United States v. Knight's Administrator (66 U.S. 227)

Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

66 U.S. 227

United States  v.  Knight's Administrator

This was an appeal by the United States from the decree of the District Court for the northern district of California. The appellee (Morehead) was administrator of Wm. Knight, and in that character he presented his petition on the 3d day of March, 1852, to the board of commissioners for the investigation of private land claims, agreeably to the act of Congress passed March 3, 1851. The commissioners rejected the claim, and the petitioner appealed to the District Court, where it was confirmed. The claim was for ten leagues (sitios de ga nada mayor) of land, situate on the western bank of the Sacramento, including the region lying between that river and the arroyo Jesus Maria, and being a large part of what is now the county of Yolo.

The title averred in the petition as the basis of the claim was a grant from Pio Pico, Governor or Political Chief of both the Californias, dated on the 4th of May, 1846. The claimant produced certain papers from the Surveyor General's office. The first purported to be a petition addressed by William Knight to the Governor, bearing date at Sonoma, on the 1st day of February, 1846, describing the land, setting forth the necessities of his family as a reason for the appropriation of it to him by the superior authority, and soliciting the concession in the ordinary form. On the margin of this was written a short note, 'Granted as prayed by the petitioner,' with an order that a title be issued. This was signed 'Pico.' Immediately following the petition was a formal and very full decree of concession, dated Angeles, May 4, 1846, to which was attached the full name of Pio Pico, with his rubric; and it was attested by Jos e Matias Moreno, as secretary. To these documents was added a borrador of a grant, also dated May 4, 1846. Several lines of this borrador had been written and a break made, when the writer (the same, or some other) commenced again at the beginning and wrote to the end of it. The names of the Governor and secretary at the foot of the borrador were admitted not to be in their hands; but Nicholas Den, who had been a magistrate in California before the conquest, and John W. Shore, a clerk in the Surveyor General's office, testified that they were acquainted with the handwriting of Pio Pico, and believed his signature to the marginal order and decree of concession to be genuine. Moreno himself was also called, and he swore that he recollected Knight's presentation of his petition in May, 1846. He was shown a copy of the espediente, and said he believed it was a copy of the decree of concession and of the original grant. The decree he declared was made and signed by the Governor, and the title was issued and delivered to Knight by himself as secretary, in which occupation he continued until 1848. But he assigned no dates to the making of the decree or the issuing of the title, or to the delivery of it, nor did he say that the grant was signed by the Governor, or recorded in any book, or that the espediente had been filed in the secretary's office. There was no map, no order of reference to any local magistrate or subordinate officer, and no inform e in the espediente. But the petition refers to a map, and the decree of concession, as well as the borrador of the grant, recites a report from the first alcalde of Sonoma.

These papers were among the espedientes arranged, numbered, and indexed in the years 1847 and 1848 by W. E. P. Hartnell. Mr. Hartnell was the clerk or assistant of Capt. Halleck when the latter was secretary for the military government established by Gen. Kearney after the taking of Monterey. Capt. Halleck was a witness in this cause, and deposed that, besides the records which were brought up from Los Angeles, a large quantity were found lying on the floor of the custom-house at Monterey and piled up against the wall, which were by himself and Mr. Hartnell placed among the records of the office. Private individuals also brought papers there and had them filed, but he or Hartnell always endorsed on these private papers the time at which they were deposited. Capt. Halleck's testimony does not disclose his reasons nor those of Hartnell for believing that the papers found in the custom-house were land records of the Mexican Government.

To prove the loss of the original grant and excuse its nonproduction, the claimant took the deposition of Samuel Brannon, who testified that in 1847 Knight came to San Francisco from the lower country, where he had been bearing despatches for the Government, and that he told the witness of an attempt made (he did not say when or where) by the Sanchezes (native Californians) to lasso him, in consequence of which, and of his fast riding to escape them, he had lost his title papers. But he did not describe or allude to any particular paper as being lost.

The evidence showed that Knight was a native of the United States, had gone to New Mexico as early as 1830, where he had married 'a daughter of the country,' and emigrated thence to California about 1842. In 1843 he seated himself and his family on the right bank of the Sacramento, at a place since called 'Knight's Landing,' and within the limits of this claim. In that year, or the year after, he built himself a house, and in 1845 he had a wheat-field of five or six acres under cultivation. In 1846 he had a garden of two or three acres near his house planted with corn and melons. He left his home early that summer, was in the Bear Flag insurrection, and joined the American army soon after its first appearance on the coast. He served during the war, and died in 1849, at the gold mines on the Stanislaus river.

