Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: Findings and Possible Options Regarding Longstanding Community Land Grant Claims in New Mexico
GAO-04-59: Jun 4, 2004
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Whether the United States has fulfilled its obligations under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, with respect to property rights held by traditional communities in New Mexico, has been a source of continuing controversy for over a century. The controversy has created a sense of distrust and bitterness among various communities and has led to confrontations with federal, state, and local authorities. Under the Treaty, which ended the Mexican-American War, the United States obtained vast territories in what is now the U.S. Southwest, from California to New Mexico. Much of this land was subject to pre-existing land grants to individuals, groups, and communities made by Spain and Mixico from the 17th to the mid-19th centuries, and the Treaty provided for U.S. recognition and protection of the property rights created by these grants. The effect of this alleged failure to implement the treaty properly, heirs contend, is that the United States either inappropriately acquired millions of acres of land for the public domain or else confirmed acreage to the wrong parties. According to some heirs, the resulting loss of land to grantees threatens the economic stability of small Mexican-American farms and the farmers' rural lifestyle. In response to a request by congressional members, this report: (1) describes the confirmation procedures by which the United States implemented the property protection provisions of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with respect to community land grants located in New Mexico, and the results produced by those procedures; (2) identifies and assesses concerns regarding these procedures as they pertain to the government's confirmation of these grants from 1854 to 1904; (3) identifies and assesses concerns regarding acreage transferred voluntarily or involuntarily after the confirmation procedures were completed; and (4) identifies possible options that Congress may wish to consider in response to remaining community land grant concerns.
Over a 50-year period starting in 1854, Congress directed implementation of the property protection provisions of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in New Mexico for community land grants through two distinct and successive procedures. First, in the 1854 Act, Congress established the Office of the Surveyor General of New Mexico within the General Land Office of the Department of the Interior (Interior). The Surveyor General was charged with investigating the land grant claims and, through Interior, making recommendations to Congress for final action. The Surveyor General investigated claims under the process established by the 1854 Act from 1854 to 1891, and Congress confirmed the vast majority of grants recommended for confirmation before the Civil War in the early 1860s. After several attempts at reform, Congress ultimately revised the confirmation process in 1891 with passage of the 1891 Act. The 1891 Act established a new entity, the Court of Private Land Claims (CPLC), to resolve both new and remaining claims for lands in New Mexico (and certain other territories and states). In part to prevent the type of fraud and corruption which had characterized some of the claims filed in New Mexico and California, Congress directed the CPLC to apply stricter legal criteria for approval of land grants than Congress had established for the Surveyor General of New Mexico. Either the claimant or the U.S. government could appeal the CPLC's decisions directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could review claims de novo, that is, without giving a presumption of correctness to the CPLC's rulings. Like the CPLC, however, the Supreme Court was bound by the same legal criteria in determining whether a grant should be confirmed: title to the land must have been "lawfully and regularly derived" under Spanish or Mexican law. The CPLC adjudicated land grant claims from 1891 through 1904. In discussing the results of these two confirmation procedures in New Mexico, land grant scholars often have reported that only 24 percent of the acreage claimed in New Mexico was awarded, for both community and individual grants, in contrast to the percentage of acreage awarded in California of 73 percent. In our judgment, the percentage of claimed acreage that was awarded for New Mexico grants was actually 55 percent, because the acreage that can fairly be viewed as having been claimed is considerably smaller than that cited by land grant scholars, with the result that a larger proportion of acreage was actually awarded. Land grant heirs and scholars commonly refer to acreage that was not awarded during the confirmation process as "lost" acreage, and thus it is said that community land grants "lost" 3.42 million acres during the confirmation process. The circumstances surrounding this perceived loss have been a concern of land grant heirs for more than a century.