Nuestra Historia - Luis María Cabeza de Baca

Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 3:27 pm (Updated: January 28, 12:01 am)

Originally Printed in the Las Vegas Optic


by Jesus Lopez

Sometime in 1820, Luis María Cabeza de Baca traveled from his home in Peña Blanca to Santa Fe, and then to San Miguel del Bado.

Don Luis, as he was known, was apparently looking to expand the already large land holdings he owned in and around Peña Blanca, which is located in Sandoval County, west of La Bajada. In San Miguel he heard about lush and extensive pasture lands located along a river to the northeast, and he joined eight others from San Miguel in filing an application for a grant of those verdant vegas.

Don Luis immediately moved his livestock to the meadows, and in January 1821, he again petitioned for a grant of las vegas, this time for himself and his 17 children. Two years later, because the other eight applicants who had previously applied with Don Luis for the grant had not occupied the site, the alcalde mayor in Santa Fe ordered that Don Luis alone be placed in possession, and a lawful grant of Las Vegas Grandes was made to Luis María Cabeza de Baca and his heirs.

The grant made to Don Luis was enormous, containing close to 500,000 acres. It was bounded on the north by the Sapello River, on the south by the San Miguel del Bado grant, on the west by the Pecos mountains, and on the east by the aguaje de la llegua (the mare’s watering place).

It is undisputed that Don Luis and his children settled on the grant and pastured their livestock on the lush meadows. It is also undisputed that they built a home somewhere on the land, at a place they called Loma Montosa (mountainous hill). What has always been the subject of debate, however, is the length of time they stayed upon the grant, and scholars and historians have offered-up different periods.

Some say Don Luis or his children occupied the land for as long as 16 years. Others remark that the period was much shorter. And still others have concluded that their stay was very brief, maybe as short as two or three years.

What is certain is that Don Luis and his sons suffered great hardship while bravely embarking as the first settlers of Las Vegas. Several times they were attacked by Native American warriors, who more than once drove off their livestock, and it was a fierce raid by the Pawnee Indians that finally prompted Don Luis and his family to leave Las Vegas Grandes and return to Peña Blanca. But whether they stayed in Las Vegas Grandes or moved back to Peña Blanca, Luis María Cabeza de Baca and his family had lawful documents awarding to them 500,000 acres in and around the place we call Las Vegas, New Mexico.

This caused great confusion and controversy in the years to come. In 1835, when the Las Vegas Land Grant was made to the original 36 settlers, most of them from San Miguel, the land granted to them was the same as that previously awarded to Luis María Cabeza de Baca. In fact, the description of the land boundaries was almost identical, each containing close 500,000 acres.

In 1857 the heirs of Don Luis asserted their claim and title to the Las Vegas Land Grant, by then well occupied and possessed by the 1835 grantees and many others. The Surveyor General of the United States determined that both the grant to Don Luis, and the community grant of 1835 were valid. When the report of the Surveyor General was presented to the U.S. Congress for approval, it settled the competing grants by awarding five tracts of unoccupied land of 100,000 acres each, to the heirs of Don Luis, many of whom had by then shortened their name to C de Baca, some even to Baca. In turn, the C de Baca heirs gave up their claim to the Las Vegas Land Grant. (The five tracts are known as the Baca Tracts, and were far removed from Las Vegas, one located in the Jemez area, and another in Arizona).

Several of Don Luis’ heirs returned to Las Vegas. In 1860 his son Tomás lived on the east side of the Old Town Plaza, about where Our Lady of Sorrows Parish Hall now stands. Tomás’ son, Ezequiel C de Baca, would become New Mexico’s first lieutenant governor, and second governor, after statehood. And Donaldo A. “Tiny” Martínez, Don Ezequiel’s grandson and Don Luis’ great-great-grandson, would later make his own remarkable impact on this community. Their stories will be told in later entries in this column.

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Next: The Las Vegas Land Grant is made to 36 original grantees, and Las Vegas is born.

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.