The Yosemite Valley Case
Annotate this Case
82 U.S. 77 (1872)
U.S. Supreme Court
The Yosemite Valley Case, 82 U.S. 15 Wall. 77 77 (1872)
The Yosemite Valley Case
82 U.S. (15 Wall.) 77
1. A party by more settlement upon lands of the United States, with a declared intention to obtain a title to the same under the preemption laws, does not thereby acquire such a vested interest in the premises as to
deprive Congress of the power to divest it by a grant to another party.
2. The power of regulation and disposition over the lands of the United States conferred upon Congress by the Constitution only ceases under the preemption laws when all the preliminary acts prescribed by those laws for the acquisition of the title, including the payment of the price of the land, have been performed by the settler. When these prerequisites have been complied with, the settler for the first time acquires a vested interest in the premises occupied by him, of which he cannot be subsequently deprived. He then is entitled to a certificate of entry from the local land officers, and ultimately to a patent for the land from the United States. Until such payment and entry the preemption laws give to the settler only a privilege of preemption in case the lands are offered for sale in the usual manner; that is, the privilege to purchase them in that event in preference to others.
3. The United States by the preemption laws do not enter into any contract with the settler, or incur any obligation that the land occupied by him shall ever be put up for sale. They simply declare by those laws that in case any of their hands are thrown open for sale the privilege to purchase them in limited quantities, at fixed prices, shall be first given to parties who have settled upon and improved them. The legislation thus adopted for the benefit of settlers was not intended to deprive Congress of the power to make any other disposition of the lands before they are offered for sale, or to appropriate them to any public use.
4. The case of Frisbie v. Whitney, 9 Wall. 187, affirmed.
5. The case of Lytle v. State of Arkansas, 9 How. 333, explained and distinguished from the present case.
6. The Act of Congress of June 30, 1864, granting the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the State of California passed the title of those premises to the state, subject to the trust specified therein, that they should be held for public use, resort, and recreation, and be inalienable for all time.
On the 30th of June, 1864, Congress passed an act, [Footnote 1] granting to the State of California the cleft or gorge in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, situated in the County of Mariposa in that state, known as the Yosemite Valley, with its branches and spurs, in estimated length fifteen miles and in width one mile, with the stipulation that the state should accept the grant upon the express condition that the premises should be held for public use, resort, and recreation, and should be inalienable for all time, except that leases for portions of the premises for periods not exceeding ten years might be made, the income derived therefrom to be expended in the preservation and improvement of the premises, or the roads leading thereto. The act provided that the boundaries of the grant should be established, at the cost of the state, by the Surveyor General of the United States for California, whose official plat, when affirmed by the Commissioner of the General Land Office, should constitute the evidence of the locus, extent, and limits of the cleft, or gorge; and that the premises should be managed by the governor of the state, with eight other commissioners
to be appointed by him, who should receive no compensation for their services.
By the same act, Congress also granted to the state the tract of land embracing the grove of mammoth trees in Mariposa, known as "the Mariposa Big Tree Grove," the grant to be accepted upon similar conditions as the grant of the Yosemite Valley, and the premises to be held for like public use, resort, and recreation, and to be also inalienable for all time, but with the same privilege as to leases.
At the first session of the Legislature of California, subsequently held, an act was passed by which the state accepted the grant thus made of the Yosemite Valley and Big Tree Grove, upon "the conditions, reservations, and stipulations" contained in the act of Congress, and the governor and eight commissioners, who had previously been appointed by him during the recess of the legislature, were constituted a board of commissioners, "with full power to manage and administer the grant made, and the trust created by the act of Congress," and to make rules and regulations for the government, improvement, and preservation of the premises. The act also provided for the appointment by the commissioners of a guardian of the premises, and made it a penal offense in anyone to commit willfully any trespass thereon, to cut down or girdle the trees, to deface or injure the natural objects, to fire the wood or grass, or to destroy or injure any bridge or structure thereon, or other improvement.
