Fremont v. United States/Opinion of the Court

Court Documents
Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinions

United States Supreme Court

58 U.S. 542

Fremont  v.  United States

This was an appeal from the district court of the United States for the northern district of California.

Fremont, the appellant, claimed title to a large tract of land, and prosecuted his claim before the board of commissioners, who decided in his favor. That decision having been reversed by the district court, the case was now brought here by appeal.

The title of Fremont was derived from Juan Alvarado, to whom a grant was issued, in 1844, by Manuel Micheltorrena, then governor and commandant-general of the department of the Californias, purporting to be founded upon the patriotic services of Alvarado. It appears that, as early as 1836, Alvarado was conspicuous in the commotions which took place in California, resulting from the same proceedings of the government of Mexico which occasioned the revolution in Texas. California declared itself opposed to the centralization of power in Mexico, and Alvarado was proclaimed governor by the provincial deputation. In 1837, he repelled the effort of Cavvillo to take possession of the government, who had been appointed governor by Mexico; and Alvarado was afterwards confirmed as constitutional governor by the authorities of Mexico. He continued in authority until 1842, when Micheltorrena was appointed to succeed him, under whom Alvarado was employed as first counsellor of the departmental junta, with a salary of $1,500.

On the 23d of February, 1844, Alvarado petitioned Micheltorrena to grant him the land in question. And as this is one of the first cases in this court of this description, it is deemed proper to insert in full the title under which the appellant claimed. The documents are as follows:--

'Record of proceedings instituted by citizen Juan Bautista Alvarado, colonel of the auxiliary militia, soliciting the tract of land called 'Las Mariposas.'

'Anno 1844. (Number 352.)

'To his Excellency the Governor:--

'I, Juan B. Alvarado, colonel of the auxiliary militia of this department, to your Excellency, with due respect, do represent, that being actually the owner (by purchase which I made) of a very small tract of land, which is not sufficient to support the cattle with which it is stocked, without injury to the estates likewise there established, and being desirous of increasing it, at the same time to contribute to the spreading of the agriculture and industry of the country, I solicit your Excellency, according to the colonization laws, to be pleased to grant me ten sitios de ganado mayor (ten square leagues) of land, north of the River San Joaquin, within the limits of the Snow Mountain, (Sierra Nevada,) in the same direction the River Chanchilles, in the east part of the Merced, on the west, and the before-mentioned San Joaquin, with the name of the Mariposas, offering to present to Y. E. the proper plan and draft thereof so soon as the same shall be made with exactness, not doing it at this time for the difficulty of being a wilderness country on the confines of the wild Indians, and because I desire that my claim for this cause may not be delayed.

'Therefore, I hope from the good intentions of Y. E., in favor of the improvements of the country, the most favorable result, if it be in justice, by which I will receive favor.


'Rancho del Alizal, 23d of February, 1844.'

'Monterey, 27th of February, 1844.

'Let the secretary of state report, and he may require such other reports as he may deem expedient, should he need them.


'As directed by his Excellency, the governor, let the preceding petitioner be referred to the first alcalde of San Jos e, that he may be pleased to report thereon.


Monterey, 26th [*] of February, 1844.

'To the Secretary of State:--

'The land solicited in this petition by Don Juan B. Alvarado is entirely vacant; it does not belong to any individual, town, or corporation, and I believe that for these reasons, as well as that of the petitioner being meritorious for his patriotic services and commendable circumstances, there is no impediment for granting him the said land in fee. This is all I have to report to your Honor in answer to your preceding superior order, which opinion I submit to the decision of your Honor, which will be the most proper one.


'Town of San Jos e, Gaudaloupe, February 29, 1844.'

'To his Excellency the Governor:--

'According to the report of the magistrate of San Jos e, and the information I have acquired from persons who know the land, it is ascertained the same may be granted to the petitioner, who may be favorably considered for the services which he has rendered to the department. The superior judgment of Y. E. will decide the expediency.


'Monterey, 29th of February, 1844."Monterey, 22d of February, 1844.

'Let the title be issued, expressing that he (the petitioner) is meritorious for his patriotic services, and consequently worthy of preference.


'Monterey, 29th of February, 1844.

'Having considered the petition which is at the beginning of this record of proceedings, (espediente,) the preceding report, and the patriotic services of the petitioner, with every thing worthy of consideration in the premises, in conformity with the laws and regulations upon the subject, I declare Don Juan Bautista Alvarado owner in fee of the tract of land known by the name of 'Las Mariposas,' within the boundaries of the Snow Mountains, (Sierra Nevada,) and the rivers called the Chanchilles, the Merced, and San Joaquin.

'Let the proper patent be issued, let it be registered in the respective book, and let this record of proceedings be transmitted to the most excellent departmental assembly, for its approval.


'Brigadier-General of the Mexican Army, Adjutant-General of the Staff of the same, Governor and Commandant-General of the Department of the Californias.'

'Whereas, Don Juan B. Alvarado, colonel of the auxiliary militia of this department, is worthy, for his patriotic services, to be preferred in his pretension for his personal benefit and that of his family, for the tract of land known by the name of the Mariposas, to the extent of ten square leagues (sitios de ganado mayor) 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, by virtue of the authority in me vested, in the name of the Mexican nation, I have granted to him the aforesaid tract, declaring the same by these presents his property in fee, subject to the approbation of the most excellent the departmental assembly, and to the following conditions:--

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

'2. He may inclose it without obstructing the crossings, the roads, or the right of way; he shall enjoy the same freely and without hindrance, destining it to such use or cultivation as may most 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 patent, 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 uses.

'5. Should he violate these conditions, he will lose his right to the land, and it will be subject to being denounced 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.

