United States v. Knight's Administrator,
66 U.S. 227 (1861)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Knight's Administrator, 66 U.S. 1 Black 227 227 (1861)

United States v. Knight's Administrator

66 U.S. (1 Black) 227


1. A complete espediente in a land title according to the laws and customs of Mexico consists of a petition with diseno annexed, order of reference, decree of concession, and copy of the grant.

2. Where there is no map annexed to the petition, no order of reference, or informe, but the decree of concession follows immediately after the petition, the inference is a reasonable one that no order of reference or informe was ever made in that case.

3. Where the decree of concession appears to have been made without an informe upon that petition, and yet recites an informe as having been made by a certain alcalde, and that alcalde did actually make an informe upon another petition to a former governor, the presumption is that the recital refers to the informe actually made.

4. If the informe was originally adverse to the petitioner, but was altered after the conquest so as to make it a favorable report, and it is recited in the decree as a favorable report, the inference is that the decree was not made until after the alteration, and consequently not until after the conquest of the country.

5. The fact that an espediente is included in an index made by an American officer in 1847 and 1848 shows that it was in the archives when that index was made, but it shows nothing more. The index cannot in any sense be regarded as a Mexican record.

6. The papers of the espediente in question not being previously filed,

Page 66 U. S. 228

numbered, or indexed by Mexican authority, and no fact appearing to show when or by what means they came into the Surveyor General's office, evidence that the grant was recorded is entirely wanting.

7. The fact that a grant bearing date 4th May, 1846, was not sent by the governor to the departmental assembly for approval among the others which were so sent on the 3d and 10th of June is entitled to very considerable weight as a circumstance against the authenticity of the grant.

8. Assuming it to be competent to establish a title without record evidence, still the burden is on the claimant to prove that the grant was issued, and he cannot give parol evidence of its contents without first proving its existence and loss.

9. But a claim cannot be confirmed without record evidence.

10. To maintain a title by means of secondary evidence, the claimant must show that the grant was obtained and made in the manner required by law and that it was recorded in the proper public office.

11. Evidence that a book or other record is lost cannot avail a claimant unless it be also proved that the grant under which the claim is made was duly and properly entered on the lost record.

This was an appeal by the United States from the decree of the District Court for the Northern District of California. The appellee Morehead was administrator of Wm. Knight, and in that character he presented his petition on the 3d day of March, 1852, to the board of commissioners for the investigation of private land claims, agreeably to the Act of Congress passed March 3, 1851. The commissioners rejected the claim, and the petitioner appealed to the district court, where it was confirmed. The claim was for ten leagues sitios de ganada mayor of land, situate on the western bank of the Sacramento, including the region lying between that river and the arroyo Jesus Maria, and being a large part of what is now the County of Yolo.

The title averred in the petition as the basis of the claim was a grant from Pio Pico, Governor or Political Chief of both the Californias, dated on the 4th of May, 1846. The claimant produced certain papers from the Surveyor General's office.

Page 66 U. S. 229

The first purported to be a petition addressed by William Knight to the governor, bearing date at Sonoma on the 1st day of February, 1846, describing the land, setting forth the necessities of his family as a reason for the appropriation of it to him by the superior authority, and soliciting the concession in the ordinary form. On the margin of this was written a short note, "Granted as prayed by the petitioner," with an order that a title be issued. This was signed "Pico." Immediately following the petition was a formal and very full decree of concession dated Angeles, May 4, 1846, to which was attached the full name of Pio Pico, with his rubric, and it was attested by Jose Matias Moreno as secretary. To these documents was added a borrador of a grant, also dated May 4, 1846. Several lines of this borrador had been written and a break made, when the writer (the same or some) other commenced again at the beginning and wrote to the end of it. The names of the governor and secretary at the foot of the borrador were admitted not to be in their hands, but Nicholas Den, who had been a magistrate in California before the conquest, and John W. Shore, a clerk in the surveyor general's office, testified that they were acquainted with the handwriting of Pio Pico, and believed his signature to the marginal order and decree of concession to be genuine. Moreno himself was also called, and he swore that he recollected Knight's presentation of his petition in May, 1846. He was shown a copy of the espediente, and said he believed it was a copy of the decree of concession and of the original grant. The decree he declared was made and signed by the governor, and the title was issued and delivered to Knight by himself as secretary, in which occupation he continued until 1848. But he assigned no dates to the making of the decree or the issuing of the title, or to the delivery of it, nor did he say that the grant was signed by the governor, or recorded in any book, or that the espediente had been filed in the secretary's office. There was no map, no order of reference to any local magistrate or subordinate officer, and no informe in the espediente. But the petition refers to a map, and the decree of concession, as well as the borrador of the grant, recites a report from the first alcalde of Sonoma.

