illiustration by Victor Abarca

Suddenly everyone wants to stake a claim to a former piece of wasteland on the Texas-Mexican border.

More than 600 Mexican and Hispanic families on both sides of the frontier are jointly suing the state of Texas for “illegally seizing” what they claim is land that rightfully belongs to them. And that land just happens to be sitting on oil and gas reserves, coal, and other precious minerals.

The civil lawsuit represents the alleged descendants of Joaquín Galán, an early settler who was given a 300,000-acre plus land grant known as Palafox in 1803 from the Spanish Crown. According to the plaintiffs, that land was actually purchased by Galán and seized by the state of Texas in 1874.

Now Galan’s long-lost descendants are trying to assert their claim to some 60,000 of those acres.

“The Palafox land was pretty much inhospitable,” says Antonio Zavaleta, a professor of Anthropology and Sociology at UT Brownsville. “There were hostile Native Americans, little water, even cattle had a hard time surviving there.”

Advertisement

The land, located west of Laredo and just north of the Rio Grande, was mostly abandoned. Nobody knew it was worth a fortune until oil exploration began in the 20th century.

“People had no idea they were sitting on a sea of minerals,” Zavaleta told Fusion.

via Google Maps

Advertisement

The Galán Family Trust is now suing to get those mineral rights from the Texas General Land Office, headed by George P. Bush, son of Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush.

Robert González, a tenth generation descendant of Galán and family trustee based in San Antonio, says the disputed land is rich with surface coal, gas, uranium and mercury.

“Our family has been disputing this for over a 100 years, even before oil had been discovered on that land,” he said.

Advertisement

A spokeswoman from the Texas General Land Office declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Texas is no stranger to these types of lawsuits. Land disputes are common for a state that once belonged to the Spanish Empire, later seceded from Mexico, became its own republic, and was eventually annexed to the United States.

A year ago a group known as the Unclaimed Mineral Proceeds Commission launched a report to study and provide recommendations on how to deal with the distribution of mineral proceeds.

Advertisement

“Over the years the land in Texas changed many pants,” Lance K. Bruun, a Texas attorney who chaired the commission's report, told Fusion. “A large number of Texas citizens who are descendants from Spanish and Mexican land grantees have been made to believe they’re entitled to this land and its minerals. That’s just not true.”

The report summarizes the plaintiffs' complaints as follows:

“The war with Mexico and the resulting changes produced social and economic disruption and displacement of some established groups from their traditional landholdings. Anglo-American newcomers, with clear advantage in their knowledge of the new legal system, its procedures and language, now competed for the natural resources of the region, pressing their legal and economic advantages – supplemented at times by extralegal means – to acquire ownership of the land…”

Advertisement

Bruun’s report concluded that the “inference of a family name” or “having occupied a certain tract of land grant” does not suffice to prove ownership. It also established that “when a person sells a piece of land and no mention is made of the minerals contained, the rights pass on to the purchaser” — not the seller’s heirs.

Critics argue the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war with Mexico and ceded more than half of Mexico’s territory to the United States, created several property ownership disputes for generations to come.

In recent years the number of families that have sued the the state of Texas over the alleged seizure of ancient land grants has grown. Local attorneys such as Eileen Mckenzie Fowler are leading some of these family “recovery efforts” and Palafox is just one among many territories whose ownership and resources are being disputed.

Advertisement

Now in many cases, what was once considered wasteland is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And everyone wants to cash-in.