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decided: February 26, 1900.



Author: White

[ 176 U.S. Page 423]

 MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the court.

Did the court below err in confirming an alleged Mexican land grant, is the inquiry which arises on this record.

The asserted grant is designated as the "Sierra Mosca," and embraces many thousand acres of land situated in the county of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The official proceedings had in relation to the grant prior to the commencement of this suit were as follows: In 1872 a petition was filed before the surveyor general of New Mexico, asking the confirmation of the grant in the name of "the heirs and those holding under them of Juan Luis Ortiz, deceased." No other or fuller description of the persons asserting the right appeared in the proceedings. The surveyor general, after hearing, forwarded his recommendation that the grant be confirmed, to the Commissioner of the General Land Office in October, 1873, and the papers were in the same year submitted by the Secretary of the Interior to Congress. The proceedings before the surveyor general and the resulting official action, as above stated, were by virtue of the act of Congress of July 22, 1854, c. 103, 10 Stat. 308. No action having been taken by Congress, in December, 1876, certain persons alleging themselves to be part owners of a claimed Spanish grant of land, which it was averred conflicted with the one in question, petitioned the then surveyor general of New Mexico to hear additional testimony as to the reality of the grant which had been recommended for confirmation, on the ground that the testimony when heard would establish that the grant had been erroneously recommended for confirmation, because, among other reasons stated, it was a forgery. Whilst intimating a doubt as to his power to review the action of his predecessor in office, the surveyor general yet ordered the inquiry to be made, and after some lapse of time on due notice, testimony was taken. In consequence of the notice given, the attorney for the petitioners, on the original application to confirm, appeared and cross examined the witnesses. Subsequently acting upon such evidence, the then incumbent of the surveyor general's office transmitted the proceedings to the Commissioner of the General Land Office with

[ 176 U.S. Page 424]

     the recommendation that the grant be rejected on the ground that it was affirmatively shown by the proof to be a forgery. This supplementary report and papers were also, in December, 1887, submitted by the Secretary of the Interior to Congress for its consideration.

No action having been taken by Congress upon either the original or supplementary report, the present suit was commenced, in the Court of Private Land Claims, to obtain the confirmation of the grant. The petition by which the cause was initiated was filed in the name of Luis Maria Ortiz and Tomaz Ortiz, and averred that the alleged Sierra Mosca grant had been made on June 4, 1846, by Manuel Armijo, the then governor of the Territory of New Mexico, to Juan Luis Ortiz, and that the grantee had on June 8, 1846, been placed in legal possession of the granted land by Jose Dolores Trujillo, a justice of the peace, according to the laws and customs then in force in the Republic of Mexico. It was averred that "the original papers relating to this said grant of land are now on file in the office of the surveyor general of the Territory of New Mexico, known in that office as private land claim No. 75, for the Sierra Mosca tract, and are not in the control of the plaintiffs, so that they can file them herewith." A copy, however, with a translation of the papers thus referred to, was annexed to the petition. The petitioners asserted their right under the grant as follows: "The plaintiffs are the owners in fee in and to the said land grant by inheritance from their father, Gaspar Ortiz, who acquired his title thereto, as they are informed and believe, by inheritance from his father, and their grandfather, Juan Luis Ortiz, the original grantee, and by purchase from the other heirs of the same." No enumeration of the other heirs and no more precise specification of the date and character of the alleged purchase was contained in the petition.

The petition was generally traversed, and subsequently an answer was filed, specifically averring that the alleged granting papers were forgeries, and denying that delivery of possession had ever been made by a justice of the peace, as stated in the petition. After trial upon these issues, the grant was confirmed, Murray, J., dissenting.

[ 176 U.S. Page 425]

     Inverting the order in which they have been discussed at bar and stating them in a condensed form, the questions presented for decision are: First. Does the proof establish that the grant in question was made and that delivery of juridical possession thereunder was operated by a Mexican official charged with such duty? Second. If it be found that the grant was made, was there legal power in the then governor of New Mexico to make it, and, if so, was the power so executed as to authorize the court to enter a decree of confirmation? The first of these questions opens for consideration not only the issue of forgery, but also involves deciding whether the proof is of such a character as to engender the affirmative conviction of the genuineness of the granting papers. The second raises several questions of law -- that is, as to the power of the governor, at the date when the alleged grant is averred to have been made, the necessity of approval of his action by the departmental assembly, and other legal issues. Necessarily, all the questions coming under the second head arise only in the event the objections to the confirmation of the grant embodied in the first proposition are found to be untenable.

