Land, Violence and Death: The Bartolome Baca Grant
by Michael Miller
In 1819, Bartolome Baca petitioned Governor Facundo Melgares for a grant covering a tract of land situated east of the Abo mountains near a place called Torreon. He described the boundaries to the governor in this way: “On the north, by the Monte del Cibolo; on the east, by the Estancia Springs; on the south, by the Ojo del Cuebro; and on the west by the Abo mountains.”
Baca assured the governor that he would establish a permanent ranch and consolidate all of his herds at this place. He also promised to build a presa (dam) and set up an acequia system for future settlement. The governor accepted his proposal and sent the alcalde (mayor) of Tome, Jose Garcia de la Mora, to inspect the land grant boundaries. Baca, who served as captain of the volunteer militia in Albuquerque, carried out his duties as captain “with honor and valor” according to Alcalde Garcia, and as a reward for these services he placed him in legal possession of the grant.
According to archival records, Bartolome Baca continued to live at San Fernando and never personally moved to the grant, but he used it for pasturage for his livestock. These same documents state that he grazed 40,000 head of sheep, 900 head of cattle, and 300 mares on the grant. Don Bartolome built a large ranch house and corrals at Estancia Springs for his three sons Jose, Juan, and Manuel who managed the ranch for him. He was able to operate at a profit until 1833. At that time the Navajos stepped up the killing of his borregueros (shepherds) and stole most of his livestock. Continuous raids by the Navajos eventually forced him to abandon the grant.
Many of the vaqueros who worked the ranch moved to the Town of Manzano, which had been granted a tract of land in 1829, Baca supported their move because of the lack of defense against the Navajo raids. Between 1831 and 1845, five additional grants—the Nerio Antonio Montoya, Town of Tajique, Town of Chilili, Town of Torreon, and Antonio Sandoval—were made within the out boundaries of the Bartolome Baca Grant.
The most notable of the grantees at that time was Antonio Sandoval, “for his services to the government of Mexico.” Sandoval, a roving Spanish soldier, soon grew restless with ranching and sold his grant to Gervacio Nolan. Following Bartolome Baca’s death his widow and his sons asserted no claim to the grant until 1877. His grandson found the original grant documents in a petaca (trunk) among his grandfather’s personal possessions. Surprisingly, the signature of Governor Melgares was torn from the corner of the original land grant petition. Shortly, after the discovery of these documents Baca’s heirs sold their interests in the grant to Manuel A. Otero. At the time, Otero thought little of the missing signature, but later it was to influence the legal outcome of the grant.
Otero, who was somewhat knowledgeable of American ways, presented his claim to the Surveyor General’s office. Henry Atkinson, the presiding judge, found the 1819 proceedings of Governor Melgares and Bartolome Baca invalid according to United States law. The heirs of Gervacio Nolan, claimants to the Estancia Grant, protested the confirmation of the Bartolome Baca grant on the grounds that Governor Melgares was an acting governor and did not have the authority to expand the boundaries of the Baca claim. They also claimed that the expediente (proceedings) had not been returned for the approval of the governor as directed, the grant had been abandoned by Baca and his family and large portions of the grant had been re-granted to other parties. Atkinson’s investigation rendered several conclusions.
He held that the title papers appeared to be authentic, but they did not amount to a complete grant. He also concluded that the claimant’s title papers were actually the testimonial of the grant and that the expediente could have been lost due to the mishandling of the land grant archives by the United States government following the U.S. occupation of New Mexico. He stated that Governor Melgares’ decree was an order to investigate and report on the status of Bartolome Baca’s claim and was subject to approval by Governor Melgares. For this reason, he declared, the United States was under no obligation to recognize the grant. He also ruled that Baca was given only temporary permission to graze his livestock on the grant. Finally, he rendered the decision that Baca’s heirs abandoned the grant and the Mexican government re-granted major portions of the grant to third parties. For these reasons, Judge Atkinson rejected the claim to the Bartolome Baca grant.
The unexpected death of the elder Otero placed his son Manuel B. Otero in charge of family affairs. This included the burden of securing legal title to the Bartolome Baca grant. Manuel B. Otero was well prepared for a good fight. He was described as, “a handsome man of splendid physique who inherited the strict integrity of his father as well as his uncompromising pride in Spanish blood.” He was a graduate of a German university, he was loved and admired by his men, and his popularity and education brought him many rewards including a thorough knowledge of American law. When Manuel returned to New Mexico from Germany he married Eloisa Luna. Eloisa was the daughter of Antonio Jose Luna, the patriarch of the Rio Abajo and the founder of the village of Los Lunas. This marriage made Manuel Otero one of the richest and most powerful men in New Mexico.
