The mystery at the heart of Tierra Red involves stolen land grants. Remarkably, this issue is still a deep controversy in the state of New Mexico today. As recently as 1999, Senators Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico introduced legislation in the United States Senate to initiate renewed investigation and restitution for hundreds of ignored claims.
To gain a better understanding of how the issue of land grants affected the forming of the Territory of New Mexico, the following excerpt from the Historical Atlas of New Mexico by Warren A. Beck and Ynez D. Haase (1969) offers some insight.
The United States adopted the rectangular system of public land surveys in 1785. The system was based on the manner in which old town grants had been made in early Massachusetts. The new rectangular plan was intended to make settlers take all of the land instead of the choice parcels only, to provide an orderly method of recording land titles, and to describe titles in such a way that duplication would be avoided.
When the United States acquired the Southwest in the Mexican Cession of 1849, it inherited a very confused system of land tenure, which was at its worst in New Mexico. In the two and one-half centuries of Hispanic occupation, land was acquired most informally. In fact, the Hispanic manner of granting land title was anything but an exact science. Many landholders did not even possess the legal documents required to prove their ownership. Others had titles which described their holdings in such vague fashion it was impossible to define boundaries. It was common to use streams, hills, rock, or even trees to mark land division. Then, too, frequent transfers of titles or subdivisions were not properly recorded.
Under the peace treaty with Mexico in 1848 the United States government assumed the responsibility for certifying land titles which had existed previous to that date. In order to determine the extent and legality of these holdings, both public and private, which had been acquired under Spanish and Mexican rule, a control point had to be established which would permit land surveys that would be meaningful under the surveying system of the United States.
This control point was established in April, 1855, by John W. Garretson. He fixed the Initial Point on an isolated hill on the west bank of the Rio Grande not far from the Mexican village of La Joyita in Socorro County. From this point he ran the Principal Meridian of New Mexico south to the International Boundary and north 96 miles. The Base Line was run 21.5 miles west and 24 miles east of the Initial Point. A Guide Meridian and five Correction Lines were then run out. After this, an orderly program of cadastral or property boundary surveys were made.
Most of the early township surveys were made on grant lands in an effort to help establish proper title. Unfortunately, the court operated much more slowly than did the surveyors, and it took years in many cases to prove legal ownership.