and all its towns, villages and pueblos. Peña Blanca, no longer a county seat, abandoned its courthouse, which was later converted into a family home (see photo).

From its beginnings, Peña Blanca did not have a church with a full-time pastor. La Capilla de la Santísima Trinidad (Chapel of the Holy Trinity) was a visita (visitation site) attached to Santo Domingo Pueblo. Their full-time pastor visited the chapel whenever possible, but baptisms, marriages and funerals were conducted at the Santo Domingo Mission Church. Finally, in 1867, the priests serving the area’s parishioners moved their headquarters to Peña Blanca. Two years earlier, Juan Antonio C de Baca had donated land to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe for the purpose of building a parish church, along with a rectory and cemetery. The church was dedicated to Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe on Dec. 12, 1869, the Day of Guadalupe. (Virginia E. Quintana y Ortiz. Tradition & Heritage: History of the Parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Peña Blanca, NM. LPD Press, 2007, p. 18 

The heirs of Luís María Cabeza de Vaca were so numerous that the land he owned in Peña Blanca could not provide for all of them. Some went to Vegas Grandes initially, but were forced out by Pawnee and Comanche raids. When the Town of Las Vegas Land Grant was given to a group of colonists in 1835, descendants of Luís María Cabeza de Vaca received five locations of 100,000 acres each in northern New Mexico and what would become Colorado. Those who remained in Peña Blanca restored the homes of their ancestors. One of them was Tomás Cabeza de Vaca, a successful farmer. That family shows up on the 1860 census with head of household, Tomás Baca, 51, along with his wife, Maria Gertrudes, 24, and six children. In the 1870 census, Tomás shows up with the surname C de Baca, age 61, wife María Gertrudes, 36, 12 children, and one domestic servant. Their house in the middle of Peña Blanca village was still standing in the 20th century (see photo), as was another residence, the Montoya house (see photo). (Paul A.F. Walter. Pena Blanca and the Early Inhabitants of the Santa Fe Valley El Palacio, October,1915 and U.S. Census, 1870, Santa Ana County, Peña Blanca)

In 1891, the Court of Private Land Claims that convened in Santa Fe encouraged land grantees to search for documents related to their land grants. The Court would hear cases from Land Grant communities and determine authenticity of documents, review the Surveyor General’s surveys and recommendations, and act on adjudicating each grant. When the grants of the Valle de Cochiti were heard during the 1890s, most were approved.   

Early in the 20th century, several leaders emerged from Peña Blanca to initiate a long period of involvement in State of New Mexico political affairs, beginning with Escolástico C de Baca and Cipriano Lucero, state representatives in the Third New Mexico Assemblies of 1917 and 1918. Many young Peña Blanca men joined the army and were sent to the European front, decreasing the village’s population. (Quintana Y Ortiz, pp. 6-7)

The history of the Valle de Cochiti was one of land conflicts. Much of the tillable land near water sources, and in this case, along the Río Grande, was occupied Pueblo land. As more settlers arrived, available farmlands became increasingly few. The settlers searched for lands near the pueblos for survival. The Pueblos and the settlers did not always oppose each other. They joined forces against tribes invading the surrounding valley. They also traded goods and celebrated together. Coexistence was necessary for mutual advantage during the changes of new governments and their laws. Most of the conflicts during the Spanish, Mexican and U.S. periods were a result of leaders and their greedy, powerful, affluent friends, not the common people who worked hard to survive and subsist alongside their neighbors in a difficult land.

For more detailed reading on this subject, see: Cochiti Pueblo and Its Neighbors by Malcolm Ebright (Center for Land Grant Studies, 2005), History of Cochiti Lake from the Pueblo Perspective by Regis Pecos (Natural Resources Journal, 2007) and Valle de Cochiti (New Mexico Magazine, Jan/Feb 1972) by Fray Angelico Chávez.  

Hilario E. Romero, an author and former New Mexico state historian, is a retired history, Spanish and education professor of 40 years. He is currently a board member, publications chair and international liaison for the Camino Real Trail Association.


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