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decided: April 1, 1889.



Author: Miller

[ 130 U.S. Page 242]

 MR. JUSTICE MILLER delivered the opinion of the court.

The principal error assigned, and the only one necessary to be considered here, is in the following language:

"The court erred in holding that under the said act of Congress of March 3d, 1851, it was not necessary for each and every person claiming lands in California, by virtue of any right or title derived from the Spanish or Mexican governments, to present such claim to the board of land commissioners under said act."

The question presented is an important one in reference to land titles in the State of California, and is entitled to our

[ 130 U.S. Page 243]

     serious consideration. Although it has been generally supposed that nearly all the private claims to any of the lands acquired by the United States from Mexico, by the treaty of peace made at the close of the Mexican war, have been presented to and passed upon by the board of commissioners appointed for that purpose by the act of 1851, yet claims are now often brought forward which have not been so passed upon by that board, and were never presented to it for consideration. And if the proposition on which the Supreme Court of California decided this case is a sound one, namely, that the board constituted under that act had no jurisdiction of, and could not by their decree affect in any manner, a title which had been perfected under the laws of the Mexican government prior to the transfer of the country to the United States, it is impossible to tell to what extent such claims of perfected titles may be presented, even in cases where the property itself has by somebody else been brought before that board and passed upon.

The proposition seems to have been occasionally the subject of comment in the Supreme Court of California in the early days, after the land commission had ceased to exist, and it has also been frequently considered in decisions of this court of the same period. It is urged very forcibly by counsel for the plaintiff in error that this court has fully decided against it in several well considered cases, and that previous to the case of Minturn v. Vrower, 24 Cal. 644, the decisions, or at least the intimations, of the Supreme Court of California were also against the doctrine.

By the treaty of peace, known as that of Guadalupe Hidalgo, of February 2, 1848, 9 Stat. 922, which closed the controversies and the war between the United States and Mexico, a cession was made of a very large territory by the government of Mexico to the government of the United States. This was a transfer of the political dominion and of the proprietary interest in this land, but the government of Mexico caused to be inserted in the instrument certain provisions intended for the protection of private property owned by Mexicans within this territory at the time the treaty was made; and it may be conceded

[ 130 U.S. Page 244]

     that the obligation of the United States to give such protection, both by this treaty and by the law of nations, was perfect.

That portion of this territory which afterwards became a part of the United States under the designation of the State of California had been taken possession of during the war, in the year 1846. Most of it was in a wild state of nature, with very few resident white persons, and very little land cultivated within its limits. Article 11 of the treaty describes it in the following language:

"Considering that a great part of the territories which, by the present treaty, are to be comprehended for the future within the limits of the United States, is now occupied by savage tribes, who will hereafter be under the exclusive control of the government of the United States, and whose incursions within the territory of Mexico would be prejudicial in the extreme, it is solemnly agreed that all such incursions shall be forcibly restrained by the government of the United States, whensoever this may be necessary."

This extract from the treaty shows the character of the country which was acquired by the United States under that instrument.

Very soon after the American army took possession of California in 1846, it was discovered that rich mines of the precious metals were abundant in that country, and a rush of emignation almost unparalleled in history to that region commenced, which was continued from that time on for many years. It was in this condition, as to population, of the territory itself, with a proprietary title in the United States to a vest region of country included within its limits, in which miners, ranchmen, settlers under the Mexican church authorities and claimants under Mexican grants were widely scattered, that the State of California was admitted into the Union, and the necessity was presented for ascertaining by some means the validity of the claims of private individuals within its boundaries, and to establish them as distinct from the lands which belonged to the government. To this end Congress passed a statute on the 3d day of March, 1851, entitled

[ 130 U.S. Page 245]

     "An act to ascertain and settle the private land claims in the State of California." 9 Stat. 631. The first section of that statute reads as follows:

"SEC. 1. That for the purpose of ascertaining and settling private land claims in the State of California, a commission shall be, and is hereby, constituted, which shall consist of three commissioners, to be appointed by the President of the United States, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, which commission shall continue for three years from the date of this act, unless sooner discontinued by the President of the United States."

Several of the succeeding sections are devoted to providing for officers, declaring their duties, directing the mode of taking depositions and regulating the sessions of the commissioners, the administration of oaths, and other matters. The eighth section is as follows:

"SEC. 8. 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 said commissioners 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."

The ninth and tenth sections provide for appeals by the claimant and by the government from the decisions of this commission, first to the District Court of the United States within that district, and from thence to this court.

The eleventh section, prescribing the rule by which the commissioners shall decide these cases, is as follows:

"SEC. 11. That the commissioners herein provided for, and the District and Supreme Courts, in deciding on the validity

[ 130 U.S. Page 246]

     of any claim brought by them under the provisions of this act, shall be governed by the treaty of Guadalupe 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 ...

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