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United States Supreme Court

72 U.S. 326

Townsend  v.  Greeley

ON the 20th of June, 1855, the common council of the city of San Francisco, the legislative body of that city, passed 'An ordinance for the settlement and quieting of the land titles in the city of San Francisco.' This ordinance is generally known in San Francisco as 'The Van Hess ordinance,' after the name of its reputed author. By the second section of the ordinance the city reliquished and granted all her right and claim to the lands within the corporate limits, as defined by the charter of 1851, with certain exceptions, to the parties in the actual possession thereof, by themselves or tenants, on or before the 1st day of January, 1855, and to their heirs and assigns forever, provided such possession continued up to the time of the introduction of the ordinance into the common council; or, if interrupted by an intruder or trespasser, had been or might be recovered by legal process. This ordinance was ratified by the legislature of the State on the 11th of March, 1858.

At the time this ordinance was passed the city of San Francisco asserted a claim to four square leagues of land, as successor of a Mexican pueblo, established and in existence at the site of the present city, and had presented her claim for the same to the board of commissioners created under the 'act to ascertain and settle the private land claims in the State of California,' of March 3d, 1851, for confirmation, and the board had confirmed the claim for a portion of the land and rejected the claim for the rest. The portion confirmed included the premises in controversy.

One Greeley, having acquired title to certain premises from parties who were in the actual possession of them at the time mentioned in the ordinance, brought the present action, ejectment, in one of the District Courts of the State of California, against two persons whom he found in occupation,-Townsend and Powelson, defendants below,-to oust them. The defendants filed separate answers.

Townsend, after pleading a general denial, averred as a separate answer, in substance, 'that by the treaty of peace between the United States and Mexico, dated at Guadalupe Hidalgo, February 2d, 1848, the ownership and title in fee simple of the lot passed to and became vested in the United States, and that the United States afterwards, by force and effect of the act of the Congress thereof, passed March 3d, 1851, entitled 'An act to ascertain and settle the private land claims in the State of California,' and by force and effect of the final decision and decree of the board of commissioners of said United States, appointed and acting thereunder (upon the petition and claim of the city of San Francisco, presented to and filed before said board in favor of said city), the ownership and title in fee so acquired and held by the United States passed to and vested in the city of San Francisco, and that by divers mesne conveyances, and by force of divers ordinances of the said city, and an act or acts of the legislature of California, the title in fee had, prior to the 28th day of March, A. D. 1862, become, and then was, vested in and held by one Mumford, who executed a lease of the premises to the defendant Powelson, under which Powelson entered and took possession, and has ever since continued, and still is, lawfully, peaceably, and rightfully in possession thereof.' And that all acts done by the defendant Townsend with reference to the premises, have been done as the agent and attorney of the said Mumford, and by his authority, and by the license and permission of the said Powelson, his lessee.

The answer of the other defendant, Powelson, was substantially the same, except that he averred that he held as tenant under Mumford.

On the trial various exceptions were taken to the ruling of the court upon matters relating to the possession of the plaintiff, but the manner in which the matters arose are not stated, because the rulings made thereon are not noticed by the court, for the reasons given in its opinion.

The defendants offered in evidence a certified copy of the petition of the city of San Francisco, filed on the second day of July, A. D. 1852, before the board of United States Land Commissioners, appointed and sitting under the already mentioned act of Congress of March 3, 1851; the said copy being certified to be a true copy of said petition by the United States Surveyor-General of California.

Also, in connection with the said petition, a certified copy of the decree of said board of land commissioners thereupon made, and filed in the office of the secretary of said board on the 21st of December, A. D. 1854, confirming to the city a tract of land therein described; the said last-mentioned copy being likewise certified by said surveyor-general to be a true copy of the said decree.

The court then inquiring of the defendants and requiring them to state by what proof they intended to follow the said documentary evidence, they offered to prove that the premises in controversy were a part of the land described in the decree of confirmation; that the appeal for the decree was dismissed by the District Court of the United States, March 30, 1857, and that the decree had become final; and they also offered to deraign title to the premises in dispute under said confirmation, from the city to Mumford, by conveyances executed and delivered since the decree of confirmation, and since the dismissal of the appeal therefrom, and prior to the 28th day of March, A. D. 1862, and offered to justify the acts to Townsend done in reference to the premises, by proving authority for his acts as agent and attorney for Mumford, and to justify the entry of the defendant Powelson by proving a lease to him of the premises from Mumford.

The court then inquiring further of the defendants, and requiring them to state by what means, and in what particular manner they expected to deraign title to Mumford from the city, they offered to show the recovery of a judgment against the city, the issue of an execution thereon, and the sale by the sheriff of the county thereunder of the premises in controversy, and the purchase of the same by one Wakeman, the delivery of a sheriff's deed to him, and his conveyance of his interest to the said Mumford.

