United States v. Johnson (68 U.S. 326)

United States Supreme Court

68 U.S. 326

The United States  v.  William S. Johnson

APPEAL from the District Court of the United States for the Southern District of California.

No. 119.  Argued: January 26, 1864. --- Decided: February 15, 1864.

APPEAL from the District Court of the United States for the Southern District of California, the case being thus:

Johnson and others, the respondents, claimed title under the Mexican government, through one Chaves, to a tract of land called Pleyto, lying in the present county of Monterey, State of California, and containing about three leagues; which land he had petitioned for on the 2d of June, 1845. The deed to Chaves purported to be made on the 18th July, 1845, by Pio Pico, one of the Mexican governors of California; and it recited that 'the necessary steps and investigations were previously taken and made in conformity with the requirements of laws and regulations.' On the 8th May, 1846, the 'expediente' [*] was laid before the Departmental Assembly, and was ordered to be referred to the Committee on Vacant Lands. The land asked for by Chaves having been once occupied by a community of priests, of the mission of St. Antonio, and being said to have a house upon it which they had built, the committee recommended that 'the expediente be remitted to the authorities of that jurisdiction to be reported on, and to the person in charge of San Antonio, in order that he may say in what condition that house was at the time the grant was made, so that it might be valued, and that community be indemnified, to avoid questions relative to the expediente, to the end that, after these proceedings are concluded, the respective approval may be given.' The Departmental Assembly, thus referring it, was soon afterwards dissolved, and nothing further done. The original grant made it a condition that Chaves should occupy the land, which there was evidence, though not wholly uncontradicted, that he did.

In some of the deeds through which the respondents claimed, the parties signing the deeds did not, apparently, sign them by the exact names with which, in the instruments, they were described. One deed, for example, purported to be made by Tomas Soberannes, and was signed Thomas G. Soberannes. Another purported, in the body of it, to be made by Tomas Guadaloup Soberannes; but said that the land was devised to the said Tomas Guadaloup Sanchez, under the name of Guadaloup Soberannes. It was signed T. Guadaloup Sanchez, and acknowledged T. Guadalupe Sobrannes; and so in other instances. Some of the witnesses to papers making part of the title were persons whose names had been before this court in former cases, and had been spoken of, in judicial opinions reported, as not worthy of confidence.

With these documents and this evidence, Johnson and the other claimants having presented their petition to the Board of Commissioners established by the act of March 3d, 1851, 'to ascertain and settle private land claims in the State of California,' and that board having confirmed it, the United States took the case by appeal into the District Court, which court having also confirmed it, the case came here, as already mentioned; the question being whether the petition for confirmation of the claim was rightly granted and affirmed.

The title of Chaves was found among the archives. The deed of Governor Pico was authenticated below by proof of his handwriting, and that of his secretary, who witnessed it.

Mr. Wills, for the United States, contended that this deed was not properly proved by proof of the handwriting of the officers attesting it; that the signatures might be genuine, but the dates might be prior to the true ones; that the governor himself and his secretary should have been called; that the parties signing other deeds were not the parties described in them. He referred to decisions in this court and to local land history in Mexico, to show doubtful character in some of the witnesses in the case, and in a general way to infer fraud in some parts of the transaction; several of the objections made not having been taken in the court below, and being first made here.

Mr. Justice GRIER delivered the opinion of the court:


^*  This term expediente is a term of the Mexican land law, and of course not familiar to the reader of law reports in general, though it has now become so to those of the reports of this court.

'When complete, an expediente usually consists of the petition, with the dise no annexed; a marginal decree approving the petition, the order of reference to the proper officer for information; the report of that officer in conformity to the order; the decree of concession, and the copy, or a duplicate of the grant. These several papers,-that is, the petition with the dise no annexed, the order of reference, the inform e, the decree of concession, and the copy of the grant, appended together, in the order mentioned,-constitute a complete expediente within the meaning of the Mexican law.'-United States v. Knight's Admr., 1 Black, 245.

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).