'Given in Monterey, this 29th day of the month of February, in the year of 1844.


'MANUEL JIMENO, Secretary.'

'This patent is registered in the proper book on the reverse of folio '6.'


The evidence showed that the land continued to be disturbed by hostile Indians, until after the occupation of California by the Americans, and until 1849.

On February 10, 1847, Alvarado executed a deed of the above-described property to Fremont, with a general warranty of title. The consideration stated was three thousand dollars.

In 1849, Fremont caused a map of the grant to be made, and used efforts to have it settled.

On the 21st of January, 1852, Fremont filed his claim before the commissioners to ascertain and settle the private land claims in the State of California, sitting as a board, in the city of San Francisco.

On December 27, 1852, the board decreed that the claim be confirmed, to the extent of ten square leagues, being the same land described in the grant and map filed in the office of the United States surveyor-general for California, November 21, 1851.

On the 20th of September, 1853, there was filed in the office of the commissioners a notice from the attorney-general of the United States, that an appeal from the decision of the commissioners to the district court of the United States for the northern district of California, would be prosecuted; and in consequence of that appeal, the decision of the commissioners was reversed on the 7th of January, 1854. It was now brought before this court by an appeal from the district court.

It was argued by Mr. William Carey Jones, Mr. Bibb, and Mr. Crittenden, for the appellant, and by Mr. Cushing, attorney-general, for the United States.

The briefs filed in this case were, as in the preceding case of United States v. Ritchie, very elaborate; and the reporter can only notice the points made, without attempting to state either the arguments or authorities by which they were sustained.

The following notice of the points made for the appellant, is taken from the brief of Mr. Jones.

1. The acts and deeds above recited, of the Mexican authorities, vested a legal, valid title, independent of the approbation of the departmental assembly; that being a means not of legalizing the title, but only of placing it beyond any power of defeasance. Consequently, if the necessity of fulfilling the condition arose from the incompleteness of the title, the objection falls to the ground. But—

2. The condition is not warranted by the law, and hence was not obligatory. The provision contained in § 11 of the regulations of 1828 refers only to grants to empresarios, for colonization.

3. Non-performance of the condition did not make the grant void, but only opened the land to denouncement; that is, to an information by a third person, who, finding the land vacant, might wish to possess it, and on which a judicial inquiry would be had; until which time (and a judicial forfeiture ascertained) the grant remained good, and the land open to the occupation of the grantee, and after his occupation the process of denouncement would not lie. The government did not reserve any right of forfeiture to itself, and consequently could not convey any to the United States.

4. Due diligence was used, both by Alvarado and Fremont, to fulfil the condition, and they did fulfil the requirements of the law.

5. That if the grant had been defeasable under the former government, through the dissent to it of the assembly and of the supreme government, that mode of defeasance is now cut off and made impossible by the non-existence of the assembly, to which only belonged the initiative to that end; and if formerly defeasible by denouncement for non-performance of the condition, that also is cut off by the terms of the treaty of purchase, and because there was no denouncement prior to the occupation, when the right lapsed. Moreover, the commission and courts herein are not holding an inquest to enforce forfeitures, but are sitting in equity to confirm rights-to carry out and enforce a trust.

6. The cases from this court cited by the judge below have not the effect he imagines, but the contrary.

7. The governor was the officer who, at the time of this grant, was authorized to concede lands in California; and there was no law or regulation in force that required the concession to be approved by the departmental assembly, nor was there any such body in existence.

8. This grant was in consideration of public services, and not subject to any condition. Aredondo's Ca. 6 Pet. 716, and authorities cited; Menard v. Massey, 8 How. 293; Jones's Rep. Sen. Doc. 18, 2d ses. 31st cong. 4 & 26; 2 Febrero Mexicano, 190, 191, §§ 19-21; Gamboa's Mining Ordinances of New Spain, index sube voc. and vol. i. 29; vol. ii. 76; Ib. 103, et seq.; opinion of the commission in case of Cervantes, Rec. of that case, 33, 39, and authorities cited; case of Garcia v. Bon, cited in opinion of Com. Hall, Rec. 28, 29; 1 Conejo, Diccionario Derecho Real; Glen v. United States, 13 How. 250; De Villemonte's Ca. 13 Ib. 266; Boisdore's Ca. 11 Ib. 115; Sibbald's Ca. 13 Pet. 313; Bases of Tacubaya, 1 Observator Judicial, 7: Instructions to Micheltorrena, printed in supplemental brief.

A second objection to the title was raised in the court below, namely: That the tract had not been surveyed under the former government, and its description and calls are insufficient to locate it. But—

1. This question is not before the court, because the act of congress does not impose the question of location and boundaries on either the commission or the courts; thus differing (and for sound reasons of policy and right) from the acts which opened the federal courts to the adjudication of claims in Florida, Missouri, and Louisiana. 1 Curtis's Com. 448, 449; 10 Pet. 334, 335; 13 Ib. 133; 15 Ib. 182; 16 Ib. 162, 166; Cong. Globe, 2d ses. 31st Cong. 375, Gwin's Rem.; Appendix to Ib. 56, 58; Ib. 134; Capt. Halleck's Rep. Sen. Doc. 1st ses. 31st Cong. No. 18; Jones's Rep. before cited; Instructions to the commission by Secretary of Interior, before cited authorities in Mr. Lockwood's brief.

2. The description and calls are sufficiently definite; there has been no difficulty in finding the particular place granted; it is well known; the quantity, and the place where it is to be surveyed, are both definite; the surveyor-general has ascertained them by actual survey.

3. The claimant had a right of selection, under the law and customs of California, of the quantity granted to him, within the boundaries, and at the place designated, leaving the overplus to the nation; and it is this overplus that is to be ascertained by survey; until which, if the rights of either party be indefinite within the given boundaries, they are those of the nation and not those of the grantee.

