United States v. Wiggins
Annotate this Case
39 U.S. 334 (1840)
U.S. Supreme Court
United States v. Wiggins, 39 U.S. 14 Pet. 334 334 (1840)
United States v. Wiggins
39 U.S. (14 Pet.) 334
A grant of land by Estrada, the Governor of East Florida, was made on 1 August, 1815, to Elizabeth Wiggins on her petition stating, that "owing to the diminution of trade, she will have to devote herself to the pursuits of the country." The grant was made for the quantity of land apportioned by the regulations of East Florida to the number of the family of the grantee. It was regularly surveyed by the surveyor general according to the petition and grant. No settlement or improvement was ever made by the grantee or by anyone acting for her on the property. In 1831, Elizabeth Wiggins presented a petition to the Superior Court of East Florida praying for a confirmation of the grant, and in July, 1838, the court gave a decree in favor of the claimant. On an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, the decree of the Superior Court of East Florida was reversed. The court held that by the regulations established on 25 November, 1818, by Governor Coppinger, the grant had become void because of the nonimprovement and the neglect to settle the land granted.
The existence of a foreign law, especially when unwritten, is a fact to be proved like any other fact, by appropriate evidence.
A copy of a decree by the Governor of East Florida granting land to a petitioner while Spain had possession of the territory, certified by the secretary of the government to have been faithfully made from the original in the secretary's office, is evidence in the courts of the United States. By the laws of Spain prevailing in the province at that time, the secretary was the proper officer to give copies, and the law trusted him for this particular purpose so far as he acted under its authority. The original was confined to the public office.
Prima facie evidence of a fact is such as in judgment of law is sufficient to establish the fact, and if not rebutted remains sufficient evidence of it. Kelly v. Jackson, 6 Pet. 632, cited.
The eighth article of the Florida treaty stipulates that
"Grants of land made by Spain in Florida, after 24 January, 1818, shall be ratified and confirmed to the persons in possession of the land to the same extent that the same grants would be valid if the government of the territory had remained under the dominion of Spain."
The government of the United States may take advantage of the nonperformance of the conditions prescribed by the law relative to grants of land if the treaty does not provide for the omission.
In the cases of Arredondo, 6 Pet. 691, and Percheman, 7 Pet. 51, it was held that the words in the Florida treaty "shall be ratified and confirmed," in reference to perfect titles, should be construed "are" ratified and confirmed. The object of the Court in these cases was to exempt them from the operation of the eighth article for that they were perfect titles by the laws of Spain when the treaty was made, and that when the soil and sovereignty of Florida were ceded by the second article, private rights of property were, by implication, protected. By the law of nations, the rights to property are secured when territories are ceded, and to reconcile the eighth article of the treaty with the law of nations, the Spanish side of the article was referred to in aid of the American side. The Court held that perfect titles "stood confirmed" by the treaty, and must be so recognized by the United States in our courts.
Perfect titles to lands made by Spain in the Territory of Florida before 24 January, 1818, are intrinsically valid, and exempt from the provision of the eighth article of the treaty, and they need no sanction from the legislative or judicial departments of the United States.
The eighth article of the Florida treaty was intended to apply to claims to land whose validity depended on the performance of conditions in consideration of which the concessions had been made and which must have been performed before Spain was bound to perfect the titles. The United States was bound after the cession of the country, to the same extent that Spain had been bound before the ratification of the treaty, to perfect them by legislation and adjudication.
The appellee, Elizabeth Wiggins, on 1 August, 1815, presented a petition to Estrada, the Governor of East Florida, stating that, "owing to the diminution of trade, she will have to devote herself to the pursuits of the country," and wishing to establish herself on the eastern side of the Pond of St. George, "she asked the governor to grant three hundred acres in the said place, as she had five children, and five slaves, with herself."
By a decree of 6 August, 1815, the object of the petition was granted by Governor Estrada and "a certified copy of this instance and decree" was ordered to be issued to the petitioner "from the secretary's office." A certified copy of these documents was given to the petitioner on the same day by "Don Tomas De Aguilar."
A survey of the land was made by the surveyor general of the province on 23 March, 1821. On 26 May, 1831, Elizabeth Wiggins presented a petition to the judge of the Superior Court of East Florida stating her claim to three hundred acres of land granted to her by Governor Estrada and praying that the validity of the claim might be inquired into and decided by the court in pursuance of the acts of Congress.
The answer of the district Attorney of the United States to this petition denied the right of Elizabeth Wiggins to the land claimed on many grounds. Those which were brought into examination and decided upon were:
First, that the petitioner had never taken possession of or cultivated the land.
Second, the petitioner was required to make proof that a grant for the land had been issued.
Third, that the petitioner having failed and neglected to occupy, improve, or cultivate the land and having abandoned it, the right and title thereto, if any had existed, were wholly forfeited and lost.
Subsequently a replication to the answer of the United States was filed, and the original certified copy of the grant to Elizabeth Wiggins of the land, the same being certified by Tomas De Aguilar, secretary, &c., was offered in evidence by the claimant and was objected to by the United States.
The court admitted the evidence.
By an amended bill the petitioner also stated that no condition of settlement or improvement was contained in the grant of the land, and that if any condition of settlement had been contained in it, the unprotected situation of that part of East Florida from Indian depredations and aggressions, from the time of the grant to the cession of the Territory of Florida to the United States, had rendered it impossible to settle in that portion of the country with safety to the persons or property of those who might venture so to do.
The United States, in an amended answer, set up in further opposition to the claim of the petitioner the usage, practice, and custom
of the government of Spain which prevailed when the alleged grant was made that ten years' occupancy and cultivation of the land, under such a grant, was necessary to give the grantee the title in fee simple to the land. The United States stated other objections to the title claimed by the petitioner, and denied that the settlement of the land was rendered dangerous by the disturbed state of the country.
The parties to the cause proceeded to take evidence in support and in opposition to the claim of the petitioner, and the cause was heard on the documents and evidence. At July term, 1838, the superior court made a decree confirming the title of Elizabeth Wiggins to the land claimed by her. From this decree the United States took an appeal to this Court.