The heirs of Gervacio Nolan tried to sell their interest in the conflicting Estancia grant to Otero for $5,000.00. However, Otero’s lawyer claimed the title was worthless and refused to pay a cent. Years later this action was viewed as a major error in judgment by Miguel Otero, the former governor of the territory of New Mexico. According to Governor Otero in his book, My Life on the Frontier, the purchase of Nolan’s title would have secured ownership of the Bartolome Baca land grant for Manuel Otero.
Life changed dramatically when New Mexico became a territory of the United States. Previously, land held in the Spanish and Mexican way was held in a complex form of tenure involving individual and community rights. Unlike the communal importance placed on Spanish and Mexican landholding, the market exchange of the land and its resources was of first importance in the U.S. system. This system was not concerned with social and political factors such as ethnic origins, class, community membership, and kinship as was the Spanish and Mexican practice of land tenure. Consequently, American settlement brought large scale land speculation in a new form to the territory. The process was further complicated by the radical contrast between Hispano and U.S. land tenure systems, the inadequate bureaucracy established by the United States Congress to deal with land grant litigation and the large number of unscrupulous newcomers and natives who sought to use the confused state of affairs to their own advantage.
Joel Whitney, a wealthy Boston capitalist, entered the saga of the Bartolome Baca grant when he purchased the claim from the Gervacio Nolan heirs in 1878. Believing the title to be perfect, he sent his brother James to New Mexico to take charge of his newly acquired estate. James Whitney set up a ranch and began to graze about 25,000 head of cattle. It soon became apparent that a serious conflict would arise between the ranch hands hired by Whitney and the sheepherders working for Otero. There was the usual rivalry between sheep and cattlemen which was intensified in this case because of ethnic differences. Each patron (boss) was also claiming the same vast expanses of rich grazing land. Occasionally, trouble would occur between the two groups, but it simmered without a major incident until Whitney made his move.
There were several hundred squatters living on the Estancia grant. Whitney brought a test case in the courts against one of the squatters by the name of McAfee. A settlement was made when Whitney bought all the cattle and improvements owned by McAfee at a good price. In exchange, McAfee gave up all claims to his land. This decision had no precedence over the Baca-Estancia dispute. A separate lawsuit was filed between Whitney and Otero. Whitney grew impatient with the delays of the courts and decided to act. He was determined to treat Manuel Otero as a squatter as well, and rode to the Otero ranch house to evict Otero’s mayordomo, Jesus Chavez. Armed with a few rifles and pistols, Whitney, his brother-in-law, and a few cowboys took over the Otero ranch.
Chavez sent a message to Otero in La Constancia warning him of the trouble at the ranch. Otero rode at once to the scene accompanied by Carlos Armijo and several vaqueros. On the trail he met up with his brother-in-law, Dr. Henriques. The meeting between Otero and Whitney was tense. Otero was courteous but stern and Whitney was determined to get what he thought belonged to him. Otero asked Whitney for a writ of ejectment. Whitney told him that he did not have it with him. Otero told him that he was breaking the law. Whitney accused Otero of being a squatter and trespassing on his property and ordered him to vacate the premises immediately. Otero refused to vacate and told Whitney he was no squatter.
The argument came to a head quickly. There was an angry exchange of words, a threat, and several loud replies on both sides. Later testimony by the Whitney faction claimed Manuel Otero and his men were aggressively belligerent. James Whitney testified that he heard a gun click behind him and that he immediately drew his pistol. There was a scuffle and guns were fired. Somebody whipped out a gun and shot at Otero. There was another shot and Fernandez rolled under the bed he had been sitting on with a bullet in his heart. A barrage of gunfire followed. The Otero forces took possession of the ranch house and Manuel Otero was moved to another room where Dr. Henriques worked feverishly to save his life. By sundown Otero was dead. A crowd gathered outside the ranch house and began to threaten Whitney’s life. Whitney was loaded into a wagon and was rushed to St. Vincent sanitarium in Santa Fe.