Page 66 U. S. 230

These papers were among the espedientes arranged, numbered, and indexed in the years 1847 and 1848 by W. E. P. Hartnell. Mr. Hartnell was the clerk or assistant of Capt. Halleck when the latter was secretary for the military government established by Gen. Kearney after the taking of Monterey. Capt. Halleck was a witness in this cause, and deposed that, besides the records which were brought up from Los Angeles, a large quantity were found lying on the floor of the custom house at Monterey and piled up against the wall, which were by himself and Mr. Hartnell placed among the records of the office. Private individuals also brought papers there and had them filed, but he or Hartnell always endorsed on these private papers the time at which they were deposited. Capt. Halleck's testimony does not disclose his reasons nor those of Hartnell for believing that the papers found in the custom house were land records of the Mexican government.

To prove the loss of the original grant and excuse its nonproduction, the claimant took the deposition of Samuel Brannon, who testified that in 1847 Knight came to San Francisco from the lower country, where he had been bearing dispatches for the government, and that he told the witness of an attempt made -- he did not say when or where -- by the Sanchezes (native Californians) to lasso him, in consequence of which, and of his fast riding to escape them, he had lost his title papers. But he did not describe or allude to any particular paper as being lost.

The evidence showed that Knight was a native of the United States, had gone to New Mexico as early as 1830, where he had married "a daughter of the country," and emigrated thence to California about 1842. In 1843, he seated himself and his family on the right bank of the Sacramento at a place since called "Knight's Landing," and within the limits of this claim. In that year or the year after he built himself a house, and in 1845 he had a wheat field of five or six acres under cultivation. In 1846 he had a garden of two or three acres near his house planted with corn and melons. He left his home early that summer, was in the Bear Flag insurrection, and joined the American army soon after its first appearance

Page 66 U. S. 231

on the coast. He served during the war and died in 1849, at the gold mines on the Stanislaus River.

Knight's relations with the departmental government of California before and after Pico's accession to power were shown by testimony taken in the cause and by reference to historical and official documents. In 1842, very soon after he came into the country, he solicited Micheltorena for a concession of the same land which is now claimed. His petition was successively referred to the prefect of Monterey, the judge of New Helvetia, and the first alcalde of Sonoma, the last of whom reported against him on the ground that the land solicited had been previously conceded to, and was then occupied by, Don Thomas Hardy. Micheltorena never gave him any grant. He joined the standard of that chief in the autumn of 1844, when his authority was resisted by Pico and his partisans in the south. But he was not included within the terms of the general title which Micheltorena made to his followers, through Captain Sutter, at Santa Barbara, on the 22d of December, because he had no report from Sutter, and the report which he had from the alcalde of Sonoma was adverse to him. Nevertheless Sutter, on the 15th day of April, 1845, gave him a copy of the general title, believing him as he swore entitled to the land for his military services under Micheltorena against Pico, the latter of whom was in power as political chief of the department at the time when the copy was so delivered. After receiving this copy of the general title, and after the conquest of the country by the Americans, Knight, on the 8th October, 1847, got Jacob P. Leese (who had been the First alcalde of Sonoma in 1844) to alter his informe by inserting into it the words "una parte de ella," and procured from Hardy and Leese certificates that the land solicited by him in 1844 did not interfere with Hardy's ranch, as Leese had then reported. He sought the advice of several friends on the value of this title, and often incidentally spoke of it to others, but to none of them did he show or mention any except the Sutter title, unless to Colonel Fremont, who does not recollect the papers he exhibited nor the governor under whose grant he claimed, but "thinks he rather spoke of Pio Pico." The papers from Micheltorena

Page 66 U. S. 232

and Sutter were found in the possession of his family after his death. They knew of no others. The hostility of Knight to the Pico government was like that of the other American settlers in the north -- uniform and consistent. Captain Gillespie stated in his deposition that the causes of the Bear Flag war were in operation from the time of Fremont's appearance on the frontier in March, 1846, and Colonel Fremont himself testified that Knight was prominently engaged in the insurrection from the beginning, but not ostensibly so, for he was employed in the month of May as a spy.

Harrison Gwinn deposed to a conversation with William McDaniel, who at one time prosecuted this claim, in which the latter said that when he took hold of the case there were no papers, but he had made out as good a set of papers as there was to any grant of land in California. McDaniel, being produced by the claimants, positively contradicted the testimony of Gwinn. He said that he had seen certain papers at Benicia with Knight's name upon them, but not being able to read Spanish, he could make nothing of them.

James M. Harbin swore that Knight was at Los Angeles three weeks in the spring of 1846, and left there the first week in May. Nicholas Den declared in his deposition that he had seen him at Santa Barbara in March, April, or May, going to and returning from Los Angeles. Both these witnesses say that Knight told them he had received a title from Pio Pico. On the other hand, Major Bidwell, Captain Sutter, Major Gillespie, Samuel Neal, Colonel Fremont, William Bartee, S. W. Chase, William Gordon, Nicholas Algier, John Grigsby, testified more or less directly to facts wholly inconsistent with the probability that he could have been at Los Angeles at the date of the alleged grant. The unusual height of the waters they swore would have made the journey extremely difficult. The hostile relations between the government at Los Angeles and the American settlers on the Sacramento would have made it perilous for one of them to travel in the South, and some of the witnesses swore that they knew him to be at home during the months of April and May. It did not appear that he ever spoke of having made such a journey.

Page 66 U. S. 241

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