On the 19th of May, 1864, six weeks previous to the passage of the act of Congress making the grant to the state, Hutchings entered the valley of the Yosemite and settled upon lands therein, with the intention, according to his declarations, and the findings of the court, to acquire the title to the same under the preemption laws of the United States. There were then on the premises a house, outhouses, and a fence enclosing about three acres. These improvements Hutchings purchased of the previous occupant, and he had ever since resided upon the premises, and had improved and cultivated them. The valley at the time was unsurveyed, and no other acts than the settlement thus
made and continued had ever been done by him to acquire the title, unless soliciting the state and Congress to recognize his claim can be called such acts. At the time of his settlement, Hutchings was possessed of all the qualifications required of settlers under the preemption laws of the United States.
The principal one of these laws, and the one to which all subsequent acts refer, is the Act of September 4, 1841, [Footnote 2] entitled "An act to appropriate the proceeds of the sales of the public lands, and to grant preemption rights." The tenth section of this act provides that any person of the class designated therein, who shall make a settlement upon the public lands, to which the Indian title has been extinguished, and which has been previously surveyed, and shall inhabit and improve the same, and shall erect a dwelling thereon, shall be authorized to enter with the register of the proper land office, by legal subdivisions, one quarter section of land, to include the residence of the claimant, upon paying to the United States the minimum price of said land, subject to certain specified exceptions, among which is that no lands included in any reservation by any treaty, law, or proclamation of the President, or reserved for salines, or for the support of schools, or for other purposes, shall be liable to entry. By other sections various provisions are enacted for the determination of conflicting claims, and the preservation of proofs of settlement and improvement. When all the prerequisites are complied with, and the claimant has paid the price of the land, he is entitled to a certificate of entry from the register and receiver, and after a reasonable time to enable the land officers to ascertain whether there are any superior claims, and whether the claimant has complied, in all respects, with the law, he is entitled to a patent of the United States. [Footnote 3]
By the sixth section of the Act of Congress of March 3, 1853, entitled "An act to provide for the survey of the public lands in California, the granting of preemption rights therein,
and for other purposes," [Footnote 4] all the public lands of the United States in California, whether surveyed or unsurveyed, are made, with certain exceptions, subject to the above Act of September 4, 1841, "with all the exceptions, conditions, and limitations therein," with a proviso that when unsurveyed lands are claimed by preemption, notice of the claim shall be filed within three months after the return of the plats of surveys to the land offices, and proof and payment shall be made prior to the day appointed by the President's proclamation for the commencement of the sale including such lands, the entry of such claims to be made by legal subdivisions according to the United States survey, and also that settlement on unsurveyed lands shall be authorized only where the settlement is made within one year after the passage of the act. This last limitation was subsequently extended by act of Congress two years from March 1, 1854. [Footnote 5]
In some of the states and territories, by acts of Congress, settlements are authorized on unsurveyed lands, and by the 7th section of the Act of May 30, 1862, "to reduce the expenses of the survey and sale of the public lands of the United States," [Footnote 6] this privilege was extended to California.
Under this last act, Hutchings conceived that he had a right to settle upon the unsurveyed lands of the United States in the Yosemite Valley, and by the above acts of 1841 and 1853 could acquire and had acquired such a vested interest in the premises, to the extent of one hundred and sixty acres, that the United States could not transfer their title to the state, or dedicate the land to any public use. He therefore refused to surrender the possession to the commissioners appointed by the state. The defendant also refused to take a lease form the commissioners, though offered to him at a mere nominal rate for ten years. They accordingly, in November, 1867, brought the present action, alleging in their complaint that the state was owner in fee of the premises, and that they were entitled to the possession as commissioners of the state.
Pending the action, and on the 20th of February, 1868, the Legislature of California passed an act granting to the defendant and one Lamon, each, one hundred and sixty acres of land in the Yosemite Valley; the part granted to the defendant containing his improvements and the premises in controversy. The second section of the act provided that the act should take effect from and after its ratification by Congress. It had never been thus ratified. A bill to ratify it passed the House of Representatives, but failed in the Senate.
The district court of the state, in which the action was commenced, adjudged that the defendant was right in his view of his interest, and accordingly gave judgment in his favor. The supreme court of the state reversed the judgment, and ordered judgment for the possession of the premises in favor of the commissioners. The defendant now brought the case here for review.