Knight's relations with the Departmental Government of California before and after Pico's accession to power were shown by testimony taken in the cause, and by reference to historical and official documents. In 1842, very soon after he came into the country, he solicited Micheltorena for a concession of the same land which is now claimed. His petition was successively referred to the Prefect of Monterey, the judge of New Helvetia, and the First Alcalde of Sonoma, the last of whom reported against him on the ground that the land solicited had been previously conceded to, and was then occupied by, Don Thomas Hardy. Micheltorena never gave him any grant. He joined the standard of that chief in the autumn of 1844, when his authority was resisted by Pico and his partisans in the south. But he was not included within the terms of the general title which Micheltorena made to his followers, through Captain Sutter, at Santa Barbara, on the 22d of December, because he had no report from Sutter, and the report which he had from the Alcalde of Sonoma was adverse to him. Nevertheless Sutter, on the 15th day of April, 1845, gave him a copy of the general title, believing him (as he swore) entitled to the land for his military services under Micheltorena against Pico, the latter of whom was in power as political chief of the Department at the time when the copy was so delivered. After receiving this copy of the general title, and after the conquest of the country by the Americans, Knight, on the 8th October, 1847, got Jacob P. Leese (who had been the First Alcalde of Sonoma in 1844) to alter his inform e by inserting into it the words 'una parte de ella,' and procured from Hardy and Leese certificates that the land solicited by him in 1844 did not interfere with Hardy's ranch, as Leese had then reported. He sought the advice of several friends on the value of this title, and often incidentally spoke of it to others, but to none of them did he show or mention any except the Sutter title, unless to Colonel Fremont, who does not recollect the papers he exhibited nor the Governor under whose grant he claimed, but 'thinks he rather spoke of Pio Pico.' The papers from Micheltorena and Sutter were found in the possession of his family after his death. The knew of no others. The hostility of Knight to the Pico government was like that of the other American settlers in the north-uniform and consistent. Captain Gillespie stated in his deposition that the causes of the Bear Flag war were in operation from the time of Fremont's appearance on the frontier in March, 1846, and Colonel Fremont himself testified that Knight was prominently engaged in the insurrection from the beginning, but not ostensibly so, for he was employed in the month of May as a spy.

Harrison Gwinn deposed to a conversation with William McDaniel, (who, at one time, prosecuted this claim,) in which the latter said that when he took hold of the case there were no papers, but he had made out as good a set of papers as there was to any grant of land in California. McDaniel being produced by the claimants, positively contradicted the testimony of Gwinn. He said that he had seen certain papers at Benicia with Knight's name upon them, but not being able to read Spanish, he could make nothing of them.

James M. Harbin swore that Knight was at Los Angeles three weeks in the spring of 1846, and left there the first week in May. Nicholas Den declared in his deposition that he had seen him at Santa Barbara in March, April, or May, going to and returning from Los Angeles. Both these witnesses say that Knight told them he had received a title from Pio Pico. On the other hand, Major Bidwell, Captain Sutter, Major Gillespie, Samuel Neal, Colonel Fremont, William Bartee, S. W. Chase, William Gordon, Nicholas Algier, John Grigsby, testified more or less directly to facts wholly inconsistent with the probability that he could have been at Los Angeles at the date of the alleged grant. The unusual height of the waters (they swore) would have made the journey extremely difficult. The hostile relations between the government at Los Angeles and the American settlers on the Sacramento would have made it perilous for one of them to travel in the South, and some of the witnesses swore that they knew him to be at home during the months of April and May. It did not appear that he ever spoke of having made such a journey.

Mr. Shunk, of Pennsylvania, for the United States. 1. Without record evidence this claim cannot be confirmed. The papers produced by the claimant, and called an espediente, are not records. No witness has ever traced them to the custody of the Mexican officials, who kept the archives of California before the conquest. They are indexed, it is true, by Hartnell, who was a translator in the office of the Secretary of State in 1848. But Hartnell was nothing but an American clerk, and the fact that he covered these papers with a wrapper, endorsed them as an espediente, gave them a number, and noted them in an Index, goes no farther to prove them records than would the like scribbling of any clerk in the Surveyor General's office of our own day. Hartnell's endorsement proves that these papers existed at the time he made his Index, but nothing more. They bear no official impress, made by Mexican hands during the days of the Mexican rule. All the dignity and value they have they got from Hartnell, whose endorsement could not transmute worthless papers into records.