4. The laws under which this grant was made did not contemplate surveys or exactness in the definition of the tracts solicited or granted, but only a delineation-necessarily rude, since there was no scientific person in the whole country to make it-of the locality where the quantity was to be granted, and the overplus, if any, afterwards to be ascertained and resumed; and in this case, the designation and description supply the place of, and are as certain as, any such rule sketch could have been.

5. The whole matter of location and segregation, under and according to the grant, is referred to the surveyor-general, and he has already exercised that function, so as to show that there is no difficulty attending it.

Mr. Cushing divided his argument into two branches; the first, considering the grant as a concession of agricultural lands, under the colonization laws of the Mexican Republic, and the second, considering the land as mining land. The latter branch is omitted from this case, as are the remarks of the opposite counsel upon the same subject, as a grant of agricultural lands.

Sect. 1. Fremont's claim is on a gratuitous colonization grant, by the Mexican governor of California, to one Alvarado, of which there had been no survey; no plan; no occupation; no site even; no confirmation by the proper public authority; no performance of any of the conditions precedent or subsequent annexed to the grant, violation of prohibiting conditions; a mere naked initiatory concession, upon paper, at the date of the treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo.

Such is the extraordinary pretension of paper title.

The pretension of location is yet more extraordinary. It is of a right to locate a tract of land, ten square leagues in dimension, anywhere at the discretion of the grantee, and in any form of combination of the subdivided sectional parts, so that they touch one another, within a region of upwards of one hundred square leagues.

The Mexican system of colonization included the following principles:--

The grants were made on conditions equitably combining private and public utility.

The system was modified according to circumstances, but always preserved the principle of grants on condition, the consideration of the grant being the performance of the conditions.

The system of settling polladores was applied to California.

Sect. 2. The concession to Alvarado was null for uncertainty of description and incapability of definite location.

Alvarado petitioned for lands which he had never seen and of which he had no description. He asked for lands 'north' of the San Joaquin, supposing that river to run to the west, and west of the Snow Mountains, and between the Chanchilas and Merced Rivers, apparently supposing that they run south and enter into the first-named river, and that the tract contains ten square leagues, when it includes over a hundred. The grant is equally indefinite.

The land claimed in Fremont's petition is for the like quantity lying on the 'east' side of the San Joaquin, and claimed as the 'Las Mariposas' grant, without specific boundaries or locality, other than being between the Snow Mountains and the San Joaquin. There is no proof that the 'Las Mariposas' had been surveyed or had any specific boundaries. Not one witness could give its boundary, size, or contents. The Chanchilas does not empty into the San Joaquin, but runs westerly of the Snow Mountains, and without an outlet spreads itself over the Tulare Valley and is lost in it. 2 How. 63; 3 Ib. 773; 13 Ib. 251.

Sect. 3. The concession was not confirmed by the departmental assembly, and is not now entitled to confirmation.

By the terms of this grant, it was subject to the approval of the departmental assembly. Unless that was obtained, it was not valid. Obtaining this was a condition precedent to the perfection of the title. The governor had no power to excuse this preliminary and essential condition. A failure to perform a condition precedent, renders the grant null and void. There is no pretence that this condition has been performed. Nor was it repealed by the grantor or the act of God. No effort was made to perform it, as shown by testimony, while by the terms of the grant the whole would be void if not complied with.

Sect. 4. This grant is void, because the conditions annexed to and forming a part of it have never been performed.

The grant was under the colonization laws, for agricultural purposes. The settlement and cultivation of a new country were the leading motives to the grant. The government could derive no advantage from granting lands, which were to remain wild and unoccupied.

Hence the condition imposed in this grant, that, within the first year, Alvarado should build a house, and that it should be inhabited. No such house was built, and, of course, none was inhabited. There was no attempt to perform this condition.

He was required to solicit judicial possession of the land from a magistrate, by whom the boundaries should be marked out, on the limits of which the grantee was to place the proper landmarks. No such possession was ever solicited or given, nor limits fixed, or landmarks placed. The terms of this condition have been wholly uncomplied with.

No magistrate ever caused these ten square leagues to be surveyed, so as to separate the granted from the ungranted lands. This condition was important, with reference to further grants and settlements. Without its performance, it could not be known what remained open for grants and settlement. So far from this condition being complied with, it is not even now known where this grant is to be found.

Sect. 5. Until the governor-general confirmed the concession, the title remained in the crown.

The court may refuse to confirm where he would. Under the act of 1824, applications to confirm imperfect titles have been resisted, because conditions subsequent have not been complied with.

Sect. 6. None of the excuses for non-performance, alleged in Alvarado's behalf, possess legal force.

Sect. 7. Alvarado could not lawfully convey to Fremont a title, on which to call for a patent from the United States.

It is an elementary proposition in law, that a grantor can confer no greater title than he held, and was authorized by law to convey.

By the terms of this grant, if held valid, Alvarado had no transferable interest. The object of the government was to insure settlement and cultivation, and not to make grants that might be transferred to speculators, or incumbered in the behalf of creditors. Hence, the first condition was that he should not sell; and, by the last, if he did, he was to lose his right, and then it would be subject to be granted to another.

If the departmental assemply had approved, and all the other conditions had been fulfilled or excused, Alvarado could not have been excused from this one, without the performing an express act by one authorized by law for that purpose. Under the colonization laws, under which this grant was made, this essential condition could not have been waived. It was deemed so essential, that no one was clothed with power to release the grantor from it. No excuse is offered for violating this condition. It was voluntary, and without the apology of impossibility or release.