Joel Whitney arrived from Boston several weeks later and made plans to move his brother out of the territory. He knew that Joel Whitney was under arrest, so he rigged up a contraption with ropes and pulleys and lowered his brother onto the street below. James was loaded into a carriage and driven to the train depot where he boarded Joel Whitney’s private Pullman car for a clean getaway. The next morning the hospital staff found his bed empty and notified the governor of the escape. The governor sent a telegram to the sheriff in Las Vegas with orders to capture James Whitney. SheriffEsquibel and Miguel Otero met the train just south of Las Vegas. Both men jumped aboard Whitney’s private car. Otero ran into Joel Whitney first. Whitney was a large man and he tried to stop Otero by pushing him back. Otero drew his pistol, pushed it into the big man’s stomach and told him to “back off.” Which he did. The private Pullman was uncoupled and was hooked to a south-bound train headed for Los Lunas. Whitney was now a prisoner. At the Lamy depot Sheriff Esquibel telegraphed Judge Bell and notified him of the capture of Joel Whitney. When the train arrived in Albuquerque, the judge met them and held court on the train. Bell issued an order to release Whitney on a $25,000.00 bond and he was allowed to accompany his brother to California. The newspaper, The New Mexico Review, later condemned Judge Bell’s action and openly charged that Whitney had bribed the judge, “for services in this matter.”
A year later, Joel Whitney returned to New Mexico for trial. His brother James hired two high-priced lawyers, E.A. Fiske and J. Francisco Chavez for his defense. The attorneys obtained a change of venue from ValenciaCounty to ColfaxCounty and managed to select an all white jury, a near impossibility at the time. Whitney’s case of self-defense seemed to be a strong one, but his brother took no chances. It was obvious during the trial that Joel Whitney had influenced presiding Judge Axtell in his brother’s favor. When Axtell addressed the jury and gave them instructions, his remarks were strongly in favor of the defendant. A short time later the jury returned with a verdict of, “Not Guilty.” The following day the Las Vegas Optic commented on the case: “They say that Whitney’s jury was the very best body of men who ever sat in a jury box in this territory. That is what Judge Axtell says and what Whitney thinks. But the people have not expressed themselves yet.” Ironically, after a lingering illness, James Whitney died from his wounds shortly after the trial.
A few years after the shooting incident, Eloisa Otero, Manuel’s widow and the daughter of Antonio Luna, married a young Italian by the name of A.M. Bergere. Bergere arrived in New MexicoTerritory around 1881, and worked as a trader for the Spiegelberg brothers in Santa Fe. He traveled from Colorado to Chihuahua, and on one of his business trips he met and fell in love with Eloisa Luna Otero. Together they filed suit in the Court of Private Land Claims for confirmation and clear title to the Bartolome Baca grant. At this time, the grant was estimated to be about a half a million acres, but the court denied approval of the entire claim. Instead they were given eleven leguas (leagues) or approximately forty-eight thousand acres. Bergere appealed this decision on behalf of his wife. His defense was based on several factors including the fact that the grant was issued under Spanish rule and not under Mexico. Spanish law did not require the filing of the expediente (proceedings) in the archive in Santa Fe. This was a major point of law in the case and was used by the American courts as a basis for denial of the grant. The case eventually went before the Supreme Court of the United States. The high court required proof that Governor Melgares had signed the original petition giving the grant to Bartolome Baca. Since the missing signature on the original document was never located, the suit was rejected and Eloisa Otero lost all claim to the land for which her late husband had died.
After rejection of the claim by the courts the remaining portions of land were open to the public domain. At the turn of the century, the New Mexico Central Railroad arrived and brought with it hundreds of homesteaders. Towns with names such as Cedarvale, Progresso, Willard, and Stanley sprang from the plains as more and more people took advantage of the homesteading opportunities in New Mexico. In 1913, the County of Torrance was created by the state legislature; soon after, a new influx of settlers arrived. The eerie shadow of land, violence, and death slowly faded into the vast expanses of the llano estacado. The Estancia valley entered the 20th century and a new era, which changed the course of New Mexico’s land grant history forever.
1. NMSRCA District Court Records, Valencia County, Criminal Case #559.
2. Territory of NM Supreme Court, Case # 159, Exp. #14.
3. United States vs. Bergere, 168 U.S. 66 (1897)
4. NMSRCA District Court Records, Colfax County, Criminal Case #730.
5. NMSRCA Fiske Papers, Folder #13.
6. NMSRCA Microfilm Edition of Land Records of New Mexico. S.G. 104, S.G. 126, PLC 58.
7. Las Vegas Daily Optic (newspaper)
8. Weekly New Mexican Review (newspaper)
9. Bowden, J.J. Private Land Claims in the Southwest, 6 vols. Masters Thesis, SMU, 1969.
10. Otero, Miguel Antonio My Life on the Frontier, N.Y. Press of the Pioneers, 1935-39.