United States v. Halleck
68 U.S. 439 (1863)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Halleck, 68 U.S. 1 Wall. 439 439 (1863)

United States v. Halleck

68 U.S. (1 Wall.) 439

Syllabus

1. Where a decree of the board of commissioners, created under the Act of March 3, 1851, to ascertain and settle private land claims in the State of California, confirming a claim to a tract of land under a Mexican grant, gives the boundaries of the tract to which the claim is confirmed, the survey of the tract made by the Surveyor General of California must conform to the lines designated in the decree. There must be a reasonable conformity between them, or the survey cannot be sustained.

2. When such decree describes the tract of land, to which the claim is confirmed with precision by giving a river on one side and running the other boundaries by courses and distances, a reference at the close of the decree to the original title papers for a more particular description will not control the description given. The documents to which reference is thus made can only be resorted to in order to explain any ambiguity in the language of the descriptions given; they cannot be resorted to in order to change the natural import of the language used when it is not affected by uncertainty.

3. When a decree gives the boundaries of the tract to which the claim is confirmed with precision, and has become final by stipulation of the

Page 68 U. S. 440

United States and the withdrawal of their appeal therefrom, it is conclusive not only on the question of title, but also as to the boundaries which it specifics.

MESSRS. JUSTICES CLIFFORD, MILLER, and SWAYNE dissented in this case.

Appeal by the United States from a decree of the District Court for the Northern District of California approving the survey of a tract of land claimed under a Mexican grant confirmed to Folsom, deceased. The case was thus:

In 1844, William A. Leidesdorff presented his petition to the then Governor of California for the grant of a tract of land, the petition representing as follows:

"That being owner of a great number of large cattle, and desirous of owning in fee a place to take care of them, he has found one vacant, bounded by the lands of Senor Sutter, as shown by the annexed map, which he duly transmits. Said place is on the bank of the American River, and consists of four leagues in length towards the east, and two in breadth towards the south."

Accompanying this petition was a diseno or map of the land, and a certificate from Sutter, local magistrate, that the same was "then unoccupied, and was that represented in the map." The map, in this, as in most of the California cases, was but a rude sketch, showing but the general position and outline of the land asked for, and herein -- that is to say in its want of full and exact delineation -- as will be seen hereafter -- was one of the difficulties of the case. The petition, map, and certificate having been presented, Jimeno, Secretary of State, made report, October 1, 1844, to the governor as follows:

"The land solicited is vacant, as shown by the annexed certificate, and it appears by the map to be so well marked out and so near to the place of Senor Sutter that I think there is no difficulty to your Excellency's granting to the person interested the land petitioned for."

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The provisional concession of the governor, Micheltorena, dated October 8, 1844, was subsequently made. In this, the governor declares Leidesdorff

"owner in fee of the land

Page 68 U. S. 441

which is situated on the banks of the river named 'the American,' bounded by the land granted to the colony of Senor Sutter, and by the hills (lomerias) on the east, in extent eight square leagues. [Footnote 1]"

The formal grant from the same governor, dated October 8, 1844, issued next. Reciting that Leidesdorff had "petitioned for eight square leagues on the bank of the river called that of "Los Americanos," bounded by the land granted to the colony of Mr. Sutter, and by the ranges of hills ("lomerias") on the east," and that "the proper measures and examinations being previously made as required by laws and regulations," the said governor granted him, Leidesdorff, "the aforesaid land."

This title of Leidesdorff became subsequently vested in Folsom, and a petition for a confirmation of title under the grant, having been presented in September, 1852, to the board of commissioners created under the Act of March 3, 1851, to ascertain and settle private land claims in California, Folsom produced before the board the original papers mentioned above. Testimony was also taken with reference to the line of Sutter on the west, and also with reference to the position and distance of the "lomerias," or range of hills, on the east. The board confirmed the claim and entered a decree of confirmation. This decree read as follows:

"The land of which confirmation is made, . . . is the same which was granted to William A. Leidesdorff by Governor Micheltorena on the 8th day of October, 1844, and is bounded as follows, to-wit, beginning at an oak tree on the bank of the American River, marked as a boundary to the lands granted to John A. Sutter, and running thence south with the line of said Sutter two leagues; thence easterly, by lines parallel with the general direction of the said American River, and at the distance,

Page 68 U. S. 442

as near as may be, of two leagues therefrom, four leagues, or so far as may be necessary to include in the tract the quantity of eight square leagues; thence northerly, by a line parallel to the one above-described, to the American River; thence along the southern bank of said river, and bending thereon to the point of beginning. For a more particular description, reference to be had to the original grant and to the petition and map contained in the espediente."

The case was removed by appeal to the District Court of the United States for the Northern District of California. In March, 1857, the attorney general gave notice that no further appeal would be prosecuted by the United States, and upon stipulation of the district attorney pursuant to such notice, the court, April 30, 1857,

"on motion of the district attorney, ordered, adjudged and decreed that the claimants have leave to proceed under the decree of the land commission heretofore rendered in their favor as under final decree."

Previous to the entry of this order, Folsom died, and his executors, Halleck and others, being substituted in his place, the subsequent proceedings were carried on in their names.