Sect. 8. The decision of the commissioners is itself null and void, for uncertainty and vagueness; and, if it should be confirmed, the land granted could not be located so as to be patented.

Sect. 9. The grant to Alvarado was a gratuitous one, except in so far as the performance of the conditions would relate back to constitute a consideration.

Sect. 10. The original petition, the provisional grant, and the decree of the commissioners, each assumes a floating claim, not as a grant of an identical tract of land, by metes and bounds, all of which is without warranty of law.

Sect. 11. Under the foregoing authorities, it is maintained, in opposition to the claim of Fremont, the petitioner:--

1. The land in California passed, by conquest, to the crown of Spain, subject to the occupancy of the Indians; so much of it as remained ungranted, and not severed from the royal domain, passed to the Mexican Republic, by the fact of its independence of Spain, as national domain; and so much of it as had not been severed from the national domain of Mexico, by lawful grant or other sufficient title, passed to the United States by the treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo, and became public lands of the United States.

2. Hence, according to the whole series of decisions under the Louisiana and Florida treaties, and, by parity of reasoning, under that of Guadaloupe Hidalgo, as all the land was, and is, in the first instance, that of the prince or government standing for the aggregate political society, whoever claims as against the State, that is, against the people of the United States, to own any part of such land in severalty, and segregated from the public domain, is held to show a 'right or title,' either at law or in equity.

3. The grant to Alvarado was a donation, or gratuitous grant, under the decree of 1824 and the regulations of 1828, concerning colonization, and subject to all the limitations of those acts, from which the departmental authorities could not derogate, except in the particulars expressly authorized by the same.

4. The petitioner, Fremont, has no claim on the equities of the United States, in regard to the land donated to Alvarado, unless the latter complied with the conditions of the Mexican law, which constituted the inducement of the grant. This, in point of fact, he did not do; and so the lands fall back into the public domain of the United States.

Mr. Chief Justice TANEY delivered the opinion of the court.

The court have considered this case with much attention. It is not only important to the claimant and the public, but it is understood that many claims to land in California depend upon the same principles, and will, in effect, be decided by the judgment of the court in this case.

A preliminary question has been raised, as to the jurisdiction of the district court from which the appeal has been taken; but the same question has been already examined and decided in the case of the United States v. Ritchie, and it is unnecessary to discuss it further. We think it very clear that the district court had jurisdiction, and proceed to examine the validity of the claim upon this appeal.

The 8th section of the act of March 3, 1851, 'to ascertain and settle the private land claims in the State of California,' directs: 'That each and every person claiming lands in California, by virtue of any right or title derived from the Spanish or Mexican government, shall present the same to the commissioners, (to be appointed under that act,) when sitting as a board, together with such documentary evidence and testimony of witnesses as the said claimant relies upon in support of such claims; and it shall be the duty of the commissioners, when the case is ready for hearing, to proceed promptly to examine the same upon such evidence, and upon the evidence produced in behalf of the United States, and to decide upon the validity of the said claim, and, within thirty days after such decision is rendered, to certify the same, with the reasons on which it is founded, to the district attorney of the United States in and for the district in which such decision shall be rendered.'

And the 11th section provides, that the commissioners therein provided for, and the district and supreme court, in deciding on any claim brought before them under the provisions of that act, shall be governed by the treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo, the law of nations, the laws, usages, and customs of the government from which the claim is derived, the principles of equity, and the decisions of the supreme court of the United States, as far as they are applicable.

The decisions of the supreme court, mentioned in this section, evidently refer to decisions heretofore given in relation to titles in Louisiana and Florida, which were derived from the French or Spanish authorities, previous to the cession to the United States. And as these decisions must govern the case under consideration, as far as they are applicable, it is proper to state the principles upon which they were made, before we proceed to examine it. In doing this, however, we do not propose to refer separately to each of the numerous decisions which may be found in the reports; nor is it necessary. They will be found to have been uniformly decided upon certain fixed principles of law, applicable to those grants, which cannot always be applied with justice and equity to a case like the one before us. The laws of congress, giving the jurisdiction, were different in one respect; and the condition of the countries, as well as the laws and usages of the nation making the grants, were also different.

It will be seen, from the quotation we have made, that the 8th section embraces not only inchoate or equitable titles, but legal titles also; and requires them all to undergo examination, and to be passed upon by the court. The object of this provision appears to be, to place the titles to land in California upon a stable foundation, and to give the parties who possess them an opportunity of placing them on the records of the country, in a manner and form that will prevent future controversy.

In this respect, it differs from the act of 1824, under which the claims in Louisiana and Florida were decided. The jurisdiction of the court, in these cases, was confined to inchoate equitable titles, which required some other act of the government to vest in the party the legal title or full ownership. If he claimed to have obtained from either of the former governments a full and perfect title, he was left to assert it in the ordinary forms of law, upon the documents under which he claimed. The court had no power to sanction or confirm it when proceeding under the act of 1824, or the subsequent laws extending its provisions.

And the language of the court, in passing judgment upon the claims in Louisiana of Florida, must always be understood as applying to cases in which the government still held the ownership of the land, and where the right of the party to demand a conveyance, upon principles of equity and good faith, must be shown by him, before he could claim it from the United States.

The mode and form of granting lands in these provinces, and the character and stability of the provincial governments, must also be considered, before we can determine how far the principles established in the decisions of those cases are applicable to the grants by the Mexican authorities, after the country was separated from Spain.