2. Granting them to be records, they do not prove that a valid title was issued to Knight. There is no order of reference, no inform e, no map. Knight asks for ten leagues of land; Pico grants it. The papers, if they prove anything, simply prove that Pico defied the law. Mexican Colonization Law of 1824; Regulations of 1828; United States vs. Cambuston, (20 How., 59;) United States vs. Fuentes, (22 How., 443.)

3. There is no evidence that any grant was ever delivered to Knight. Moreno, the secretary, who is the only witness to this point, is laid out of the case by Judge Hoffman as being unworthy of belief. Moreover, it is proved that Knight was not and could not have been in Los Angeles at the time it is pretended this grant was delivered.

4. Knight was the most unlikely person in the world to get such a grant from Pio Pico. He had been an active and open follower of Micheltorena, and belonged to a class of people who hated Pico, and were hated by him in return. Only a year before the date of this pretended grant, he was in arms against Pico, under Micheltorena, and within two weeks after its date, was in arms against him under Fremont. Pico made no grant to any adherent of Micheltorena, and to this rule Knight was the last man to be made an exception.

5. Knight never occupied and the land after the date of this grant in compliance with its terms. He cultivated a few acres very carelessly, and at long intervals. But he even ceased this little farming from the date of his grant, and virtually abandoned the ranch.

6. All Knight's acts and declarations from the date of this pretended grant to the day of his death are utterly at variance with the idea that he had any such title. He never claimed under it, spoke of it, or exhibited it; but claimed under, spoke of, and often exhibited another title. Even his wife does not appear ever to have heard of it until after his death.

Mr. Stanton, of Washington city, and Mr. Sunderland, of California, for the appellee. 1. The espediente is found among the archives, and bears every mark of genuineness. The signatures of the Governor and Secretary are proved to be genuine, and paper, ink, and every mark by which forgery can be detected, in this case bear comparison with papers in the archives of the same date and of undoubted authenticity. The fact that the espediente is incomplete is a strong circumstance in its favor. If manufactured, the papers, in form, would have been perfect. The grant itself would have been found, or a new one made from the copy on file.

2. This espediente was in the archives early in 1847, as is shown by Hartnell's Index, and by the testimony of Halleck in relation to the method of making that Index. It would have been difficult and almost impossible to introduce papers into the archives by stealth while they were in the custody of Halleck and Hartnell, and where documents were deposited by private persons the fact and date of such deposit were endorsed upon them at the time. The papers in this case bear no such endorsement. The Hartnell Index is a document of high authority. Mr. Hartnell was a man of unquestionable integrity, an accomplished Spanish scholar, and no man in California, with the exception of his brother-in-law Jimeno, was better acquainted with the Mexican laws and Mexican records.

3. It is not unlikely that Pio Pico would have made a grant to Knight on the 4th of May, 1846, but very improbable that he would have made one after that time. Knight had married a Mexican woman, was almost a Mexican himself, and had frequently been employed by the Government. Pico was, therefore, likely to conciliate him and endeavor to secure his friendship by a grant, in view of the difficulties which surrounded the Government in May, 1846. After Knight had joined the Bear Flag and helped to drive Pico out of the country, the idea that he would reward him with an ante-dated grant for these services against himself is preposterous. Moreover, Pico and Knight never met after May, 1846. Knight never had access to the archives after the time when he might have got a grant from Mexico if Pico had sent him one; nor did he introduce the espediente in this case among the archives, because he never referred to it. Having lost his grant, he seemed ignorant to the last that there was any record which might serve him in its stead. The opponents of the claim ought to present some theory of their own to show when, by whom, and how the grant was made, if not made as the claimant alleges.

4. The delivery of the grant is proved by Moreno, and the fact that Knight was in Los Angeles on the 4th of May, 1846, by Harbin. Den saw him on his way there and back, and Davis saw him at the 'Buttes' on his return. Moreno, unfortunately for many honest claimants whose grants he attested, is unworthy of belief. But in this case he is fully corroborated.

5. The attempt of the Government to prove that Knight was at home at the date of his grant, and could not have made the journey to Los Angeles on account of the floods, is a failure. Those witnesses who swear that he was at home in May fix the time by circumstances which have no connection with the year 1846, and may have happened just as well in 1847. The rest contradict each other and themselves. The testimony touching the floods avails nothing, for Knight went by the coast route, which was open beyond dispute. The alleged hostility of the Californians to the American settlers is equally futile as an argument. Knight was a bold and skilful horseman, knew everybody on the road, and carried an unerring rifle. To such a man the dangers of the journey were as nothing.

