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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 75

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This is the grave of Thomas Catron.

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Born in Missouri in 1840, Catron graduated from the University of Missouri in 1860 and joined the treasonous Confederate army in his home state. He fought throughout the war, rising to the rank of 1st Lieutenant after having fought at such battles as Mission Creek and Pea Ridge. After the war, Catron moved to New Mexico Territory and studied law, settling in Mesilla, near Las Cruces. He learned Spanish, became a Republican, and rose quickly in the territory’s white political elite.

Catron quickly learned what it took to succeed in the Gilded Age: a complete lack of scruples in stealing resources from the poor. What learning Spanish and the law did for him was to allow him to become incredibly wealthy by stealing land grants from the territory’s Hispano population. The Spanish and Mexican governments had sought to settle their northern boundaries by offering settlers large land grants. This was communally-held property that could not be sold by a particular individual. This of course was counter to the individualistic property rights regime of the British-descended United States. When the U.S. stole the northern half of Mexico in a war of conquest to defend slavery, the Mexican government tried to protect the land heritage of its citizens now forced to live in a foreign land. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican War in 1848 guaranteed the land grants. But after that, once whites began moving to New Mexico in relatively large numbers after the Civil War, the courts treated the Hispano New Mexicans about the same as they treated African-Americans and Native Americans during these years: as lesser beings with no rights.

This is the world Thomas Catron stepped into and helped to create. Admitted to the bar in 1867, he was appointed district attorney for the territory’s Third Judicial District in 1868 and 1869 became Attorney General. He became law partners with another of the territory’s white elites, Stephen Elkins. When Elkins was elected to Congress as the territory’s representative in 1872, Catron took his job as U.S. Attorney, which he held until 1878. He moved to Santa Fe and ran for various offices, sometimes winning, sometimes losing.

What made Catron exceptional though is not his political career, but rather his role as a member of the Santa Fe Ring. While historians have debated whether this actually existed in concrete form, it doesn’t really matter. It was a group of white elites looking to cash in on the territory’s wealth. The real wealth was in the land. But it had to be separated from the land grant descendants who relied on it for their grazing, logging, and gathering needs. These were huge chunks of land with very few people on them. But the people had developed long-held traditions of collective use of that land. For whites, this was a waste of land, just as the sparsely populated Indian reservations were. So they sought to grab it. Because Republicans controlled the patronage in the territory for most of the territorial period, these local Republicans had a free hand to act and in an era where even wealth and power were for those who anyone who could ruthlessly acquire it, no one in Washington was going to care about what happened to Spanish-speaking non-whites in distant New Mexico.

The Ring (or its various members if it never quite existed as a concrete matter) were involved in any number of sketchy actions, leading for instance to the huge ranches in central and southern New Mexico that led to the Lincoln County War and other periods of violence in territorial New Mexico. Catron’s biggest play in this was setting himself up as the lawyer for the land grant holders, getting them to sign documents that they did not understand and that stripped them of the vast majority of their holdings, and then acquiring that land for himself. As one of the few lawyers who really understood the land grand system, he became New Mexico’s largest landholder by far. He took over the vast majority of 34 land grants for himself and his friends, holding at least a partial interest in over 3 million acres of land. Much of this land eventually became the national forests and wilderness areas of northern New Mexico that you may enjoy today. For awhile, he was the largest landholder in the United States.

This happened when individuals involved in the grant, usually wealthier people, sought to confirm that the grant was privately-held, not communally. The courts were happy to confirm this. And then those people, looking to cash in and often in debt, sought to sell. Catron was there to buy. Here’s a good discussion of the Tierra Amarilla Grant.

Sale of interests and speculation on the grant began almost immediately after it was confirmed by Congress. By 1880, Thomas B. Catron had purchased sufficient interests in the grant from Martinez heirs so that in February 1881, when the United States Congress issued a patent for the grant to Francisco Martinez, Catron himself signed the receipt. By 1883, Catron filed suit to quiet title to the grant, exempting only a few “informal conveyances of some very small pieces of land.” These parcels, which have become known as the “Catron exclusions,” were the donaciones, or allotments, made by Francisco Martinez to more than one hundred settlers of the grant. These were the same individuals to whom Martinez gave hijuelas, or deeds, which stipulated their rights to free use of the grant’s common lands.

