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December 1, 1867


ERROR to the Circuit Court for California; the action there having been to recover possession of a tract of land within the by of San Francisco. The plaintiff claimed as seized in fee under title from the city of San Francisco. The defendant claimed possession as an officer of the United States; setting up that the property was public property of the United States reserved for military purposes. The city's title was thus: It seemed to be sufficiently plain, from historical evidences and from adjudicated cases, that at the time of the conquest of California by the United States, there was at the present site of San Francisco a pueblo of some kind; that is to say, that there was a settlement or collection of individuals there having an ayuntamiento composed of alcaldes, regidores, and other municipal officers.*fn1 It seemed sufficiently plain also that there were general Mexican laws governing the subject, which authorized territory to an extent not exceeding four square leagues to be marked out and dedicated to the use of pueblos and of their inhabitants for certain purposes. What, however, was the precise nature of this pueblo at San Francisco, or what the nature of its rights or of pueblo rights generally in any four leagues, and by what lines these particular four leagues were to be defined, was not so clear, nor at all conceded: though it was asserted by the plaintiff that the four leagues in immediate connection with San Francisco, were to be measured from the presidio of the old pueblo, the place occupied by the garrison of the town; and hence were to be bounded of necessity on three sides by waters of the ocean, the bay and the Golden Gate. And it was shown that a line drawn from water to water, east and west, would segregate in the easiest manner the four leagues to which, as successor of the former pueblo, the city was entitled. If such a line had ever been drawn, the tract now in controversy would have been included within it. But there was no evidence that any assignment of land had ever in any way been made to the pueblo where San Francisco now stands, under the former government. On the 3d of March, 1851, Congress passed the act to ascertain and settle private land claims in California. This act by its eighth section makes it the duty of every person having claims to lands there, to present them for investigation and the evidence in support of them, to a board of commissioners, which was created by the act. The fourteenth section declared, however, that the general requirements of this eighth section should not extend to 'any town lot, farm lot or pasture lot held under any grant from any corporation to which lands may have been granted for the establishment of a town by the Spanish or Mexican government, or the lawful authorities thereof, nor to any city, town, or village lot, which city, town, or village, existed on the 7th day of July, 1846, but that the claim for the same shall be presented by the corporate authorities of said town,' and that 'the fact of the existence of the said city, town, or village, on the said 7th of July, 1846, being duly proved, shall be prima facie evidence of a grant to such corporation.' In July, 1852, the city presented to this board a claim for the four leagues, praying a confirmation; and in December, 1854, the board confirmed the claim to a portion of the land, in which portion were embraced the premises now in controversy. In June, 1855, in virtue of an ordinance known as the Van Ness Ordinance, passed by the common council of the city of San Francisco, and subsequently, in 1868, ratified and confirmed by the legislature of California, whatever right the city had to the premises in controversy, on the 1st January, 1855, passed to a party under whom the plaintiff claimed. Such was the plaintiff's case. By the defendant's, it appeared, that in November, 1850, the President of the United States made, through the War Department, and in a usual way, an order that a certain parcel of land described by him, situated on the bay of San Francisco, California, and which, it was said by one side here, did, in point of fact, embrace the premises in controversy, and by the other that it did not–should be exempted from sale and reserved for public purposes. A private claimant to this tract proposing subsequently that certain other bounds should be substituted, with the understanding that if this was agreed to by the government he would resign all pretensions to title within the reservation, as fixed by the modified boundary proposed, the President, in December, 1851, in compliance with a recommendation to that effect from the Engineer Department, made in October, 1851, modified and reduced the reservation, describing it more particularly, and in such a way as to divide the tract originally reserved into two separate tracts, and, as it was said on one side here, to include also, land not included in the original order. In one of these tracts, the premises in controversy were embraced. The fact, therefore, that the President had reserved the tract for the purposes of the Federal government, was one part of the defendant's case. Another was this: In stating the city's title it has been said that the board of land commissioners, in December, 1854, confirmed the claim of the city to a part of the four leagues claimed by it as a pueblo, which part included these premises. If the matter had stopped there, the case of the plaintiff might have been free from question. But it did not stop there. The sequel was thus: In March, 1856, a transcript of the proceedings and decision of the board was filed in the District Court of the United States; this opr ating under the statute of August 31st, 1852, as an appeal by the party against whom the decision was given. Both City and United States in this case considered the decision as against them, and both gave notice of their intention to appeal. The appeal of the United States was, however, on notice of the Attorney-General and the stipulation of the district attorney, dismissed, and the city alone prosecuted its appeal. While the appeal was thus pending in the District Court, Congress passed an act*fn2 by virtue of which the case became transferred to the Circuit Court of the United States. That court, in May, 1865, confirmed the claim of the city to the four leagues, excepting, among others, such parcels of land as had been previously 'reserved or dedicated to public uses by the United States;' meaning by this, the tracts reserved as above mentioned by the then President, Mr. Fillmore. From this decree of the Circuit Court, the United States appealed to the Supreme Court at Washington. After the appeal taken (but previous to the trial in the present case), Congress relinquished all right of the United States to land situated within the city of San Francisco, and confirmed to it by the decree just mentioned, to the city, and confirmed the city's claim; subject, however, to the reservations and exceptions designated in that decree,*fn3 and also subject to certain specified trusts. The appeal of the United States to the Supreme Court was accordingly dismissed. On the trial of the present case the plaintiff objected to the admission of the evidence of the first reservation of the President, on account of its indefiniteness of description, and because the President could not make a reservation out of pueblo lands; and of the second one among other reasons because it was the result of a compromise between the government and an adverse claimant. He objected also, to the admission of the decree mentioned as having been made in the Circuit Court, it being admitted on the other side that an appeal was taken to it by the United States and was still pending. The objections were all overruled; and judgment having been given for the defendant, the case was now here on error. The case, it will be seen, involved essentially the question of the nature of the title and ownership of lands held by Mexican pueblos under the laws of Mexico in force in California, at the date of the conquest of that country, and, to some extent, of the nature of a pueblo itself.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Field delivered the opinion of the court.