6. The loss of the original grant is proved by the deposition of Samuel Brannan, to whom Knight told the fact immediately after it occurred, and told it under circumstances which confirmed the truth of his statement.

7. Knight did repeatedly speak of his grant from Pico. He mentioned it to Colonel Fremont, to Davis at the Buttes when he came into the camp, to Harbin at Los Angeles when he got it, and to Den at Santa Barbara on his return home. His omission to speak of it to other witnesses with whom he conversed on the subject after the spring of 1847 is easily explained. He had then lost the grant; he did not know of the espediente in the office, and thought he had no other resource but to fall back on the Micheltorena papers.

Mr. Black, of Pennsylvania, in reply. The United States are not bound to explain how or by whom the fraud was concocted or executed. It is sufficient that we show the theory of the claimant to be false. United States vs. Luco, (23 How., 515.)

Knight's silence concerning a title from Pico can be accounted for in only one of three ways: (1,) The papers must have been fabricated after his death; or, (2,) before his death, without his knowledge; or, (3,) if they existed in his lifetime, and he knew it, he must also have known that they were false, and was therefore afraid to speak of them, lest he should provoke an inquiry which might result in his detection or exposure.

The mere occupancy of land, without a grant from the nation, gives no title under the Mexican law. It is true that where the record of the grant is lost, and the claimant is driven to secondary evidence, the fact of occupancy, with boundaries marked by the proper officers and permanent improvements in the face of the Mexican authorities, may be strong evidence in aid of the presumption that the title was originally regular. United States vs. Jos e Castro, (24 How., 346;) United States vs. Teschmaker, (22 How., 392.) But where a party comes into court with a grant which he cannot prove, or where he produces one which, on examination, turns out to be spurious or void, there the occupancy of the claimant only shows that he was dishonestly trying to possess himself of that which was not his own. This case, like others of the same class, must turn on the question of title.

Did Knight obtain a grant from Pico on the 4th of May, 1846? If he did, and if he has proved it by evidence from the Mexican records, then there is an end of this controversy; for such evidence is and ought to be conclusive. But these papers have no pretensions to be regarded as records. It is true they are now in the Surveyor General's office, and may have been there as early as 1848, when Mr. Hartnell finished making his Index. That shows only that they were not forged since 1848. They exist now in the office, and existed when they were first seen there, merely as loose papers, not recorded or numbered, and wholly unconnected with any other papers or books which are known to be records. The mere fact that a loose paper is found in a public office does not give to that paper the dignity or entitle it to the faith of a public record without some evidence, intrinsic or extrinsic, to show that it is properly a part of the records. Besides, Captain Halleck's testimony in this case shows that there are many papers now in the Surveyor General's office which never had a place among the Mexican archives. All the real records of land titles are known to have been in the Secretary's office at Los Angeles when the country was taken by the American army. But Captain Halleck lets us know that he and Mr. Hartnell and General Kearney mingled with them a large quantity of other papers found in the custom-house at Monterey, and that their bulk was further swelled by private contributions. It is notorious, too, that many false papers were placed among them at different times by dishonest claimants, for their own fraudulent ends. It is impossible, therefore, to tell whether a loose paper found in the Surveyor General's office comes from the sweepings of the custom-house floor, from the documents openly deposited by private persons, or from the felonious droppings of those who fabricated them. Limantour's papers were found in a public office. Benito Diaz had his, by some means, placed in the Surveyor General's office. Francisco Pico's espediente was found there; and Osio appealed, like the present claimant, to what he called 'the archives.' But those men have been gibbeted in the face of the world as the fabricators of false titles.

Jimeno's Index is a catalogue of genuine espedientes, made before the conquest, by a Mexican officer, who had the means of knowing, and did know, the false from the true. Hartnell's is a list in which the genuine are mingled and confused with the fabricated by an American clerk, who knew not how to distinguish the one from the other. It and its author are alike unworthy of the eulogy pronounced on them by the learned counsel for the claimant. Mr. Hartnell could read, write and speak Spanish. That was his sole qualification. He knew nothing of Mexican laws or records. He was wholly without experience, and the egregious blunder he committed in taking the false papers at the custom-house for land records, shows that he was utterly destitute of judgment.

The journals of the Departmental Assembly prove that this pretended espediente did not exist as a Mexican record. If it had, it would have been included in the forty-five sent into that body on the 8th of June, 1846. There is no reason to believe that any unapproved grant then in the office was withheld by the Governor. United States vs. Bolton, (23 How.)

