Townsend v. Greeley
72 U.S. 326 (1866)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Townsend v. Greeley, 72 U.S. 5 Wall. 326 326 (1866)

Townsend v. Greeley

72 U.S. (5 Wall.) 326

Syllabus

1. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between the United States and Mexico does not divest the pueblo existing at the site of the City of San Francisco of any rights of property or alter the character of the interests it may have held in any lands Under the former government. It makes no distinction in the protection it provides between the property of individuals and the property held by towns under the Mexican government.

2. The Act of March 3, 1851, does not change the nature of estates in land held by individuals or towns. By proceedings under that act, imperfect rights -- mere equitable claims -- might be converted by the decrees of the board created by the act or of the courts, and the patent of the government following, into legal titles, but if the claim was held subject to any trust before presentation to the board the trust was not discharged by the confirmation and the subsequent patent. The confirmation only enures to the benefit of the confirmee so far as the legal title is concerned. It does not determine the equitable relations between him and third parties.

3. By the laws of Mexico, in force on the acquisition of the country, pueblos or towns in California were entitled, for their benefit and the benefit of their inhabitants, to the use of lands constituting the site of such pueblos and towns and of adjoining lands, within certain prescribed limits. The right of the pueblos in these lands was a restricted and qualified right to alienate portions of the land to its inhabitants for building or cultivation, and to use the remainder for commons, for pasture lands, or as a source of revenue or for other public purposes. This right of disposition and use was in all particulars subject to the control of the government of the country.

4. Lands thus held by pueblos or towns under the Mexican government are not held by them in absolute property, but in trust for the benefit of their inhabitants, and are held subject to a similar trust by municipal bodies, created by legislation since the conquest, which have succeeded to the possession of such property.

5. The municipal lands held by the City of San Francisco, as successor to the former pueblo existing there, being held in trust for its inhabitants, are not the subject of seizure and sale under judgment and execution against the city.

On the 20th of June, 1855, the Common Council of the City of San Francisco, the legislative body of that city, passed "An ordinance for the settlement and quieting of the land titles in the City of San Francisco." This ordinance is generally known in San Francisco as "The Van Ness Ordinance,"

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after the name of its reputed author. By the second section of the ordinance, the city relinquished and granted all her right and claim to the lands within the corporate limits, as defined by the charter of 1851, with certain exceptions, to the parties in the actual possession thereof, by themselves or tenants on or before the 1st day of January, 1855, and to their heirs and assigns forever, provided such possession continued up to the time of the introduction of the ordinance into the common council, or, if interrupted by an intruder or trespasser, had been or might be recovered by legal process. This ordinance was ratified by the legislature of the state on the 11th of March, 1858.

At the time this ordinance was passed, the City of San Francisco asserted a claim to four square leagues of land as successor of a Mexican pueblo, established and in existence at the site of the present city, and had presented her claim for the same to the board of commissioners created under the "act to ascertain and settle the private land claims in the state of California" of March 3, 1851, for confirmation, and the board had confirmed the claim for a portion of the land and rejected the claim for the rest. The portion confirmed included the premises in controversy.

One Greeley, having acquired title to certain premises from parties who were in the actual possession of them at the time mentioned in the ordinance, brought the present action, ejectment, in one of the district courts of the State of California against two persons whom he found in occupation -- Townsend and Powelson, defendants below -- to oust them. The defendants filed separate answers.

Townsend, after pleading a general denial, averred as a separate answer in substance

"That by the treaty of peace between the United States and Mexico dated at Guadalupe Hidalgo, February 2, 1848, the ownership and title in fee simple of the lot passed to and became vested in the United States, and that the United States afterwards, by force and effect of the Act of the Congress thereof passed March 3, 1851, entitled 'An act to ascertain and settle the private land claims in the state of California,' and by force and

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effect of the final decision and decree of the board of commissioners of said United States, appointed and acting thereunder (upon the petition and claim of the City of San Francisco, presented to and filed before said board in favor of said city), the ownership and title in fee so acquired and held by the United States passed to and vested in the City of San Francisco, and that by divers mesne conveyances and by force of divers ordinances of the said city, and an act or acts of the Legislature of California, the title in fee had, prior to the 28th day of March, A.D. 1862, become, and then was, vested in and held by one Mumford, who executed a lease of the premises to the defendant Powelson, under which Powelson entered and took possession, and has ever since continued, and still is, lawfully, peaceably, and rightfully in possession thereof."

And that all acts done by the defendant Townsend with reference to the premises, have been done as the agent and attorney of the said Mumford, and by his authority, and by the license and permission of the said Powelson, his lessee.

The answer of the other defendant, Powelson, was substantially the same, except that he averred that he held as tenant under Mumford.

On the trial, various exceptions were taken to the ruling of the court upon matters relating to the possession of the plaintiff, but the manner in which the matters arose are not stated, because the rulings made thereon are not noticed by the court, for the reasons given in its opinion.

The defendants offered in evidence a certified copy of the petition of the City of San Francisco, filed on the second day of July, A.D. 1852, before the Board of United States Land Commissioners, appointed and sitting under the already mentioned Act of Congress of March 3, 1851, the said copy being certified to be a true copy of said petition by the United States Surveyor General of California.

Also, in connection with the said petition, a certified copy of the decree of said board of land commissioners thereupon made, and filed in the office of the secretary of said board on the 21st of December, A.D. 1854, confirming to

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the city a tract of land therein described; the said last-mentioned copy being likewise certified by said surveyor general to be a true copy of the said decree.

The court then inquiring of the defendants and requiring them to state by what proof they intended to follow the said documentary evidence, they offered to prove that the premises in controversy were a part of the land described in the decree of confirmation; that the appeal for the decree was dismissed by the District Court of the United States March 30, 1857, and that the decree had become final, and they also offered to deraign title to the premises in dispute under said confirmation, from the city to Mumford, by conveyances executed and delivered since the decree of confirmation, and since the dismissal of the appeal therefrom, and prior to the 28th day of March, A.D. 1862, and offered to justify the acts to Townsend done in reference to the premises by proving authority for his acts as agent and attorney for Mumford, and to justify the entry of the defendant Powelson by proving a lease to him of the premises from Mumford.

The court then inquiring further of the defendants, and requiring them to state by what means, and in what particular manner they expected to deraign title to Mumford from the city, they offered to show the recovery of a judgment against the city, the issue of an execution thereon, and the sale by the sheriff of the county thereunder of the premises in controversy, and the purchase of the same by one Wakeman, the delivery of a sheriff's deed to him, and his conveyance of his interest to the said Mumford.

Thereupon the plaintiff objected to the admission of the evidence offered, or of any part of it, on various grounds, and among others, on the ground that the premises in controversy were not subject to seizure and sale under execution upon a judgment against the city, and hence that the title could not be affected in any way by the introduction of the evidence offered. The court sustained the objection and excluded the evidence. The defendants excepted to the ruling. The plaintiff had judgment, and the supreme court

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of the state having affirmed it, the case was here upon writ of error, under the twenty-fifth section of the Judiciary Act.

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