Open main menu
Court Documents
Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinions
Catron
Campbell

United States Supreme Court

58 U.S. 542

Fremont  v.  United States


Mr. Justice CATRON dissenting.

On the 23d of February, 1844, Juan B. Alvarado petitioned the governor, Micheltorrena, for ten leagues of land, alleging that the tract which he then owned was not sufficient to support his stock of cattle, and which he was desirous to increase. He at the same time proposed to contribute to the spreading of the agriculture and industry of the country. And he further declared, that because of the good intentions of the governor in favor of the improvements of the country, the petitioner hoped for a favorable consideration of his demand.

The governor referred the petition to the alcalde of San Jos e, who reported that the land was vacant, that the petitioner was meritorious, and that there was no objection to making the grant. In this report, Jimeno, the government secretary, concurred.

The governor declared the petitioner meritorious for his patriotic services, and therefore worthy of a preference; and accordingly, on the 29th of February, 1844, proceeded to grant to Alvarado, for his personal benefit and that of his family, the tract of land known by the name of Mariposas, to the extent of ten square leagues, within the limits of the Snow Mountain, (Sierra Nevada,) and the rivers known by the names of the Chanchilles, of the Merced, and the San Joaquin, 'the necessary requirements, according to the provisions of the laws and regulations having been previously complied with, subject to the approbation of the departmental assembly, and the following conditions'-that is to say:--

1. 'He shall not sell, alienate, nor mortgage the same, nor subject it to taxes, entail, or other incumbrance.'

2. 'He may inclose it, without obstructing the roads or the right of way. He shall enjoy the same freely, without hindrance, destining it to such use or cultivation as may best suit him; but he shall build a house within a year, and it shall be inhabited.'

3. 'He shall solicit from the proper magistrate the judicial possession of the same, by virtue of this grant, by whom the boundaries shall be marked out, on the limits of which he (the grantee) shall place the proper landmarks.'

4. 'The tract of land granted is ten sitios de ganado mayor, (ten square leagues,) as before mentioned. The magistrate who may give the possession shall cause the same to be surveyed according to the ordinance, the surplus remaining to the nation for the proper use.'

5. 'Should he violate these conditions, he will lose his right to the land, and it will be subject to being denounced (pretended for) by another.' 'Therefore, I command that these presents being held firm and binding, that the same be registered in the proper book, and delivered to the party interested, for his security, and other purposes.'

The foregoing conditions, in effect, are imposed by the colonization law of 1824, and the regulations made in pursuance thereof, by the chief executive of Mexico, in 1828; both of which were equally binding upon the territorial governors, when they exercised the granting power.

The concession, according to these laws, could only be made for agricultural purposes and for raising cattle. Colonization was the great object of the law of 1824; and to this end alone was its execution prescribed and arranged by the regulations of 1828.

Much stress has been laid on the fact that, in the concession to Alvarado, patriotic services are referred to as a reason why a preference was given to the grantee in obtaining the land; that preference was founded on the 8th section of the act of 1824, which provides, 'that in the distribution of lands, Mexican citizens are to be attended to in preference, and no distinction shall be made among these, except such only as is due to private merit and services rendered to the country.' Private merit or public services could form no part of the consideration for grants made for the purposes of grazing and cultivating; nor had the governor of a territory power to grant for any other purpose. The 11th section of the act of 1824 reserved the power to the supreme executive to alienate lands in the territories in favor of civil or military officers of the federation. This grant, therefore, stands on the footing of others, and is subject to the same conditions. Alvarado's petition, and the governor's concession founded on it, must be taken together; they are a necessary part of the contract between the applicant and the government, under the colonization law of 1824, and the regulations of 1828, which, with inconsiderable exceptions, remained in full force when this concession was applied for and issued.

