Homesteaders sue over ancestral land

Their mesa became home to the Manhattan Project

  • Montoya family members at their cabin's ruins in Los Alamos

    courtesy Joe Montoya

SANTA FE, N.M. - In the spring of 1943, U.S. Army jeeps rolled up to a log cabin on an isolated mesa in northern New Mexico.

Soldiers ordered the owner, a farmer and cattle rancher named José Patricio Montoya, to abandon his home and 80 acres of land: The government needed his land for an important mission.

"There wasn't anything to do," says Montoya's 93-year-old widow, Maria Ernestina Montoya. "They said we had to go, so we went."

The Montoyas packed up what belongings would fit in a horse-drawn wagon and retreated down the hill. Military personnel then used their abandoned livestock for target practice, and a few years after the eviction, sent the family about $800 for the land.

José Montoya found work in construction, helping to erect a building for Project Y, which later become known as the Manhattan Project and, after World War II, Los Alamos National Laboratory. He later moved his family to Santa Fe, where he worked as a school bus driver for 40 years before he died in 1991.

Through it all, says Maria Montoya, her husband believed the government would return the land once its mission was completed.

More than 50 years have passed, the Cold War is over and the feds have begun to give Los Alamos land away. But Montoya and her children are still waiting. They are among the 200 former residents of the Pajarito Plateau and their descendants who sued the Department of Energy in January.

They contend the Army Corps of Engineers illegally evicted 34 Hispanic homesteading families in order to build the world's first atomic bomb.

"The Hispanic homesteaders were initially ignored by the Army Engineers and ultimately never considered worthy of treatment as citizens and property owners," says the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Santa Fe. The homesteaders are seeking 2,500 acres of undeveloped land in the area as compensation for the lost property.

The Energy Department has until April 4 to respond to the lawsuit. One department official says the agency will seek to have the suit thrown out of court.

Left out in the cold

The homesteaders say they have sued because they are convinced that two powerful New Mexicans, Republican Sen. Pete Domenici and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, a former Democratic congressman for northern New Mexico, are ignoring them.

In 1997, Domenici sponsored a now-federal law that lays out guidelines for the Department of Energy to transfer 4,400 acres of "excess" property around the lab to Los Alamos County and nearby San Ildefonso Pueblo.

The law was designed to increase the tax base of the tiny county, which, from its creation after World War II until 1996, was the most federally subsidized county in the United States.

Domenici's only recognition of the homesteaders was a clause requiring the Energy secretary to resolve the group's claims before proceeding with the transfer.

Last summer, Richardson offered the homesteaders nine acres of lab land for a monument recognizing Hispanics' contributions to the war effort, along with assistance in preserving cabins and other buildings still standing on the former homesteads.

"Sadly, the homesteaders rejected the secretary's offer," says Stuart Nagurka, a spokesman for Richardson. "They squandered an opportunity which would have allowed the department and community to move ahead on meaningful projects to preserve and enhance important parts of the homesteaders' heritage."

Energy Department officials point to a February 1999 title search by the Army Corps of Engineers that showed the land was legally condemned.

"Although the government was operating under the exigencies of wartime, it appears from all available records that constitutional and procedural requirements for the acquisition of the private lands, by either purchase or eminent domain were met," states the report.

The Army Corps took the land in the first place, so it's no surprise that it says it was legal, says Gene Gallegos, lawyer for the homesteaders.

"That's like letting the guy who took your wallet decide whether the wallet is yours or his."

Joe Gutierrez, an engineer at Los Alamos and outspoken critic of lab management, as well as president of the Homesteaders' Association, was not satisfied with the Energy Department's offer.

"We want land, not a monument," he says. "We want to prove in court that the government does not have clear title to these lands."

Gutierrez is angry with Domenici, accusing him of trying to sidestep the homesteaders' claims: "He purposely left us out of the 1997 law."

Domenici recently met with the homesteaders' attorney, Gallegos, a possible sign that the lawsuit has put pressure on lawmakers. Sarah Echols, an aide to the senator, declined to comment on the meeting.

A piece of the past

Maria Montoya admits she didn't care for the hardscrabble life on the plateau and was glad when the family moved to the city. "There was too much work up there," she says with a laugh.

But the homesteaders' children and grandchildren, who now live in an increasingly high-priced and tourist-dominated Santa Fe, mourn the loss of the self-sufficient culture of their ancestors.

"It wasn't just the land that was lost, it was a whole way of life," says Joe "Manny" Montoya, the couple's son. On an Energy Department-sanctioned pilgrimage to the disputed property last spring, the younger Montoya recovered a wood stove from the ruins of his parents' cabin.

"The (department officials) thought I was crazy, but I told them, "This has a lot of sentimental value for me." "

"My great-uncle always said 'con el gobierno no se juega,' " says Judy Espinosa. " 'With the government, you don't play... you do what they say.'

"But he believed that when the government promised that the land would be reverted when the war effort was over," she says, "that the government's word was as good as gold."

The author reports for the Santa Fe New Mexican.

This story was funded with a grant from the New Mexico Community Foundation.


  • Sarah Echols, aide to Sen. Pete Domenici, 202/224-7098;
  • Stuart Nagurka, aide to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, 202/586-4940;
  • Joe Gutierrez, president of the Pajarito Plateau Homesteaders' Association, 505/672-3182.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Barbara Ferry

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