Grants of land in Louisiana and Florida were usually made in the following manner: The party who desired to form a settlement upon any unoccupied land presented his petition to the officer who had authority to grant, stating the quantity of land he desired, the place where it was situated, and the purposes to which it was to be applied. Upon the receipt of the petition, the governor, or other officer who had the power to grant, issued what is usually called a concession to the party, authorizing him to have the land surveyed by the official surveyor of the province. And it was the duty of this officer to ascertain whether the land asked for was vacant, or the grant of it would prejudice the right of other parties; and, if the surveyor found it to be vacant, and that the grant would not interfere with the rights of others, he returned a plat, or figurative plan, as it was called, and the party thereupon received a grant in absolute ownership.

These grants were almost uniformly made upon condition of settlement, or some other improvement, by which the interest of the colony, it was supposed, would be promoted. But until the survey was made, no interest, legal or equitable, passed in the land. The original concession granted on his petition was a naked authority or permission, and nothing more. But when he had incurred the expense and trouble of the survey, under the assurances contained in the concession, he had a just and equitable claim to the land thus marked out by lines, subject to the conditions upon which he had originally asked for the grant. But the examination of the surveyor, the actual survey, and the return of the plat, were conditions precedent, and he had no equity against the government, and no just claim to a grant until they were performed; for he had paid nothing, and done nothing, which gave him a claim upon the conscience and good faith of the government. There were some cases, indeed, in which there were absolute grants of title with conditions subsequent annexed to them. The case of Arredondo, reported in 6 Peters, and of which we shall speak hereafter, was one of this description. But the great mass of cases which come before this court, and which have been supposed to bear on this case, were of the character above mentioned.

It necessarily happened, from this mode of granting, that many concessions were obtained which the parties never afterwards acted on. A person who had contemplated a settlement, or planting a colony, or making some other improvement in a particular place, sometimes changed his mind, or found some other situation more suitable, or found himself unable to comply with the conditions which, in his petition, he had proposed to perform.

But these concessions or permissions were never recalled, and remained in the possession of the party, although he had abandoned all thoughts of acting upon them. And when the United States obtained the sovereignty of these countries, and the energy, enterprise, and industry of our citizens were rapidly filling it, and lands which were of no value under the Spanish government would be ample fortunes under the United States, many persons, who for years had held these concessions without attempting to avail themselves of the authority they gave him, came forward and claimed the right to do so under the government of the union.

A few cases, which appear to have been relied on in the argument in behalf of the United States, will show the character of most of them, and the principles upon which they were decided in this court. In the case of Boisdor e, (11 How. 63,) he had obtained the authority or concession on which he relied in the year 1783. He had never caused a survey to be made during the existence of the Spanish government, although twenty years had elapsed before its cession to this country. Nor was any step taken by him to obtain a title from the United States, nor any claim legally brought forward, for seventeen years after the territory had been ceded to the United States. And nothing like any serious attempt had been made to fulfil the conditions upon which he had obtained the concession.

So, too, in the case of Glenn and others v. The United States, 13 How. 250, (usually called the Clamorgan case,) the grant was obtained in 1796, and no possession taken, and no survey had, nor any of the stipulations into which he had entered complied with, while the Spanish government lasted. Nor, indeed, was any claim made to it for several years after the cession to the United States; nor until the country in which it was situated was filling up with an industrious population, and the land becoming of great value.

So, again, in the case of Villemont against the United States, (13 How. 266,) the concession or authority was made in 1795, and there was an express provision in the concession, that unless the establishment he proposed in his petition was made on the land in three years, the concession should be null. Yet he did nothing during the continuance of the Spanish government, although it lasted eight years afterwards; and the excuse from Indian hostility could hardly avail him, because no difficulty of that kind is suggested in his petition; and from the character of the improvements he promised to make, it would seem that one of the objects of this large grant was to form an establishment which would be useful in repelling Indian hostilities from the neighboring Spanish settlements.

This brief statement of the facts in these cases shows that the parties had acquired no right, legal or equitable, to these lands under the Spanish government. The instruments under which they claimed were evidently not intended as donations of the land, as a matter of favor to the individual, or as a reward for services rendered to the public. They were intended to promote the settlement of the territories, and to advance its prosperity. But up to the time when Spain ceded them, the parties had done nothing to accomplish the object, or to carry out the policy of the government. They had evidently no claim, therefore, upon the justice or conscience of the Spanish government. It had not granted them the land, and they had done nothing which, in equity, bound that government to make them a title. And when Spain ceded the territories to the United States, it held these lands as public domain as fully and amply as if those concessions or authorities had never been given; and the United States received the title in the same full and ample manner; neither the legal nor equitable right to them, as public domain, had been impaired by any act of the Spanish authority, nor had any right been conveyed to or vested in the claimants.

It is proper to remark, that the laws of these territories under which titles were claimed, were never treated by the court as foreign laws, to be decided as a question of fact. It was always held that the court was bound judicially to notice them, as much so as the laws of a State of the Union. In doing this, however, it was undoubtedly often necessary to inquire into official customs and forms and usages. They constitute what may be called the common or unwritten law of every civilized country. And when there are no published reports of judicial decisions which show the received construction of a statute, and the powers exercised under it by the tribunals or officers of the government, it is often necessary to seek information from other authentic sources, such as the records of official acts, and the practice of the different tribunals and public authorities. And it may sometimes be necessary to seek information from individuals whose official position or pursuits have given them opportunities of acquiring knowledge. But it has always been held that it is for the court to decide what weight is to be given to information obtained from any of these sources. It exercises the same discretion and power, in this respect, which it exercises when it refers to the different reported decisions of state courts, and compares them together, in order to make up an opinion as to the unwritten law of the State, or the construction given to one of its statutes.

With these principles, which have been adjudicated by this court, to guide us, we proceed to examine the validity of the grant to Alvarado, which is now in controversy.