The government of the United States received the legal title to the public lands in California by treaty, and incumbered under the laws of nations with all the equitable rights of private property therein, that they were subject to in the hands of Mexico at the time of their transfer; and the question here is, what interest in the land claimed, Alvarado or his assignee had, when the treaty was made? The consideration for the grant was a performance of its leading conditions on the part of the grantee; the principal condition being, the inhabitation of the land, in the manner and within the time prescribed. As to the terms of this condition, the regulations of 1828 declare, that the party soliciting for lands, shall describe, as distinctly as possible, by means of a map, the land asked for; and a record shall be kept of the petitions presented and grants made, with the maps of the lands granted; and the governor was required, by the 11th rule of the regulations, to designate to the colonist the time within which he was bound to cultivate or occupy the land; 'it being understood that if he does not comply, the grant of the land shall remain void;' and by the 12th rule, the grantee was required to prove before the municipal authority that he had cultivated or occupied, so that a record should be made of the fact thus established, 'in order that he might consolidate and secure his right of ownership, and have power to dispose freely of the land.' Accordingly, certain conditions were inserted in the grant as part of it, by the second of which, the colonist was bound to build and inhabit a house on the land granted, within one year. This was, therefore, the time allowed from the date of the grant, for the fulfilment of the important condition on which an equitable claim to it arose.

In this case, the land was granted to Alvarado in February, 1844, and three years after, he conveyed to Colonel Fremont, the petitioner. No possession had been taken by Alvarado before that time, nor any further act done to acquire a title, than the first step of obtaining the concession; and if this step gave him an equity to have a perfect title from the Mexican government, then his equity is the same as against the United States.

In the first place, the 11th rule above cited declares that no right accrues to the colonist unless he occupies the land; and in the next place, the act of congress of March 3, 1851, by the authority of which we are acting, declares, (§ 11,) that the board of commissioners and the courts, deciding on California land claims, shall be governed by the decisions of the supreme court of the United States, so far as they are applicable.

By these decisions, it has been settled for many years, that a Spanish concession, containing a condition of inhabitation and cultivation, the performance of which is the consideration to be paid for an ultimate perfect title, is void, unless the condition was performed within the time prescribed by the ordinances of Spain. It was so held in the case of the United States v. Wiggins, 14 Pet. 350. And the opinion then given was followed in the cases of Buyck, 15 Pet. 222, and of Delespine, Ib. 319. But the rule was more distinctly laid down in the case of the United States v. Boisdor e, 11 How. 96. There the court said: 'The grantee might have his land surveyed, or he might decline; he might establish himself on the land, or decline; these acts rested wholly in his discretion. But, if he failed to take possession, and establish himself, he had no claim to a title; his concession or first decree, in such case, had no operation. So the supreme court of Louisiana held, in Lafayette v. Blanc, 3 Louisiana Ann. Rep. 60, and, in our judgment, properly. There, the grantee never having had actual possession under his concession, the court decided that he could set up no claim to the land, at law or in equity. This case followed Hooter v. Tippett, 17 La. Rep. 109. We take it to be undoubtedly true, that, if no actual possession was taken, under a gratuitous concession, given for the purpose of cultivation, or of raising cattle, during the existence of the Spanish government, no equity was imposed on our government to give any consideration or effect to such concession, or requ ete.'

The case of Glenn et al. v. United States, 13 How. 259, maintains the same doctrine. It was there declared, that a promise of performance, (that is, to inhabit and cultivate,) on the part of Clamorgan, the grantee, was the sole ground on which the Spanish commandant made the concession; that actual performance, by cultivating the land, was the consideration on which a complete title could issue; and that so far from complying, Clamorgan never took a single step after his concession was made, and in 1809 conveyed for the paltry sum of fifteen hundred dollars; and, under these circumstances, (says the court,) we are called on to decide in his favor, according to the principles of justice; this being the rule prescribed to us by the act of 1824, and the Spanish regulations. The court, then, declares, that the claim had no justice in it, and to allow it would be to sanction an attempt at an extravagant speculation merely; referring to Boisdore's case, as having established the principle that occupation was indispensable, and the real consideration of grants for purposes of inhabitation or cultivation.