Before analyzing the evidence in order to develop and weigh the proof tending to show the existence of the grant, it will subserve clearness of statement, at the outset, to determine upon whom is cast the burden of showing the existence of the grant, and in a general way to consider briefly the quantum of proof required for that purpose. By the first subdivision of section 13 of the act of March 3, 1891, c. 539, 26 Stat. 854, constituting the Court of Private Land Claims, that court and this court are commanded not to allow a claim "that shall not appear to be upon a title lawfully and regularly derived from the Government of Spain or Mexico," etc. The statute authorizes no presumption in favor of the genuineness of a title from the mere fact that the claimant for confirmation presents a paper which is asserted to be a grant from a Mexican official. The command of the statute is not that the United States, when an alleged Mexican title is presented for confirmation, shall be put to the burden of showing that the title in question is not genuine, but that the evidence presented in favor of the asserted

[ 176 U.S. Page 426]

     title shall be of such persuasive and preponderating force as to convince the court that the title is real, and besides, possesses the legal attributes which the statute requires as essential to confirmation. It is clear then that the law casts, primarily, upon the applicant for confirmation, the duty of tendering such proof as to the existence, regularity and archive record of the grant as well as his connection with it, such as possession, ownership and other related incidents, of sufficient probative force to create a just inference as to the reality and validity of the grant before the burden of proof, if at all, can be shifted from the claimant to the United States. This construction which arises from the text of the act of 1891 is sustained by considering that previous to that enactment there had been many decisions of this court, rendered under the California act of 1851, construing that act as imposing upon the claimants for confirmation the primary burden of proof, although the provisions of the California act were not as explicitly mandatory as are those of the act of 1891. Thus from the date of the decision in United States v. Cambuston, 20 How. 59. announced in 1857, to the ruling in Berreyesa v. United States, 154 U.S. 623, rendered in 1876, it was often decided that the burden of proof to sustain a Spanish grant rested upon the claimants, and that the failure to show that the official archives contained evidence that the grant had been made and the fact of the production of the original title papers solely from the custody and possession of the grantee were circumstances so suspicious as to create a presumption against the genuineness of the grant, calling for the production by the grantee of more than slight evidence to overthrow the presumption. Luco v. United States, 23 How. 515, 528; Peralta v. United States, 3 Wall. 434, 440. Indeed, this burden of proof resting upon the grantee had been frequently declared by this court, prior to the enactment of the law of 1891, to be essentially necessitated by the situation and as the sole means of avoiding the danger of imposing upon the United States by means of forged or fabricated grants. United States v. Teschmaker, 22 How. 392, 405; United States v. Pico, 22 How. 406; Fuentes v. United States, 22 How. 443; Luco v. United States, 23 How. 515; United States v. Bolton, 23 How.

[ 176 U.S. Page 427341]

     , 347; Palmer v. United States, 24 How. 125; United States v. Knight's Administrators, 1 Black, 227; United States v. Neleigh, 1 Black, 298; United States v. Vallijo, 1 Black, 541; White v. United States, 1 Wall. 660; Romero v. United States, 1 Wall. 721, 743; Pico v. United States, 2 Wall. 279, 281; Peralta v. United States, 3 Wall. 434.

It is preliminarily necessary to dispose of certain exceptions taken to the admissibility of evidence, and which are pressed on our attention.

1. The petitioners in opening their case offered in evidence the original proceedings before the surveyor general, including the testimony of the witnesses then examined, after having made the prerequisite proof of death of such witnesses in accordance with the requirements of section 5 in the act of 1891. 26 Stat. 854. Subsequently, the defendant, in proving its case, offered the supplementary proceedings which had been had before the surveyor general (including the testimony of the witnesses taken in that proceeding -- proper foundation also having been laid for the introduction of such testimony), the finding of the surveyor general made in the proceedings, and the forwarding of the whole to the Commissioner of the General Land Office, and the submissions made of all the matters in question by the Secretary of the Interior to Congress. All this was objected to on the ground that the power of the surveyor general was exhausted by the original investigation and report, and that therefore a succeeding incumbent of the office was without legal authority to have further considered the grant or to have taken any additional testimony as to its genuineness or validity.

But the function of the surveyor general, under the act of 1854, 10 Stat. 308, was merely advisory, and until action by Congress had supervened, it was not only the right, but the duty of that official, on proper suggestion being made to him, to hear additional evidence and transmit it for the consideration of Congress, in a claim pending for confirmation. The act of the surveyor general in making the supplementary investigation was certainly either directly or impliedly authorized or ratified by his official superiors, since the knowledge of

[ 176 U.S. Page 428]

     the investigation was conveyed to the Commissioner of the General Land Office, and not only the action taken by the surveyor general, but all the papers relating thereto, were by the Secretary of the Interior laid before Congress. Obviously, the purpose of the fifth section of the act of 1891, in permitting the use, subject to the restrictions and qualifications found in the act, of the proceedings had before the surveyor general, was to allow all the proof then existing to be received and to be given such weight as it was entitled to have. The court below therefore properly admitted the supplementary proceedings.