There can be no question as to the power of the governor of California to make the grant. And it appears to have been made according to the regular forms and usages of the Mexican law. It has conditions attached to it; but these are conditions subsequent. And the first point to be decided is, whether the grant vested in Alvarado any present and immediate interest; and, if it did, then, secondly, whether any thing done or omitted to be done by him, during the existence of the Mexican government in California, forfeited the interest he had acquired, and revested it in the government? For if, at the time the sovereignty of the country passed to the United States, any interest, legal or equitable, remained vested in Alvarado or his assigns, the United States are bound in good faith to uphold and protect it.

Now, the grant in question is not like the Louisiana and Florida concessions-a mere permission to make a survey in a particular place, and return a plat of the land he desires, with a promise from the government that he shall have a title to it when these things are done. But the grant, after reciting that Alvarado was worthy, for his patriotic services, to be preferred in his pretension for his personal benefit, and that of his family, for the tract of land known by the name of Mariposas, to the extent of ten square leagues, within certain limits mentioned in the grant; and that the necessary requirements, according to the provisions of the laws and regulations, had been previously complied with, proceeds, in the name of the Mexican nation, to grant him the aforesaid tract, declaring the same, by that instrument, to be his property in fee, subject to the approbation of the departmental assembly and the conditions annexed to the grant.

The words of the grant are positive and plain. They purport to convey to him a present and immediate interest. And the grant was not made merely to carry out the colonization policy of the government, but in consideration of the previous public and patriotic services of the grantee. This inducement is carefully put forth in the title papers. And, although this cannot be regarded as a money consideration, making the transaction a purchase from the government, yet it is the acknowledgment of a just and equitable claim; and, when the grant was made on that consideration, the title in a court of equity ought to be as firm and valid as if it had been purchased with money on the same conditions.

It is argued that the description is so vague and uncertain that nothing passed by the grant; and that he had no vested interest until the land was surveyed, and the part intended to be granted severed by lines or known boundaries from the public domain. But this objection cannot be maintained. It is true, that if any other person within the limits where the quantity granted to Alvarado was to be located, had afterwards obtained a grant from the government, by specific boundaries, before Alvarado had made his survey, the title of the latter grantee could not be impaired by any subsequent survey of Alvarado. As between the individual claimants from the government, the title of the party who had obtained a grant for the specific land would be the superior and better one. For, by the general grant to Alvarado, the government did not bind itself to make no other grant within the territory described, until after he had made his survey. But, as between him and the government, he had a vested interest in the quantity of land mentioned in the grant. The right to so much land, to be afterwards laid off by official authority, in the territory described, passed from the government to him by the execution of the instrument granting it.

This principle of law was maintained by the decision of this court, in the case of Rutherford v. Greene's Heirs, reported in 2 Wheat. 196. The State of North Carolina, in 1780, passed an act reserving a certain tract of country to be appropriated to its officers and soldiers; and in 1782, after granting 640 acres in the territory reserved to each family that had previously settled on it, and appointing commissioners to lay off, in one or more tracts, the land allotted to the officers and soldiers, proceeded to enact that 25,000 acres of land should be allotted for and given to Major-General Nathaniel Greene, his heirs and assigns, within the bounds of the lands reserved for the use of the army, to be laid off by the aforesaid commissioners, as a mark of the high sense the State entertained of the extraordinary services of that brave and gallant officer.'

In pursuance of this law, the commissioners allotted 25,000 acres of land to General Greene, and caused the tract to be surveyed and returned to the proper office. The manner in which the title originated under which Rutherford claimed, is not very clearly stated in the case. The decision turned altogether on the validity of the title of General Greene, and the date at which it commenced. And the court said, that the general gift of 25,000 acres lying in the territory reserved, became, by the survey, a particular gift of the 25,000 acres contained in the survey. And, after examining the title very fully, the court in conclusion say: 'It is clearly and unanimously the opinion of the court, that the act of 1782 vested a title in General Greene to 25,000 acres of land, to be laid off within the boundaries allotted to the officers and soldiers, and that the survey made in pursuance of that act, and returned March 3, 1783, gave precision to that title, and attached it to the land surveyed.'

There was a further objection taken to the title of General Greene, upon the ground that, by the constitution of North Carolina, there should be a seal of the State to be kept by the governor and affixed to all grants. And it was objected, that this grant by the legislature had not the formality required by the constitution to pass the estate. But in answer to this, the court said that this provision was intended for the completion and authentication of an instrument attesting a title previously created by law. That it was merely the evidence of prior legal appropriation, and not the act of the original appropriation itself.

The principles decided in this case appear to the court to be conclusive as to the legal effect of the grant to Alvarado. It recognizes as a general principle of justice and municipal law, that such a grant for a certain quantity of land by the government, to be afterwards surveyed and laid off within a certain territory, vests in the grantee a present and immediate interest. In the language of the court, the general gift becomes a particular gift when the survey is made; and when this doctrine has been asserted in this court, upon the general principles which courts of justice apply to such grants from the public to an individual, good faith requires that the same doctrine should be applied to grants made by the Mexican government, where a controversy arises between the United States and the Mexican grantee.

The act that the grant to General Greene was made by an act of assembly, did not influence the decision; nor did the court allude to it as affecting the question. It is the grant of the State, whether made by a special law of the legislature, or by the public officer authorized to make it.

Another objection has been made, upon the ground that the 8th article of the regulations of 1828 requires what is called a definite grant, signed by the governor, to serve as a title to the party interested, wherein it must be stated that the said grant is made in exact conformity with the provisions of the laws, in virtue whereof possession shall be given; and it is argued that no title passed until this definite grant was obtained. But this document is manifestly intended as the evidence that the conditions annexed to the grant have all been complied with. It is not required in order to give him a vested interest, but to show that the estate, conveyed by the original grant upon certain conditions, is no longer subject to them; and that he has become definitely the owner, without any conditions annexed to the continuance of his estate. It is like the patent required by the laws of North Carolina after the original grant to General Greene, which the court said was for the completion and authentication of an instrument attesting a title previously created by law; and, like the case of General Greene, Alvarado had a vested interest without it.