But, it is insisted here that no possession was taken of the land, nor a survey of it made, because of the danger from hostile Indians in its neighborhood. If this were a valid excuse, then on the Indian borders grants would carry no substantial conditions with them. The point is settled in the cases of Kingsley, 12 Pet. 484, and of De Villemont, 13 How. 267, that where the hostility of Indians was alleged as an excuse for not occupying the land, and it appeared that the hostility existed when the grant was made, and was merely continued, that then the grantee could not be permitted to set up such an excuse.

Alvarado manifestly took the grant at his own risk, and if he did not intend to perform the condition of inhabitation, or could not do it, he must bear the consequences. To hold otherwise would be to subvert the manifest design of the colonization laws of Mexico, by reserving indefinitely, to single individuals, large bodies of uncultivated and unoccupied lands, in the instance before us, amounting to fifty thousand arpens.

It is, I think, impossible to exempt this claim from the settled doctrine, that occupation is a consideration indispensable to its validity. It is thus laid down in various instances, and especially in the cases above cited, of Boisdor e, of Glenn et al. and of De Villemont; nor can this claim be sustained, unless they are overruled, and the act of congress, declaring that this court is bound by them, disregarded. The district judge, who rejected this claim in California, held that he could not do so, and, in my opinion, held properly. I give the conclusion of his opinion as it is found in the record.

'But, in the case at bar, the time for making a settlement is limited to one year. So far as appears, Alvarado never even saw the tract he assumed to convey to Fremont, nor was any settlement effected by the latter until a year after the ratification of the treaty. It cannot be urged in this, as in other cases, that the grant was not made complete by the assent of the assembly, owing to accident or the neglect of the governor, for Alvarado himself says it could not be submitted to them without the diseno, or plan, which, on account of the hostilities of the Indians, he was unable to furnish, and yet the danger from that source existed at the time of his application, for he assigns it to the governor as a reason why the diseno did not accompany the petition.

'It is urged that the political disturbances of the country contributed to prevent the settlement; but I think it clear, from the evidence, that the principal, if not the only reason why it was not effected by Alvarado or Fremont until after the treaty, was the danger from the savages, and that this danger existed to substantially the same degree before and after the grant.

'Upon the whole, after a most careful consideration of this case, and with every desire to give the claimant the full benefit of every favorable consideration to which he is entitled, I have been unable to resist the conclusion that the cases of Glenn, of De Villemont, and of Boisdor e, lay down for me rules of decision applicable to this case, and from which I am not at liberty to depart.'

2. The next question is, whether a concession, which is in fact a floating land warrant, seeking a location on any part of a large region of country containing nine hundred square miles, can be confirmed by this court, acting as it does, of necessity, in a judicial capacity? The assumption thus to locate the ten leagues asserts power in the claimant to have the land surveyed at his discretion, either in a body, or in single tracts, so that they adjoin each other at any point of the respective surveys; in the latter form he did have them surveyed, and, in this form of location, the grant was declared valid by the board of commissioners.

I understand the Mexican laws as not to allow any such undefined floating claims. It is impossible to recognize them under the act of 1824, the object of which was to colonize particular tracts of land.

By that act, the petitioner was bound to describe the land asked for 'as distinctly as possible, by means of a map,' according to which it was granted; and next, he was required to solicit from the proper magistrate (usually the alcalde of the next pueblo) judicial possession of the land described; and this magistrate was required to survey and designate the boundaries, on the limits of which the party interested was bound to place proper landmarks. Now, that Alvarado had no separate interest to any specific tract of land, was admitted on the argument; but it was insisted that he was, and his assignee is, a tenant in common, with the government, in all the country situate in a region called Mariposas, lying within the limits of the Sierra Nevada, and the rivers known by the names of Chanchilles, of the Merced, and the San Joaquin. In any part of this large scope of country it is assumed the Mexican magistrate and surveyor could have laid off the ten leagues, and that the surveyor-general of California can do the same now.

This claim, standing on the concession alone, lost its binding operation in one year, and became void if the land was not designated within that time, unless the time was enlarged, or new conditions prescribed by the governor. So I understand the eleventh rule of the regulations of 1828.