2. William Tipton was called as a witness for the government. The witness, after stating that he was appointed by the Department of Justice to assist in preparing the defence of cases coming before the Court of Private Land Claims, proceeded to say that for a long period of time, covering about sixteen years, he had been previously employed in the office of the surveyor general of New Mexico; that in such employ as clerk, copyist, translator and custodian of the archives, he had constant official occasion to examine, translate and consider the Spanish and Mexican archives extant in the office; that, in consequence of these facts, he was entirely familiar with the signatures of Governor Armijo and Secretary Vigil, the signatures of whom purported to be affixed to the grant relied upon; that his knowledge on the subject had been derived from examining not less than seventy-five or eighty signatures of Governor Armijo, and not less than one hundred and twenty signatures of Secretary Vigil, found in the archives, which were either attached to grants, to the journals of the territorial deputation and departmental assembly, or to other official documents. Besides the familiarity of the witness with the signatures in controversy, he was examined as to his capacity as a general handwriting expert, the whole as a basis for eliciting from him his opinion as to the genuineness of the signatures referred to. Objection was made to allowing the witness to testify on this subject, because it was contended the proof did not lay an adequate foundation therefor, and the overruling of this objection was excepted to.

[ 176 U.S. Page 429]

     It is unnecessary to decide whether the witness was competent to express an opinion as a general scientific expert on handwriting or to consider the limitations as to the admissibility of testimony of that character, since the special qualifications of the witness resulting from his great familiarity, acquired during a long course of official action, with the official records and the signatures of Governor Armijo and Secretary Vigil, qualified him beyond question to testify as an expert as to the genuineness of the signatures found upon the alleged grant. The case is directly within the principle decided in Rogers v. Ritter, 12 Wall. 317, where it was held that witnesses who in the course of administration of the duties of an official position had acquired a familiarity with a certain signature, although they had never seen the party write and had never corresponded with him, were competent to express an opinion on the subject of the genuineness of a signature purporting to have been made by that person. The court said (p. 322):

"It is settled everywhere, that if a person has seen another write his name but once he can testify, and that he is equally competent, if he has personally communicated with him by letter, although he has never seen him write at all. But is the witness incompetent unless he has obtained his knowledge in one or the other of these modes? Certainly not, for in the varied affairs of life there are many modes in which one person may become acquainted with the handwriting of another, besides having seen him write or corresponded with him. There is no good reason for excluding any of these modes of getting information, and if the court on the preliminary examination of the witness can see that he has that degree of knowledge of the party's handwriting which will enable him to judge of its genuineness, he should be permitted to give to the jury his opinion on the subject."

Regerring to the testimony of the witnesses showing knowledge derived from the connection with the official archives which were undoubtedly genuine, the court added:

"The three witnesses told enough to satisfy any reasonable mind that they were better able to judge of the signature of

[ 176 U.S. Page 430]

     Sanchez, than if they had only received one or two letters from him, or saw him write his name once."

The court below did not err in admitting the testimony.

3. The witness Tipton produced fifteen signatures of Governor Armijo and several of Secretary Vigil, written approximately about the time when the alleged grant in question purported to have been made, taken from among the signatures of these officers contained in the archives, and they were offered as standards of comparison with the signatures found on the grant in controversy. It is objected that the genuineness of these signatures had not been adequately proved, and therefore they should not have been admitted to be used as standards of comparison.

They were correctly received. The whole testimony of the witness demonstrated that the signatures in question were upon documents which the witness produced from the archives, the appropriate place for them, and the genuineness of the papers to which they were annexed had never been challenged and were officially treated as authentic. This justified their admission, at all events in the absence of any suggestion of proof as to their non-genuineness.

4. The defence caused the signature of Governor Armijo to the alleged grant and one existing on one of the documents offered as a standard of comparison, to be photographically enlarged. After proving by the photographer by whom the photographs were made the accuracy of the method pursued and the results obtained by him, the enlarged photographs were tendered and were admitted in evidence over objection. The ruling was correct. Marcy v. Barnes, 16 Gray, 161, 163.

The petitioners offered in evidence the alleged granting papers, which are reproduced in the margin.*fn1 Postponing for after consideration the determination of the legal value

[ 176 U.S. Page 431]

     of the documents so offered, we come to review the evidence relied upon to show that the asserted grant had been actually executed. Having ...

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