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

Annotate this Case

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

APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT FOR

THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA

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

MR. JUSTICE FIELD delivered the opinion of the Court:

This case comes before us on appeal from a decree of the District Court of the United States for the Northern District of California approving the survey of the tract confirmed to Folsom, the testator of the respondents. The grant to Leidesdorff, from whom the respondents deraign their title, was issued in October, 1844, by Micheltorena, then Governor of the Department of California. In September, 1852, the claim for the land granted was presented to the Board of Commissioners created by the Act of March 3, 1851, and by a decree of that body, rendered in June, 1855, the claim was adjudged valid and confirmed. The case being removed by appeal to the district court, the attorney general gave notice that the appeal would not be prosecuted by the United States, and upon the stipulation of the district attorney in pursuance of such notice, the claimants had leave to proceed upon the decree of the board as upon a final decree.

The grant describes the land as consisting of eight square leagues, and as situated on the bank of the American River and bounded by land previously granted to the colony of Sutter, and by a range of hills -- "lomerias" -- on the east. The provisional concession preceding the issue of the formal title, gives a similar description. The petition of Leidesdorff, which the grant recites, represents the land as being "four leagues in length towards the east, and two in breadth towards the south," and refers to a map transmitted with it. This map is a rough sketch indicating the general locality and outline of the land solicited.

The original papers give the locality, the form, and the dimensions of the tract granted. It is situated on the southern bank of the American River; it is four leagues in length by two leagues in width; it embraces eight square leagues,

Page 68 U. S. 453

and it is bounded by the land of Sutter on the west. From the data thus furnished, the boundaries, which are not designated, can be readily ascertained and declared. As a question was made before the board upon the location of some of the boundaries, and testimony was taken as to the line of the land of Sutter, and the position of the range of hills on the east, the case was a proper one for the board to fix with precision and declare the boundaries in its decree. As the appeal from the decree rendered was withdrawn by the United States, it is unnecessary to consider the character of the testimony produced or the weight to which it was entitled. The board acted upon it in connection with the title papers, and in its decree, entered in April, 1857, declared the boundaries of the tract, running the same, except on the said of the river, by courses and distances.

In May following, a survey of the tract confirmed was made under the directions of the Surveyor General of California, and was approved and transmitted by him to the Commissioner of the General Land Office, at Washington, for examination and approval preliminary to the issue of a patent. In May, 1858, the commissioner appears to have approved the survey and to have made preparations to carry the same into a patent, but was overruled by the Secretary of the Interior, who, in September following, disapproved of the survey, and sent the case back to the surveyor general. At the subsequent December Term of this Court, the decision of the case of the United States v. Charles Fossat, 21 How. 445, was made, which was supposed by the District Court of California to recognize a jurisdiction in that court to supervise all surveys of confirmed claims under Mexican grants. Acting upon this view of the decision, the district court, in November, 1859, ordered the new survey which had been made by the surveyor general to be returned into court, and gave leave to the claimants to file exceptions to it. The new survey was accordingly returned, and exceptions to it were filed by the claimants and purchasers under them, and proceedings upon the exceptions were pending on the passage of the Act of June 14, 1860.

Page 68 U. S. 454

Whatever question might be raised as to the jurisdiction of the district court to supervise the survey previous to that act, there can be none since its passage. That act applies not merely to surveys subsequently made, but also to such surveys as had been previously made and approved by the surveyor general, and returned into the district court upon objections to their correctness. Under the act, a monition was issued, and on its return counsel appeared on behalf of the United States, and for the claimants, and for the Natoma Water Company, a purchaser under the claimants. No other party appeared, and the court ordered "the default of all parties not appearing" to be entered. The United States subsequently filed their exceptions. All parties agreed in averring a want of conformity in the survey with the description of the land contained in the decree of final confirmation.

The district court set the survey aside, and ordered a new one. Subsequently, upon a rehearing, it approved and confirmed the survey originally made. From its decree in this respect the United States appealed, and on the argument of the appeal took positions in support of the second survey, which are directly the reverse of the objections urged in their name in the court below. To the apparent inconsistency in their action in this respect the attention of counsel was called, and the explanation given was that objections in the district court, though put forward in the name of the United States, were in fact urged on behalf of settlers claiming that part of the tract covered by the survey, was public land open to settlement. It is unnecessary to express any opinion upon the sufficiency of this explanation, or whether the United States are bound by objections on the record, which are advanced in their name, when presented for the protection of parties claiming interests under them by preemption, settlement, or other right or title. We refer to the matter, not because our judgment will be in any respect affected by it, but to indicate that it would be the better practice for the district attorney, when appearing for third parties in the name of the United States, to state the fact,

Page 68 U. S. 455

and give the names of the real contestants in the exceptions filed.

The material question for determination is whether the survey approved conforms to the decree of confirmation. There must exist a reasonable conformity between them, or the survey cannot be sustained. And such reasonable conformity we at once perceive when we take up the survey and trace its lines under the directions of the decree. Indeed, we do not think that such conformity will be seriously controverted by the learned counsel of the appellants, if the survey be restricted to the description contained in the decree. Their position is that this description is to be controlled by the original grant and by the petition and map contained in the espediente, to which reference is made at the close of the decree -- in other words, that the question of boundary is open for adjudication precisely as it would be if no description had been given. The position of the learned counsel in this respect cannot be maintained. The documents to which reference is made can only be resorted to in order to explain an ambiguity in the language of the description given; they cannot be resorted to in order to change the natural import of the language used, if there be no uncertainty therein. If reference to original title papers, where no doubt arises upon the terms of the decree, would authorize an inquiry into a matter of boundary, it would with equal propriety authorize an inquiry into any other matter upon which the commission had acted, and every question affecting the decree might be opened anew to consideration and contestation.

The decree in this case is plain, and admits of only one construction: the object of the appellants is to change the meaning of its language, by showing that the commissioners were ignorant of the true course and direction of the American River, and therefore intended different lines from those they specifically declared, and that they could not have intended the eastern line to run as directed, in disregard of what is asserted to be the true position of the "lomerias."

The answer to all efforts of this kind is that the decree is

Page 68 U. S. 456

a finality, not only on the question of title, but as to the boundaries which it specifies. If erroneous in either particular, the remedy was by appeal, but the appeal having been withdrawn by the government, the question of its correctness is forever closed.

The decree of the district court is

Affirmed.

MESSRS. JUSTICES CLIFFORD, MILLER, and SWAYNE, dissented.

[Footnote 1]

No copy of the diseno or map accompanying the original petition came to the Reporter's possession, though he understood that the "lomerias" on the east were not designated upon it. He supposes that in fact they lay somewhat in the direction of the dotted lines, indicating one survey of the tract as that line runs northwesterly and above the mouth of Alder Creek, towards the American River. On the diseno this river ran nearly west.

[Footnote 2]

The secretary thus translated the word "lomerias," assuming it apparently to mean smaller hills at the base of a higher range.

[Footnote 3]

62 U. S. 21 How. 445, and see ante,<|68 U.S. 104|>104.

[Footnote 4]

This new survey, of no practical interest in the case, is yet marked on the map inserted in the report as part of the history and as showing the diverse forms that surveys of California lands under the same grant sometimes take. It is indicated by the dotted line without a name along it.

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