In May, 1857, a survey was made of the tract confirmed by directions of the Surveyor General of California and was approved by him. From the name of the officer, this survey is called in the argument of counsel "the Hays survey." This survey was forwarded to the Commissioner of the Land Office at Washington in order that a patent might be issued upon it. The Commissioner approved of it, but the Secretary of the Interior, to whom the case was taken, disapproved it, and in September, 1858, the case was sent back to the surveyor general for a new survey. So far as the Reporter understood a case which he did not hear, the objections to the Hays survey in the Secretary's mind was that it ran on the east far beyond that point where the lomerias, fixed in the original grant by Governor Micheltorena, were supposed to be, this range having, on the diseno or map attached to Leidesdorff's original petition, been indicated as

Page 68 U. S. 443

being near a stream, not named, indeed, by Leidesdorff, but which was assumed by the secretary to be Alder Creek. The surveyor general accordingly made and approved a new survey. From the name of the officer under whom this second survey was made, it is distinguished as "the Mandeville survey." It was based apparently on instructions sent down from the Land Office on dissatisfaction with the former survey, these instructions saying

"That the decree of confirmation resting upon the diseno and grant must be satisfied by the survey first by adhering to Sutter's line on the west, the American River on the north, and the foothills [Footnote 2] near the junction on the east of a creek distinctly laid down on the diseno; that the said creek is held to be identical with Alder Creek, . . . the said hills running near the junction of said creek and in a southeasterly direction. That these are the natural features which must control the longitudinal extension of the grant. But,"

the instructions went on to say,

"as quantity was petitioned for, granted, and confirmed, the said quantity may be taken by increasing the depth of the survey, so as to comprise the eight square leagues, thereby giving the location a more compact form."

The differences of the survey and the difficulties of the case will be exhibited by reference to the map inserted in the report.

On the 22d of November, 1859, the district court, acting upon the impression that it had jurisdiction to supervise all surveys of confirmed claims under Mexican grants, under the decision of the Supreme Court, in United States v. Fossatt, [Footnote 3] ordered the new survey made by Mandeville to be returned into court and authorized the claimants to file exceptions to it. The survey was accordingly returned, and exceptions were filed by the claimants and purchasers under them.

After the passage of the Act of June 14, 1860 -- by which new powers were given to the district courts of California, with authority to order into court any survey and to decide

Page 68 U. S. 444

on it -- a monition was issued for notice to all parties claiming any interest in the survey and location to appear before the court on or before September 26, 1860, for the protection of such interests or their defaults would be taken. On the return of the monition, counsel appeared in behalf of the United States, and also counsel for the claimants, and also counsel for the Natoma Water Company, a corporation created under the laws of California. The default of all other parties not appearing was entered. Folsom subsequently filed exceptions to the survey. Among the exceptions filed to it in his behalf were these:

"1. Because it does not conform to the description of the land confirmed as contained in the decree of final confirmation."

"2. Because the grant calls for four leagues in length upon the American River and two leagues in width from north to south, and the said survey gives the said tract less than two and one-half leagues in length on said river, and makes the same more than three leagues in width from north to south, thereby entirely changing the form of said tract from the form in which it was granted."

"3. Because the claim was regularly surveyed, and the survey thereof approved by United States Surveyor General Hays, in May, 1857, which survey was in conformity with the final decree of confirmation."

"4. The survey of Mandeville ought to be rejected and the survey heretofore made by Hays ought to be adopted because the latter locates said eastern boundary in pursuance of the final decree, and the former ignores the said decree altogether, and professes to follow the arbitrary and illegal instructions of the Secretary of the Interior, said instructions being in conflict with said final decree and with the evidence in the case filed before the land commissioners before whom the said eastern boundary was a question litigated by both parties hereto, and settled by the said final decree."

The United States also, by Mr. Williams, "acting in this case as United States District Attorney, at the request of Mr. Blenham, who was once counsel for some of the claimants," filed several objections, embracing in substance the following:

Page 68 U. S. 445

"1st. That the survey was not according to the final decree of confirmation entered in the above-entitled cause, or to the grant and other title papers upon which that decree was founded, or to the evidence of the witnesses in the said cause, but in violation thereof is made to extend more than two leagues south of the American River, and thereby to embrace public lands of the United States not rightfully included within the limits of the said claim."

"2d. That the survey wrongfully includes lands not at any time claimed by Folsom or his representatives, but, on the contrary expressly disclaimed."

"3d. That it is erroneous because the land granted and confirmed was a tract bounded on the west by Sutter's eastern line, on the north by the American River, on the east by Alder Creek and the neighboring low hills, and on the south by vacant lands, the southern line to be at a distance of two leagues from the river, as near as may be, and run on subdivision lines, so as to meet the meanderings of the river. Whereas the said survey does not regard these boundaries, but shows a southern line at right angles with the western line, disregards the meanderings of the river, and thereby includes within its lines a much larger quantity of land than was granted, and also includes many settlers under the United States who have so settled and made improvements in good faith long before the said official survey was made."

Upon these exceptions, evidence was taken, and in November, 1861, the district court set the survey aside, and ordered a new one to be made. [Footnote 4] A rehearing being granted, the original survey made by Hays was approved and confirmed by the court. The decree of approval was entered August 2, 1862. From this decree the present appeal was taken.

Page 68 U. S. 452

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