To hold that the Mexican government designed to leave in force for an indefinite length of time large undefined concessions, that might be surveyed at the election of the claimant at any time and at any place, to the hindrance of colonization and to the destruction of other interests, is an idea too extravagant to be seriously entertained; so far from it, the Mexican colonization laws contained more positive provisions, to the end of granting distinct and known tracts of land to colonists, than did any Spanish laws that have at any time been brought to the consideration of this court.

It is proper to remark that, by the Mexican laws, an assignee could not be put into possession of land by force of the first decree or concession. Alvarado alone could apply for judicial possession. By the 11th rule, a possession could be transferred when it was duly proved and recorded; but the alcalde could not recognize an assignee as a colonist, because by the 3d rule the governor was bound to judge of the fitness of the candidate, and, having decided as to his fitness, the alcalde was held to an execution of that decision, and could not recognize an assignee.

We are here called on to award a patent for a floating claim of fifty thousand arpens of land in the gold region of California, to an assignee whose vendor claimed under the colonization laws of Mexico, but who never was a colonist, who never did a single act under his contract to colonize, and who, it is admitted, could not have obtained a definite title from the political department of the territory of California, to wit, from the departmental assembly, whose province it was to pass on and confirm grants to colonists.

At law, this claim has no standing; it cannot be set up in an ordinary judicial tribunal. It addresses itself to us as founded on an equity incident to it by mere force of the contract, no part of which was ever performed. The claim is as destitute of merit as it can be, and has no equity in it; nor is it distinguishable from that of Clamorgan, which was pronounced invalid in the case of Glenn et al. v. The United States.

If this claim is maintained, all others must likewise be, if the first step of making the concession is proved to have been performed by the acting governor; as no balder case than the one before us can exist in California, where the grant is not infected with fraud or forgery.

And this presents a very grave consideration, affecting preemption rights. The country in California is filled up with inhabitants cultivating the valleys and best lands, and where they rely almost as confidently on their government titles, founded on acts of congress, as if they had a patent for the land. No other American title is known in the State of California, except such as are founded on the pre emption laws.

These agricultural people are quite as much contractors with the United States as the Mexican grantees were contractors with their government. By the acts of March 3, 1853, and March 1, 1854, congress promised to each settler who was on the land March 1, 1854, or might settle on it within two years thereafter, 160 acres, to include his residence, at one dollar and twenty-five cents an acre. This was a policy to populate the country, which is yet in progress. That these occupants have an equitable interest, and hold the land as purchasers, is the settled doctrine of the department of public lands, which exercises jurisdiction over them. Much of labor and money has been expended on the faith that a preference-right was a safe title, and exempt from floating Mexican concessions, such as that made to Alvarado, and now in litigation here. And this was most natural. Incipient Mexican claims had no standing in an ordinary court of justice, and congress created special courts to try them, and prescribed the laws and rules by which these courts should be governed in their adjudications; and among other rules it was provided, that the decrees of the supreme court of the United States should govern where they applied. They thus had given to them the force of a legislative enactment. These decisions apply as a governing rule most emphatically to the requirement of a specific location of Spanish claims, to which the court had held litigants with a strictness often complained of, but always necessary for the protection of the public and its alienees; and it was the necessary consequence that cultivators of the soil should believe themselves safe from the ruin that lurks in a floating claim, familiar even to western ploughmen, many of whom remember the history of exhausting and fierce litigation in their own families for the paternal hearth, and who relied on the firm and consistent decisions of this court to protect their new homes on the Pacific. Nor do I think that any pre emption right can be included in a survey of the Alvarado claim, so as to make the preference-right part of the land belonging to the grant, because Col. Fremont's claim has never been located, and our decree cannot disturb innocent owners until it is located. It was so held by this court, in the case of Menard v. Massey, 8 How. 309. And unless that case is disregarded, one having a preference-right cannot be deprived of his possession by this floating claim.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).