Peralta v. United States - 70 U.S. 434 (1865)
U.S. Supreme Court
Peralta v. United States, 70 U.S. 3 Wall. 434 434 (1865)
Peralta v. United States
70 U.S. (3 Wall.) 434
1. Written documentary evidence, no matter how formal and complete or how well supported by the testimony of witnesses, if coming from private hands is insufficient to establish a Mexican grant if there is nothing in the public records to show that such evidence ever existed, though the Court remarks that if the claimant can show to the satisfaction of the court that the grant has been made in conformity to law and recorded and that the record has been lost or destroyed, he will then be permitted to give secondary evidence of its contents.
2. A bare possession for a year before our conquest of California insufficient to establish an equity in opposition to the above first-announced rule.
3. In this case, the Court enforces the necessity of adhering to general rules when experience has demonstrated their wisdom, even though sometimes adherence to them should make cases of individual hardship.
Appeal from the decree of the District Court for Northern California on a claim presented in 1853 by Maria de Valencia for herself and others, heirs of Teodora Peralta, for a piece of land in California on which they were living, the claim being founded on a grant alleged by them to have been made in the spring of 1846 to the said Teodora by Governor Pio Pico. The case had come of course to the district court on an appeal from the board of land commissioners established by the Act of March 3, 1851, to settle private land claims in California.
The expediente which was produced by the claimant showed that in 1845 the Senora Peralta petitioned the alcalde of San Rafael to obtain a report from the neighbors or colindantes of the tract which she desired to solicit from
the government, in order that the report might accompany her petition to the governor for a grant of the land. On the same day, the magistrate certified that the colindantes had stated before him that the sobrante or surplus asked for was vacant and might be granted. On the 8th November, 1845, she presented a petition to the prefect, in which she set forth her previous application to the alcalde and the report of that officer, and requesting him to take such further proceedings as might be necessary. This petition was referred by the prefect to the subprefect, and by the latter to the first judge of San Rafael. On the 29th November the first judge reported the land to be vacant. On the 20th December, the prefect recommended to the governor that the title issue. And on the 18th February, 1846, the governor attached to the expediente an order to that effect.
The expediente containing all these documents was produced by the claimant. The archives contained no record or trace whatever of any of these proceedings.
There seemed no reason, perhaps, to doubt the genuineness of any of the papers except the last and most important of all, viz. the order by the governor that the title issue. This order and the signature were evidently in Pico's handwriting, but the court below noted that his signature on this particular document bore little resemblance to his signatures elsewhere found in the archives, the uniform and striking peculiarities of which it had frequently commented upon; but, on the contrary, resembled the mode of signing his name, and especially of forming the letter "P" in it, adopted by him at a much later period.
No explanation was offered of the circumstance that the expediente was found in the claimant's possession.
The Senora Peralta, mother of the petitioner, belonged, it was said, to a well known and good family, and was a native of the region, with a perfectly fair character. One witness swore that she was occupying the land in 1844; another that she was on it even a year earlier.
The petition itself (or an amended petition rather, which differed in important respects from the original petition) set
forth that title, a written document of concession signed by Pio Pico, did in fact issue, granting the land to the said Teodora Peralta; that as the petitioner was informed and verily believed, the said document of concession, and also a map of the land and a certificate of possession thereof, were delivered to the said Teodora Peralta, at the time of the said granting of said land, and within the knowledge and distinct recollection of the petitioner, were held and possessed by the said Teodora during her lifetime; that until within a short period, the petitioner and, as she was informed and verily believed, the rest of the heirs, had believed the same to be on file along with the said expediente in this cause; that the petitioner had made and caused to be made diligent search therefor without finding the same, and that she verily believed that the same had become lost or destroyed since the death of the said Teodora.
One of the daughters of Madame Peralta swore to her reception of the grant, and that for about a year previous to its delivery she had been in occupancy under a provisional license, although the case showed no record evidence of the same.
The Board of Land Commissioners, admitting that the proofs of occupancy and cultivation were satisfactory and that if the parties had used the proper diligence in procuring the issue of the grant and judicial measurement and formal possession, there might have been no difficulty in the case, still considered that in the absence of the issue of the grant and a segregation of the land, they could do nothing but reject the claim.
The district court was apparently of this same view, observing that the reports of the alcalde, the prefect &c., showed that the Senora Peralta would have had no difficulty in obtaining the land, if she had followed out her original purpose; that the case was thus a hard one for the claimant, or rather her heirs, since she herself was now dead, but still declaring that if by accident or neglect she had failed to get what she might have laid a good foundation for obtaining, and but for accident or neglect might perhaps have got
in fact, the misfortune was one which that court could not remedy.