Old Times and Old Timers

by Don Bullis

The Saga of Baca Location No. 1

A The vast caldera was called Baca Location No. 1 in the 1860s but soon acquired a more popular name: The Valle Grande. Today it is called the Valles Caldera National Preserve. It occupies nearly 90,000 acres in northeastern Sandoval County between La Cueva and the Los Alamos County line.

The story of its convoluted ownership involves some of New Mexico’s more interesting events and people. For centuries, in the times before recorded history, it was Indian land. Many tribes made use of its abundant resources. Navajo activities in the area kept the place in the public domain for many years after the arrival of Spanish settlers and Americans after 1846. Events many miles from the caldera would determine its eventual ownership.

In 1821, Don Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca petitioned and received a sizable grant of land around the present day city of Las Vegas, New Mexico. The extent to which the Cabeza de Baca family used the land has been in dispute from that day until this, but indications are that they used at least part of it from time to time. In 1835, though, another group petitioned for, and received, a grant of land with boundaries very similar to the earlier grant. Tomas Dolores Cabeza de Baca, Don Luis’ grandson, protested the second grant to Governor Manuel Armijo, but to no avail.

The American occupation nine years later changed everything. Because the Americans pledged to respect earlier land grants, a surveyor general was appointed, and one of his first orders of business was to require documentation regarding ownership of the various grants. The Cabeza de Baca family saw this as an opportunity to recover their grant, and they retained attorney John S. Watts in 1854. Watts went to work on the matter while the beneficiaries of the second grant also took action to protect their own interests. By 1858 the matter had reached the desk of Surveyor General William Pelham.

Pelham was a cautious man. It took him two years to consider the matter, and then in 1860 he ruled with Solomon-like wisdom that both claims were valid, and the United States Congress with equal astuteness agreed with him. It appears that John Watts engineered the whole thing. He may have suggested to Pelham that the Cabeza de Baca family would be interested receiving land elsewhere in exchange for dropping their claim to the earlier grant in San Miguel County. Congress still faced the problem of how to reconcile the matter, and since Watts was by then New Mexico’s delegate to congress (non-voting since New Mexico was a territory), he was in a position to help. He suggested that a one-for-one deal would not be satisfactory, and when congress finally authorized the exchange, it provided thus: “it shall be lawful for the heirs of Luis Maria Baca, who made claim to the same tract of land as is claimed by the Town of Las Vegas, to select, in lieu of the land claimed by them, and equal quantity of vacant land . . . in the Territory of New Mexico . . . not exceeding five in number (emphasis added).”

The Cabeza de Baca family made the first selection, and it was of the Valle Grande, and thus it came to be called Baca Location No. 1. Members of the family had lived at Peña Blanca for many years and they were quite familiar with the potential the location offered. Watts named the four other allotments: Baca Location No. 2 was located just north of present day Tucumcari; Location No. 3 was just north of Nogales, Arizona; No. 4 was in the San Luis Valley section of southern Colorado; and No. 5 was north of Prescott, Arizona. Each of them was approximately square and about 100,000 acres in size.

Ownership of Baca Location No. 1 was soon in question. The place was just too desirable to be left alone, and besides, there were too many “heirs” involved. Historian Craig Martin says, “Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca had 24 children, and by 1860 his descendants included 88 grandchildren and about 60 great-grandchildren. Shared ownership of the Baca Location No. 1 brought benefits to many family members and many other residents of the region. Only when the concept of shared community resources collided with the American view of property ownership did problems arise. And the “American view” did not necessarily involve the use of the land as much as speculation in its value.

Several speculators took an interest in the place, lawyer Tom Catron and Mariano S. Otero, a noted real estate man among them. The Whitney family of New England and California also bought in. They were able to do so because many of the Cabeza de Baca heirs, as a result of deaths in the family, and re-divisions of ownership, ended up with small ownership percentages that they did not perceive as particularly useful to them. The seven children of one branch of the family, for example, ended up with one seventh of one eighteenth of the property, or a 126th interest. So, many of the heirs were willing to sell their interests to the speculators.

Tom Catron’s interest was simply an extension of his efforts to capitalize on New Mexico land grants. He was an active participant in the partition of the Maxwell land grant in northeastern New Mexico, and according to one source, he held ownership interests in more than 30 land grants. He also speculated in ranch lands around the territory. Mariano Otero was active in many commercial interests. In one of them he and his uncle, Miguel A. Otero I, wanted to develop a railroad from Bernalillo, through San Ysidro and San Diego Canyon, to Jemez Springs. It would enable tourists to take advantage of the hot-springs. Mariano Otero already owned land in San Diego Canyon, so additional property interests in Baca Location No. 1 was a natural.

The Whitneys were arrogant and high-handed in their New Mexico land dealings. They had previously assumed ownership of land in the Estancia Valley, east of Albuquerque, the title to which was in some dispute as members of the Otero clan also claimed ownership. The result was a gunfight in which Manuel B. Otero — Mariano’s first cousin — was killed and James Whitney severely wounded. The Whitneys forced the issue of the ownership of Baca Location No. 1 by demanding partition of it so they could claim their own specific piece of land, a little over one third of the grant. Catron and Otero immediately disputed the size of the claim, and opposed partition by acreage noting that the value of the place would be diminished considerably if it was broken into smaller plots.

Next month: How Baca Location No.1 got to be Valles Caldera National Preserve.