No living witness pretends to have seen these papers among the records in the Secretary's office. Pico was not called at all, and Moreno was not asked a question on the subject.

These papers, then, are not records, and that brings the case to a close; for, as a record, if the claimant had one, would be conclusive in his favor, so the want of a record is conclusive against him. This court has pledged itself to confirm no California title on anything short of record evidence.

But it may be worth while to look at the parol evidence in the cause, for the mere purpose of vindicating the wisdom of the rule which excludes it altogether.

Conceding, for the argument's sake, that a public grant for ten leagues of land may be proved by any kind of evidence which will produce a moral conviction on the mind of an impartial judge that the fact is true, how much ought to be required in a case like this? There are several considerations which must be borne in mind here:

1. This belongs to a very suspicious class of California land grants. It bears the name of Pio Pico, and is dated on the eve of the conquest. In Cambuston's case the court said that all grants of that kind should be carefully scrutinized. They have been so scrutinized, and not one of them has stood the test. Of nine grants bearing that name, and dated between December, 1845, and July, 1846, and contested here on the ground of fraud, not one has been confirmed. Outside of the forty-five confirmed by the Departmental Assembly this court has never seen a genuine grant of Pio Pico. It will be remembered that Dalton's title was dated the first year of Pico's administration; was found recorded in the Toma de Razon; was among the forty-five, and was admitted to be genuine.

2. Knight was an American settler on the Sacramento, thoroughly identified with the other settlers there, and actively engaged with them in all their movements, political and military, before and at the time, and immediately after the date of this pretended grant. Between Pico's government and the chiefs of his party on the one hand, and those settlers on the other, there was no sentiment but that of bitter hostility. Three times within the space of eighteen months they confronted one another with arms in their hands. The enmity was intensified in March, 1846, by the appearance of Fremont on the frontier, and the readiness of every American (Knight among the number) to join him. At the date of this decree of concession, Knight was in actual rebellion against the authority of the Governor, whose name is signed to it.

3. There are many and obvious marks of falsehood upon the face of the papers. There is no map. The want of an inform e is a fatal objection in law to the validity of the grant, and it is also a strong circumstance to show that the whole title is a fabrication. Would Pico have made a grant to a person in such relations with his government without the usual investigations? The recital of an inform e is manifestly false. The inform e is not on the back of the petition. Suppose it to have been written on a detached paper, it should be in the espediente. If it was lost, its loss might have been proved. The Alcalde who made it might have been called. In the absence of such proof the court is bound to believe it never existed.

To establish the honesty and good faith of the title in the face of this strong circumstantial evidence against it will require clear evidence, overwhelming in amount, free from serious contradiction, and perfectly pure in the source from whence it comes. And what have they produced to show the execution, the delivery, or the recording of the grant?

Covarrubias proves nothing about it. Den and Shore swear only to their opinion of the handwriting, which this court has declared to be inadmissible. The whole weight of the case rests upon Moreno. The value of his testimony need not be discussed, for the counsel of the claimant candidly admit him to be unworthy of belief. There is no other evidence that the grant was executed, delivered, or recorded. If Den and Harbin were believed, it would only show that it was possible for Knight to have got a grant in May, 1846. Shall the mere naked possibility that he might have got a grant, stand for proof that he did actually get one?

But even this possibility is swept away from the claimant by the powerful and irresistible proof that Knight was not at Los Angeles, but at home in the valley of the Sacramento, during the whole spring.

If such a grant was ever delivered to Knight, why is it not produced? There is no scintilla of evidence to show its loss. Brannan proves only that Knight told him he had lost his title papers. This declaration is not evidence of the fact declared; much less does it prove the loss of a particular paper, which was not mentioned. That he lost any papers at all must be untrue, for all the title papers he ever had or ever pretended to have were found safe in the custody of his wife, after his death.

This case has all the bad features in it of the worst cases that ever came from California. Like Santillan, the claimant asserted his right to the land under a different title from that now set up; like Luco, he is without record evidence; and like Diaz, he is met by a clearly proved alibi.

If the claimants had been content to rest the cause upon the papers alone, the claim would have been rejected, not as a manifest forgery, but on the ground of insufficient, illegal, and unsatisfactory proof. But they chose to name the place and the time at which the grant was delivered to Knight-at Los Angeles, on the 4th of May, 1846-and they called Den and Harbin to prove it. This gave to the Government the opportunity of demonstrating the falsehood of the whole story by showing that Knight was not there, but seven hundred miles away, at the time. There cannot be an earthly doubt that the papers are fabricated.

Mr. Justice CLIFFORD.


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).