That the Spanish grants of land in California were large is no
reason why this Court should refuse to confirm them.
A grant of a tract of land known by the name of El Cahon, lying
near the Mission of San Diego, and being that which the map
attached to the official papers expresses, which map is of such a
character that a surveyor could lay off the land, is good, and must
The case is stated in the opinion of the court.
MR. JUSTICE GRIER delivered the opinion of the Court.
The defendants in error filed their petition before the board of
commissioners for ascertaining and settling private land claims in
"a tract of land called El Cahon, containing eleven sitios de
ganado mayor, situated in the County of San Diego, by virtue of a
grant in fee made to their mother, Dona Maria Antonio Estudillo de
Pedrorena, by Pio Pico, Governor of California, bearing date 23d of
September, 1845, and approved by the territorial deputation on the
3d of October, 1845."
The only question arising in this case, which has not been
disposed of in former decisions of this Court, is the objection
"that the grant is void for uncertainty," because it defines
neither boundaries nor quantity. The authenticity of the grant and
confirmation are proved, and do not appear to have been disputed
before the commissioners. It is in evidence, also, that Dona Maria
and her husband went into possession of the place called "El Cahon"
in the year 1845, and have made it "the best-cultivated rancho in
the country about San Diego." It had formerly belonged to the
Mission of San Diego. The mission was in debt to the husband of
Dona Maria, and agreed to transfer their right of occupancy on this
rancho to her in satisfaction of her husband's debt.
Judicial possession was not delivered till September, 1846,
after the establishment of the American authority, which was in
July of that year. And whether void or valid, the espediente of
possession made by the officer, Santiago E. Arguello, who
Page 60 U. S. 364
could not get the assistance of a surveyor, seems to throw
little light on the subject of precise boundary.
But under the circumstances, the want of such juridical delivery
of possession will not affect the title of the petitioners unless
the grant be absolutely void for uncertainty. The description of
the land granted is to be found in the following language in the
patent or espediente: "A tract of land known by the name of El
Cahon, near the Mission of San Diego." And again: "The land of
which grant is made is that which the map diseno attached to the
respective espediente expresses," &c. "The judge who may give
the possession shall inform the government of the number of sitios
de ganado mayor it contains."
In construing grants of land in California, made under the
Spanish or Mexican authorities, we must take into view the state of
the country and the policy of the government. The population of
California before its transfer to the United States was very
sparse, consisting chiefly of a few military posts and some
inconsiderable villages. The millions of acres of land around them,
with the exception of a mission or a rancho on some favored spot,
were uninhabited and uncultivated. It was the interest and the
policy of the King of Spain, and afterwards of the Mexican
government, to make liberal grants of these lands to those who
would engage to colonize or settle upon them. Where land is plenty
and labor scarce, pasturage and raising of cattle promised the
greatest reward with the least labor. Hence, persons who
established ranchos required and readily received grants of large
tracts of country as a range for pasturage for their numerous
herds. Under such circumstances, land was not estimated by acres or
arpens. A square league, or "sitio de ganado mayor," appears to
have been the only unit in estimating the superficies of land.
Eleven of these leagues was the usual extent for a rancho grant. If
more or less was intended in the grant, it was carefully stated.
Surveying instruments or surveyors were seldom to be obtained in
distant locations. The applicant for land usually accompanied his
petition with a diseno, or map, showing the natural boundaries or
monuments of the tract desired. These were usually rivers, creeks,
rivulets, hills, and mountain ranges. The distances between these
monuments were often estimated at about so many leagues, and
fractions of this unit little regarded. To those who deal out land
by the acre, such monuments as hills, mountains &c., though
fixed, would appear rather as vague and uncertain boundary lines.
But where land had no value, and the unit of measurement was a
league, such monuments were considered to be sufficiently
Page 60 U. S. 365
Since this country has become a part of the United States, these
extensive rancho grants, which then had little value, have now
become very large and very valuable estates. They have been
denounced as "enormous monopolies, princedoms," &c., and this
Court have been urged to deny to the grantees what it is assumed
the former governments have too liberally and lavishly granted.
This rhetoric might have a just influence, when urged to those who
have a right to give or refuse. But the United States have bound
themselves by a treaty to acknowledge and protect all bona
titles granted by the previous government, and this Court
have no discretion to enlarge or curtail such grants, to suit our
own sense of property, or defeat just claims, however extensive, by
stringent technical rules of construction, to which they were not
The patent to the claimant's mother confers a title in fee to an
estate "known by the name of El Cahon," or "The Chest." It
describes it as lying "near the Mission of San Diego." It therefore
assumes, that there is an estate or rancho having such a name, and
having some known boundaries.
It is prima facie
evidence of such a fact. Those who
allege that it is void for uncertainty, must prove either that
there are two estates called "El Cahon," near the Mission of San
Diego, to which the description in the patent would equally apply;
in such case it would be void for ambiguity; or they must prove
that there is no estate or property known by that name about San
Diego. But there is not a particle of such evidence to be found on
the record, nor was such a defense set up before the commissioners.
For anything that appears, the "El Cahon" was as well known as San
Diego itself. But the description of the patent does not end here;
it is further described as "that which the diseno attached to the
espediente expresses." This map or survey is thus made a part of
the patent for the purpose of description. It exhibits a circular
valley surrounded by hills or mountains, except at a narrow outlet
on the eastern boundary, where a stream of water passes out. The
course of the stream through the valley is traced, as also are the
roads. The position of corrals, ranchos, cottages &c., are
carefully noted; on the east, a hill or mountain bounds the valley
called "El Cahon;" on the west, "Cerro del Porsuele" and "Cerro de
la Mesa;" the northern boundary, as a continuous circular hill or
mountain without a name; the southern are broken hills, called
"Lomas Altas." The cardinal points of the compass are given, and a
scale of measurement, a single glance at which would show that the
valley traced according to that scale would contain about ten
leagues, or possibly eleven, the usual allowance for such estates.
There is no evidence whatever
Page 60 U. S. 366
tending to show that, with the assistance of this map, a
surveyor would find any difficulty in locating it according to its
In the cases of Fremont and of Larkin, the grants were much more
vague than the present, and the same remark which was made in the
latter case will equally apply to this.
"No question appears to have been made as to the practicability
of locating the grant in the tribunals below, nor do we see any
ground upon which such a question could have been properly raised
in the case."
The judgment is therefore affirmed.
MR. JUSTICE DANIEL dissented.