Even before Catron received quiet title to the grant, he had begun developing its vast natural resources. He leased right of way to the Denver and Rio Grande Railway, sold rights to the region’s coal mines and massive pine forests, and leased its lush pastures to large cattle companies. During this period, however, there is little evidence Catron aggressively curtailed Tierra Amarilla’s settlers from grazing their personal livestock on the traditional common lands of the grant. Introduction of the railroad and extensive lumbering operations in the region apparently brought prosperity to Tierra Amarilla during the 1880’s and 1890’s. As long as local residents had access to grazing for their small herds and flocks, the nuances of who retained legal ownership of common lands did not seem to be an important issue.

Interestingly, in northeast New Mexico at the time, the gorras blancas, or white caps, were waging a campaign of political activism and violence to protest the fencing of traditional grazing lands. The tranquility of Tierra Amarilla prompted pioneering archaeologist and historian, Adolph Bandelier, to comment about it. In 1891, Bandelier traveled through northern New Mexico and recorded the Tierra Amarilla grant’s resources for Thomas Catron, who was desperately seeking a buyer for the heavily mortgaged property. Bandelier was clearly impressed by “Catron’s grant” and in his journal he describes it as “a most valuable piece of property, a little kingdom of its own.” Then he added a statement clearly designed to assuage the concerns of potential buyers about whether the influence of the gorras blancas extended to Rio Arriba. “There is no trouble to be apprehended from the people [of Tierra Amarilla],” Bandelier noted, “unless there should be a leader.”

However, this began to change after 1909, when Catron finally succeeded in selling the grant. When the Arlington Land Company obtained ownership, it continued the practice of selling timber and mineral rights to various companies. The company also sold large tracts of land to corporations and individual buyers, many of whom further subdivided the land. When these new owners began to fence off large portions of the grant, they initiated a process which began to severely restrict the access to pasture on which the settlers of the grant depended for their livelihood.

The residents’ ability to access pasture for their livestock appears to be the principal reason why there is little documented evidence of resistance or protest to Catron’s purchase and ownership of the Tierra Amarilla grant. In 1889, several residents of the grant filed a suit against Catron but did not ask for return of the grant or make access to land an issue. Instead, the plaintiffs cited the stipulations of the original grant and the hijuelas, which were issued to individuals by Francisco Martinez in the early 1860’s, and sought a share of the proceeds Catron was receiving from leases and sale of timber and mineral rights. The few extant records of this case tell little beyond the fact of its dismissal in April 1892.

Although there is little evidence that Catron moved aggressively against grant settlers who grazed their livestock, he occasionally took action to counteract perceived threats to his ownership. In 1892, he filed suit against Miguel Chavez and Pablo Rivas for allegedly pasturing their sheep on his property and sought a restraining order to prevent their further use of the land. Chavez and Rivas responded that while Catron may have been given patent to the Tierra Amarilla Grant, they were grazing their sheep by right of the grant made to Manuel Martinez by the Mexican government and the deeds, which allowed them “free and common” use of water, pasture, and other resources of the grant. They claimed to be doing nothing illegal and asked the court to force Catron to produce proof of his ownership. The suit lingered in District Court for nearly ten years and was finally dropped from the docket in 1902. The record shows Catron paid the court costs, which amounted to less than ten dollars for various filing fees.

The land grant thefts continued to make many people seethe and eventually led to the rise of Reies Lopez Tijerina and his Alianza Federal de Mercedes in the 1960s, culminating in the attack on the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla.

When New Mexico became a state in 1912, Catron was one of the two first senators. Typically, whites worked together to make sure that the Spanish-speaking New Mexicans would hold no power. Specifically, Catron and Albert Fall, a man who would later be no stranger to scandal himself, coordinated the election of each to the Senate. He lost his re-election bid in 1916. He died in Santa Fe in 1921.

Thomas Catron is buried in Fairview Cemetery, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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