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This Day in Labor History: February 2, 1848


On February 2, 1848, the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the war the U.S. launched against Mexico to steal land and extend slavery. Mexico was forced to cede the northern half of the nation to the United States. That would have enormous implications of the lives and the work cultures of the Spanish-speaking people who lived there. This post considers that issue with the farmers of northern New Mexico.

The Spanish (and then the Mexicans after independence in 1821) settled the far northern lands of New Spain/Mexico through creating land grants. Some of these were given to an individual, others to a group of families to start a village. It took a good long while to get most of these going because the northern edge of New Mexico was also the land of the Comanches, who in the 18th century were the stronger nation. Those settling on these land grants were taking a big risk with their lives, and warfare, capture, slavery, and death was common until after 1779, when the defeat of Cuerno Verde mostly moved the Comanche out of the Rockies and onto the Plains.

On these land grants, the Spanish settlers created their own work culture. Living in centralized small villages, the settlers engaged in a pastoral economy. They grazed sheep and goats, raised cows, sold timber, did a bit of mining, fished, and hunted. They build acequias to irrigate their crops. Some of the land was privately owned but the vast majority of these grants were ejidos, or common lands. They were somewhat connected to larger markets through Santa Fe, but this was largely a self-sufficient life. They were certainly not getting rich off this work. This was hard labor for very little money. Periodic droughts and high elevations made life pretty precarious. But it was their work culture and their land.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed the land grants. This was very important to the Mexican government. Article VIII stated:

Property of every kind, now belonging to Mexicans now established there shall be inviolably respected. The present owners, the heirs of these, and all Mexicans who may hereafter acquire said properties by contract, shall enjoy with respect to its guarantees equally ample as if the same belonged to citizens of the United States.

But of course once the treaty was signed, it was only the United States enforcing the agreement. And these lands were among the best in New Mexico Territory. Anglo lawyers, often working for wealthy land owners and eastern investors, began to discover ways to break the land grants. The grants had to be reviewed and confirmed by American courts through a surveying process and a then a patent filing. Of the around 1000 grants, only 48 were confirmed before 1891 and only 22 of those patented. American courts didn’t understand (and didn’t try to understand) the communal property of the grants and made little effort to do so. Every territorial appointee until 1897 was an Anglo; the land grant residents had no access to the a political system they didn’t understand, which was infused with white racism against them in any case. The Hispano farmers were poor and colonized. Legal proceedings were conducted in English and often without translators. Conditions were ripe for whites to rip them off and acquire the common lands.

Leading this charge was Thomas Catron, a wealthy lawyer who acquired (either in whole or in part) 34 New Mexico land grants and at one time owned three million acres of land, making him the largest private landowner in American history. Eighty percent of the land grants were lost to residents in the late nineteenth century. Catron and others would approach individual grantees and offer to buy their claims for a pittance; economically desperate and without knowledge of the American legal system, some began to sell for as a low as a quarter an acre. Soon entire grants were being purchased for almost nothing, often without the consent of all the people who had a stake in it. The speculators and lawyers would get farmers to sign a power of attorney agreement for the land in a language they could not understand and without being told what it meant–which was the loss of the right to use the common lands. Some lawyers even told people to sign a document they said was of no real importance, but was in fact selling their land. This land was then usually sold to mining or timber companies, used for huge grazing operations as railroads were built connecting New Mexico to east coast markets or sometimes to wealthy east coast barons for private hunting reserves.

The farmers were still there, but they lost most of the ability to survive even in the meager way their pastoral work and barter economy had allowed before. They were forced into greater dependency at the same time their land was being stripped. They tried appealing to American courts but the same white supremacist Supreme Court that had just issued Plessy routinely denied them their rights for common land. The CaƱon de Chama Grant was reduced from 472,737 acres to 1,422 acres when the Court denied the grantees rights to the commons. Wage labor was the result, often for almost nothing working on the same lands they used to own. Others left to work in the fields of Colorado, picking sugar beets and other crops. The pastoral economy collapsed and so did the sustainable lives of the farmers. They became part of the rural proletariat of the American West.

The dispossession of Hispanos from their land and their work had long term implications. It just deepened the poverty of the people, forcing them into whatever wage labor they could find. Many ignored the government restrictions on the use of land and sometimes violent confrontations with forestry or grazing officials was not uncommon. During the 1960s, the desire to regain that lost land (if not necessarily the precise lost work culture) led to the Chicano movement in New Mexico being centered around the recapture of the land grants for the descendants of the owners. Many of the land grants became what are today the national forests of New Mexico, so this organizing was also against a government that had facilitated the theft of the land and now owned it outright. The 1965 raid of Reies Lopez Tijerina and the Alianza Federal de Mercedes on the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico briefly brought this issue to national attention, but it soon faded, as did the Alianza. Today, the impact of the land grant thefts on employment and culture remains strong. The former land grant communities have some of the highest heroin death rates in the country. Today, there are a few land grants still in New Mexico. Their owners are forbidden to sell their property.

For this post, I borrowed from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico and William DeBuys, Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range.

This is the 131st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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