Thereupon the plaintiff objected to the admission of the evidence offered, or of any part of it, on various grounds, and among others, on the ground that the premises in controversy were not subject to seizure and sale under execution upon a judgment against the city; and hence that the title could not be affected in any way by the introduction of the evidence offered. The court sustained the objection and excluded the evidence. The defendants excepted to the ruling. The plaintiff had judgment, and the Supreme Court of the State having affirmed it, the case was here upon writ of error, under the twenty-fifth section of the Judiciary Act.

Messrs. Ewing and Vanarman, for the plaintiffs in error:

The court below erred in excluding from the jury the evidence offered by the defendants of the final confirmation of the premises in controversy by the United States to the city, and of the deraignment of title thereto from the city to Mumford, under whom they undertook and claimed the right, to justify their possession.

1. By the treaty of February 2, 1848, between the United States and the Mexican Republic, commonly known as that of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the title to all lands then vested in the Mexican Republic within what is now the State of California, passed to and became vested in the United States. [1]

2. By presumption of law all lands within this State are deemed public lands, and the title thereto vested in the United States until the title is shown to be elsewhere. [2] And this presumption applies as well to lands situated within the limits of a 'pueblo' as elsewhere. [3]

3. The confirmation, therefore, by the United States of the premises in dispute to the city of San Francisco, by decree of the United States Commissioners, dated December 21, 1854, made final March 30th, 1857 (which the defendants offered to prove by the evidence excluded by the court), operated to vest the title of the United States, from that date, in the city. [4]

4. The title so acquired was one upon which an action of ejectment could be maintained, and, of course, defended. [5]

5. The title so acquired was a complete American title under the act of Congress, though derived from Mexico through the United States, and was the legal title in fee simple absolute. [6]

6. No trust attached upon this title. If any holding in trust could be predicated of lands being 'situated within the limits of a pueblo,' or of their being 'reserved or set apart for the uses of a pueblo,' nothing of either kind was shown in this case, and neither this court nor the court below could acquire any knowledge of either of those facts, except by proof.

Messrs. W. M. Stewart and C. Burbank, contra, for the defendant in error:

The court below, in the trial of the action, properly excluded the decree of the United States Land Commissioners confirming the title of the city of San Francisco to the pueblo lands and the evidence offered of the deraignment of the title of the city to Mumford; because—

I. The defendants only proposed to connect themselves with the title of the city by showing a judgment against the city and an execution sale under it. This would not show title in them; because—

1st. San Francisco was a pueblo at the date of the conquest and cession of California, with the municipal rights of such a body.

2d. The city, as successor to such pueblo, has a right and title to the uplands within her limits, and holds those undisposed of in trust for the uses and purposes of the municipality.

3d. He lands thus held in trust are not subject to seizure and sale under execution against the city. [7]

II. The decree of confirmation did not, as asserted by the defendants, give an American title to the city. It only established the fact that San Francisco was a pueblo, and that the lands within her limits were not a portion of the public lands of the United States. It followed, as an inevitable conclusion, that the pueblo held the lands within its limits for the uses and purposes of the municipality.

Mr. Justice FIELD delivered the opinion of the court.


^1  Art. V of the Treaty.

^2  Act of Congress admitting California, § 3; California Statutes, 1856, p. 54, § 1; People v. Folsom, 5 California, 377; Burdge v. Smith, 14 Id. 383.

^3  Brown v. San Francisco, 16 California, 459, 460; Chouteau v. Eckhart, 2 Howard, 344; Les Bois v. Bramell, 4 Id. 464.

^4  Act to Settle Private Land Claims in California, § 15, 9 Stat. at Large, 634; Stoddard v. Chambers, 2 Howard, 316; Les Bois v. Bramell, 4 Id. 463, 464; Bryan v. Forsyth, 19 Id. 335, 336, 337; Waterman v. Smith, 13 California, 419; Moore v. Wilkinson, Id. 488; Gregory v. McPherson, Id. 574; Natoma W. & M. Co. v. Clarkin, 14 Id. 550, 551; Soto v. Kroder, 19 Id. 96; Estrada v. Murphy, Id. 272-274.

^5  Strother v. Lucas, 12 Peters, 452-454; Stoddard v. Chambers, 2 Howard, 316, 317; Stanford v. Taylor, 18 Id. 412; Bryan v. Forsyth, 19 Id. 336, 337.

^6  See Opinion of United States Land Commissioners in the City Case; Bissell v. Penrose, 8 Howard, 331; Strother v. Lucas, 12 Peters, 453, 454; Stoddard v. Chambers, 2 Howard, 316, 317; Les Bois v. Bramell, 4 Id. 464.

^7  Hart v. Burnett, 15 California, 615; Fulton v. Hanlow, 20 Id. 450.

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).