Regarding the grant to Alvarado, therefore, as having given him a vested interest in the quantity of land therein specified, we proceed to inquire whether there was any breach of the conditions annexed to it, during the continuance of the Mexican authorities, which forfeited his right and revested the title in the government.

The main objection on this ground is the omission to take possession, to have the land surveyed, and to build a house on it, within the time limited in the conditions. It is a sufficient answer to this objection to say, that negligence in respect to these conditions and others annexed to the grant does not, of itself, always forfeit his right. It subjects the land to be denounced by another, but the conditions do not declare the land forfeited to the State, upon the failure of the grantee to perform them.

The chief object of these grants was to colonize and settle the vacant lands. The grants were usually made for that purpose, without any other consideration, and without any claim of the grantee on the bounty or justice of the government. But the public had no interest in forfeiting them even in these cases, unless some other person desired, and was ready to occupy them, and thus carry out the policy of extending its settlements. They seem to have boen intended to stimulate the grantee to prompt action in settling and colonizing the land, by making it open to appropriation by others, in case of his failure to perform them. But as between him and the government, there is nothing in the language of the conditions, taking them all together, nor in their evident object and policy, which would justify the court in declaring the land forfeited to the government, where no other person sought to appropriate them, and their performance had not been unreasonably delayed; nor do we find any thing in the practice and usages of the Mexican tribunals, as far as we can ascertain them, that would lead to a contrary conclusion.

Upon this view of the subject, we proceed to inquire whether there has been any unreasonable delay, or want of effort, on the part of Alvarado to fulfil the conditions? For if this was the case, it might justly be presumed, as in the Louisiana and Florida concessions, that the party had abandoned his claim before the Mexican power ceased to exist, and was now endeavoring to resume it, from the enhanced value under the government of the United States.

The petition of Alvarado to the governor is dated February 23, 1844; and, after passing through the regular official forms required by the Mexican law, the grant was made on the 29th of the same month. According to the regulations for granting lands, it was necessary that a plan or sketch of its lines and boundaries should be presented with the petition; but, in the construction of these regulations, the governors appear to have exercised a discretionary power to dispense with it under certain circumstances. It was not required in the present instance. The reason assigned for it in the petition was, the difficulty of preparing it, the land lying in a wilderness country, on the confines of the wild Indians. This reason was deemed by the governor sufficient, and the grant issued without it; and in deciding upon the validity of a Mexican grant, the court could not, without doing injustice to individuals, give to the Mexican laws a more narrow and strict construction than they received from the Mexican authorities who were intrusted with their execution. It is the duty of the court to protect rights obtained under them, which would have been regarded as vested and valid by the Mexican authorities. And as the governor deemed himself authorized, under the circumstances, to dispense with the usual plan, and his decision, in this respect, was sanctioned by the other officers intrusted with the execution of the law, it must be presumed that the power he exercised was lawful, and that the want of a plan did not invalidate the grant. The fact that the country where the land was situated was such a wilderness, and bordered by such dangerous neighbors, that no plan could then be prepared, is proved by these documents; and that fact, officially admitted, is worthy of consideration, when we come to the inquiry whether there was unreasonable delay in taking possession. For, by dispensing with the plan or draft on that account, which was a condition precedent, it may justly be inferred that the conditions subsequent were not expected by the governor to be performed, nor their performance intended to be exacted, until the state of the country would permit it to be done with some degree of safety.

Now, it is well known that Mexico, and California as a part of it, had, for some years before, been in a disturbed and unsettled state, constantly threatened with insurrectionary and revolutionary movements; and in this state of things, the uncivilized Indians had become more turbulent, and were dangerous to the frontier settlements, which were not strong enough to resist them. It is in proof that this state of things existed in the Mariposas valley when this grant was made; that it was unsafe to remain there without a military force; and that this continued to be the case until the Mexican government was overthrown by the American arms. In the very year of the grant, a civil war broke out in the province, which ended by the expulsion of the Mexican troops; and Colonel Fremont entered California at the head of an American force, in 1846, and the country was entirely subdued, and under the military government of the United States, in the beginning of 1847, and continued to be so held until it was finally ceded to the United States under the treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo. In February,1847, while California was thus occupied by the American forces, Alvarado conveyed to Colonel Fremont.

Now, it is very clear, from the evidence, that during the continuance of the Mexican power it was impossible to have made a survey, or to have built a house on the land, and occupied it for the purposes for which it was granted. The difficulties which induced the governor to dispense with a plan when he made the grant, increased instead of diminishing. We have stated them very briefly in this opinion, but they are abundantly and in more detail proved by the testimony in the record. Nobody proposed to settle on it, or denounced the grant for a breach of the conditions. And at the time when the Mexican authorities were displaced by the American arms, the right which Alvarado had obtained by the original grant remained vested in him, according to the laws and usages of the Mexican government, and remained so vested when the dominion and control of the government passed from Mexico to the United States. The same causes which made it impossible to take possession of the premises and obtain a survey, made it equally impracticable to obtain the approval of the departmental assembly. The confusion and disorder of the times prevented it from holding regular meetings. It is doubtful whether it met more than once after this grant was made; and its proceedings, from the state of the country, were necessarily hurried, and the assembly too much engrossed by the public dangers to attend to the details or private interests. It does not appear that the governor ever communicated this grant to the assembly. At all events, they never acted on it. And the omission or inability of the public authorities to perform their duty, cannot, upon any sound principle of law or equity, forfeit the property of the individual to the State. It undoubtedly disabled him from obtaining what is called a definitive title, showing that all the conditions had been performed; but it could not devest him of the right of property he had already acquired by the original grant, and revest it in the State.

