Smith v. United States
Annotate this Case
35 U.S. 326 (1836)
U.S. Supreme Court
Smith v. United States, 35 U.S. 10 Pet. 326 326 (1836)
Smith v. United States
35 U.S. (10 Pet.) 326
John Smith, T., claimed a confirmation of a grant of land by the Governor General of Louisiana, made on 11 February, 1796. Louisiana was ceded by
France to the United States by the treaty of 1803. In 1811, surveys were made under the grant of several tracts of land, varying in numbers of acres, and several of them including lead mines. No survey of any land was made under the
grant until after the treaty of cession. By the decree of the district court, the claim was rejected and that decree was affirmed by the Supreme Court.
It was never doubted by this Court that property of every description in Louisiana was protected by the law of nations, the terms of the treaty, and the acts of Congress, nor that in the term
"'property' was comprehended every species of title, inchoate or perfect, embracing those rights which lie in contracts -- those which are executory as well as those which are executed. In this respect the relation of the inhabitants to their government is not changed. The new government takes the place of that which has passed away."
29 U. S. 4 Pet. 512.
The act of Congress of 1804, which submitted claims to land in Louisiana to judicial cognizance, confined the court to such claims as had been legally made, granted, or issued before 10 March, 1804, which were protected by the treaty of 1803, and might have been perfected into a complete title under the laws, usages and customs of Spain if she had continued to hold the government of the province.
It was also made the duty of the court to conduct the proceedings on all petitions according to the rules of a court of equity, and to decide upon them according to the principles of justice and the laws and ordinances of the government under which the claim originated. In thus consenting to be made defendants in equity at the suit of every claimant for land in Missouri, the United States waived all rights which the treaty could give them as purchasers for a valuable consideration without notice. They bound themselves to carry into specific execution by patent every grant, concession, warrant or order of survey which, before 10 March, 1804, had created any legal or equitable right of property in the land so claimed, so that in every case arising under the law, one general question was presented for the consideration of the court: whether in the given case a court of equity could, according to its rules and the laws of Spain, consider the conscience of toe King to be so affected by his own or the acts of the lawful authorities of the province that he had become a trustee for the claimant and held the land claimed by an equity upon it amounting to a severance of so much from his domain, before 10 March, 1804, in Missouri, and 24 January, 1815, in Florida, the periods fixed by the law in one case and the treaty in the other.
The principles which have been established by the decisions of the Court in relation to claims to lands under grants from the Crown of Spain or the officers of Spain authorized to make grants.
No claim to land in Missouri can be confirmed under the acts of 1824 or 1828 unless by a grant, commission, warrant or order of survey for some tract of land described therein to make it capable of some definite location, consistently with its terms, made, granted, or issued before 10 March, 1804, or by an order to survey
any given quantity, without any description or limitation as to place, which shall have been located by a survey made by a proper officer before that time.
Congress did not contemplate the submission of any claims to the court except such as, on confirmation, could be surveyed and patented, and on rejection would be thenceforth held and taken to be a part of the public lands, though cases of claims to make a prospective severance of particular tracts from the general domain, when the grant was wholly indefinite, would require a distinct provision. Spain never permitted individuals to locate their grants by mere private survey. The grants were an authority to the public surveyor or his deputy to make the survey as a public trust, to protect the royal domain from
being cut up at the pleasure of the grantees. A grant might be directed to a private person or a separate official order given to make the survey, but without either, it would not be a legal execution of the power.
The laws of the United States give no authority to an individual to survey his grant or claim to lands; he may make lines to designate the extent and bounds of his claim, but he can acquire no rights thereby. Neither in this or the record of any of the cases which have been before this Court has it seen any evidence of any law of Spain, local regulations, law or usage, which makes a private survey operate to sever any land from the royal domain. On the contrary, all the surveys which have been exhibited in the cases decided were made by the surveyor general of the province, his deputies by the special order of the governor or intendant, or those who represented them. No government gives any validity to private surveys of its warrants or orders of survey, and there is no reason to think that Spain was a solitary exception, even as to the general domain, by grants in the ordinary mode for a specific quantity to be located in one place.
It is for another branch of the government to decide on the claims of the petitioner under the third section of the act of 1823. With that this Court have nothing to do; its duty terminates by a decision on the validity of his title by any law, treaty, or proceedings under them according to those principles of justice which govern courts of equity.
This case was argued at January term 1830 by Mr. Benton for the appellant and by Mr. Wirt for the United States. The Court held it under advisement for the reasons stated in the case of Smith v. United States, 4 Pet. 511. The case is fully stated in the opinion of this Court.
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