And certainly no delay is chargeable to Alavardo or Fremont after California was subjected to the American arms. The civil and municipal officers, who continued to exercise their functions afterwards, did so under the authority of the American government. The alcalde had no right to survey the land or deliver judicial possession, except by the permission of the American authorities. He could do nothing that would in any degree affect the rights of the United States to the public property; and the United States could not justly claim the forfeiture of the land for a breach of these conditions, without showing that there were officers in California, under the military government, who were authorized by a law of congress to make this survey, and deliver judicial possession to the grantee. It is certain that no such authority existed after the overthrow of the Mexican government. Indeed, if it had existed, the principles decided in the case of Arredondo, 6 Pet. 745, 746, would furnish a satisfactory answer to the objection.

Two other objections on the part of the United States to the confirmation of this title remain to be noticed. The first condition annexed to the grant prohibits grantee from selling, alienating, or mortgaging the property, or subjecting it to taxes, entail, or any other incumbrances. And by the laws of Mexico, the grantee could not, it is said, sell or convey the land to any one but a Mexican citizen, and that Fremont was not a Mexican citizen at the time of the conveyance under which he claims.

In relation to the first objection, it is evident from the disturbed state and frequent revolutions in the province, that there was some irregularity in the conditions annexed to grants, and that conditions appropriate to one description of grant, from clerical oversight, or some other cause, were sometimes annexed to others. This is manifestly the case in the present instance; for this condition is in violation of the Mexican laws, and could not, therefore, be legally annexed to this grant. For by the decree of the Mexican congress of August 7, 1823, all property which had been at any time entailed, ceased to be so from the 20th of September, 1820, and was declared to be and continue absolutely free; and no one in future was permitted to entail it. And the prohibition in the 13th article of the regulations of 1824, to transfer property in mortmain, necessarily implies that it might be aliened and transferred in any other manner.

But if this condition was valid by the laws of Mexico, and it any conveyance made by Alvarado would have forfeited the land under the Mexican government as a breach of this condition, or if it would have been forfeited by a conveyance to an alien, it does not by any means follow that the same penalty would be incurred by the conveyance to Fremont.

California was at that time in possession of the American forces, and held by the United States as a conquered country, subject to the authority of the American government. The Mexican municipal laws, which were then administered, were administered under the authority of the United States, and might be repealed or abrogated at their pleasure; and any Mexican law inconsistent with the rights of the United States, or its public policy, or with the rights of its citizens, were annulled by the conquest. Now, there is no principle of public law which prohibits a citizen of a conquering country from purchasing property, real or personal, in the territory thus acquired and held; nor is there any thing in the principles of our government, in its policy or its laws, which forbids it. The Mexican government, if it had regained the power, and it had been its policy to prevent the alienation of real estate, might have treated the sale by Alvarado as a violation of its laws; but it becomes a very different question when the American government is called on to execute the Mexican law. And it can hardly be maintained that an American citizen, who makes a contract or purchases property under such circumstances, can be punished in a court of the United States with the penalty of forfeiture, when there is no law of congress to inflict it. The purchase was perfectly consistent with the rights and duties of Colonel Fremont, as an American officer and an American citizen; and the country in which he made the purchase was, at the time, subject to the authority and dominion of the United States.

Still less can the fact that he was not a citizen of Mexico impair the validity of the conveyance. Every American citizen who was then in California had at least equal rights with the Mexicans; and any law of the Mexican nation which had subjected them to disabilities, or denied to them equal privileges, were necessarily abrogated without a formal repeal.

In relation to that part of the argument which disputes his right, upon the ground that his grant embraces mines of gold or silver, it is sufficient to say that, under the mining laws of Spain, the discovery of a mine of gold or silver did not destroy the title of the individual to the land granted. The only question before the court is the validity of the title. And whether there be any mines on this land, and, if there be any, what are the rights of the sovereignty in them, are questions which must be decided in another form of proceeding, and are not subjected to the jurisdiction of the commissioners or the court, by the act of 1851.

Some difficulty has been suggested as to the form of the survey. The law directs that a survey shall be made, and a plat returned, of all claims affirmed by the commissioners. And as the lines of this land have not been fixed by public authority, their proper location may be a matter of some difficulty. Under the Mexican government, the survey was to be made or approved by the officer of the government, and the party was not at liberty to give what form he pleased to the grant. This precaution was necessary, in order to prevent the party from giving it such a form as would be inconvenient to the adjoining public domain, and impair its value. The right which the Mexican government reserved to control this survey passed, with all other public rights, to the United States; and the survey must now be made under the authority of the United States, and in the form and divisions prescribed by law for surveys in California, embracing the entire grant in one tract.

Upon the whole, it is the opinion of the court that the claim of the petitioner is valid, and ought to be confirmed. The decree of the district court must, therefore, be reversed, and the case remanded, with directions to the district court to enter a decree conformably to this opinion.

Mr. Justice CATRON and Mr. Justice CAMPBELL dissented.

This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record from the district court of the United States for the northern district of California, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, it is the opinion of this court that the claim of the petitioner to the land, as described and set forth in the record, is a good and valid claim; whereupon it is now here ordered, adjudged, and decreed by this court, that the decree of the said district court in this cause be and the same is hereby reversed, and that this cause be and the same is hereby remanded to the said district court for further proceedings to be had therein, in conformity to the opinion of this court.


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).