Messrs. Cushing, Cole, and Reverdy Johnson, for the plaintiff in error, contended that, at the time of and long before the American occupation, San Francisco was an organized pueblo; that as such she was by the Mexican law proprietor in fee of four square leagues of land; that the limits of the land were certain; that the title was not an inchoate or imperfect title, but that the entire fee and use–the dominion both direct and useful–was in the pueblo; a matter on which they cited the Partidas and other Spanish authorities; that being private property, the President had no power to make a reservation out of it; that the fourteenth section of the act of March 3d, 1851, was a recognition by the United States of the pre-existing title of the city, and estopped them from pretending to title after that; that the decree of the Circuit Court of the United States in the case of United States v. The City of San Francisco, was not admissible in evidence, an appeal having been taken therefrom, which destroyed its effect as evidence of title; that the decree entered by consent in the United States District Court, on motion of the United States District Attorney, that the United States would not prosecute an appeal from the decree of the board of land commissioners, and that the city should have leave to proceed upon that decree as upon a final decree, was a final adjudication of the title to the land embrc ed within it, and vested the title absolutely in the city.

Mr. Stanbery, A. G., and Mr. Lake, contra.

The premises, for the possession of which this action is brought, are situated within the city of San Francisco, in the State of California. The plaintiff claims to be seized in fee of them, and derives his title from the city of San Francisco under an ordinance of the common council for the settlement of land titles in the city, passed on the 20th of June, 1855, commonly known as the Van Ness ordinance, and the act of the legislature of the State ratifying and confirming the same.

The defendant is an officer in the army of the United States, commanding the military department of California, and as such officer entered upon the possession of the premises previous to the commencement of this action, and has ever since held them under the order of the Secretary of War, as part of the public property of the United States reserved for military purposes.

At the time the ordinance named was passed the city of San Francisco asserted title, as successor of a Mexican pueblo in existence on the acquisition of the country, to four square leagues of land, embracing the site of the present city, and had presented her claim for the same to the board of land commissioners created under the act of March 3d, 1851, and the board had confirmed the claim to a portion of the land, including the premises in question, and rejected her claim for the residue. Dissatisfied with the limitation of her claim, the city prosecuted an appeal from the decision of the board to the United States District Court, and this appeal was then pending an dundetermined. By the second section of the ordinance the city relinquished and granted all the title and claim, which she thus held to the land within her corporate limits, as defined by the charter of 1851, with certain exceptions, to the parties in the actual possession thereof, by themselves or tenants, on or before the 1st of January, 1855, provided such possession was continued up to the time of the introduction of the ordinance into the common council, or if interrupted by an intruder or trespasser, had been or might be recovered by legal process. In March, 1858, the legislature of the State ratified and confirmed this ordinance. The party, through whom the plaintiff traces his title, was in such actual possession of the premises in controversy both at the time designated by the ordinance and also on the passage of the confirmatory act of the legislature, and therefore acquired whatever right or title the city possessed; and he improved and cultivated the premises, and erected a building thereon, which was occupied by the plaintiff as his residence when he was ousted by the defendant.

On the other hand, the authorities of the United States, at the date of the ordinance, and long previous to that date, claimed the right to hold the premises as property of the United States, and as being a portion of a tract set apart for public purposes. As early as the 5th of November, 1850, President Fillmore made an order that certain parcels of land situated 'on the bay of San Francisco,' should be exempted and reserved from sale for such purposes. Notice of this order was soon afterwards communicated to the commissioner of the general land office, and in June following was transmitted by him to the surveyor-general of the United States for California, in whose office it has ever since remained on file.

On the 31st of December, 1851, this order was modified by the President in some particulars, and the first parcel reserved, or supposed to have been reserved by it, was divided into two separate tracts, each of which was described with precision. We do not deem it, therefore, of any consequence whether the description of the first parcel in the original order was defective and indefinite, as contended by counsel, or whether or not it included the premises in controversy. Nor is it of any consequence that the moi fication was made, as asserted, to avoid a possible contest with an adverse claimant to a portion of the original reservation. The reasons which may have governed the President cannot affect the validity of his action. He possessed the same authority in 1851 to modify the reservation of 1850, by enlarging or reducing it, that he possessed to make the reservation in the first instance. It is sufficient, in the view we take of this case, that one of the tracts described in the last order embraces the premises in controversy.

The question presented for determination is, therefore, between the title of the city of San Francisco, as it existed on the 1st day of January, 1855, and the title on that day of the United States.

It must be conceded that there was a pueblo of some kind at the site of the city of San Francisco upon the conquest of the country by the United States on the 7th of July, 1846. We say a pueblo of some kind, for the term, which answers generally to the English word town, may designate a collection of individuals residing at a particular place, a settlement or a village, or may be applied to a regular organized municipality. The historical evidence, to which we have been directed in the argument, shows that there was a pueblo at that site under the government of an ayuntamiento, composed of an alcalde, regidores, and other officers, as early as 1835, and that it continued in existence for some years under that government, and subsequently until, and for some time after the conquest, under the government of justices of the peace or alcaldes.

It must be conceded, also, that the pueblo, which thus existed, possessed some claim legal, or equitable to, or some interest in lands within the limits of four square leagues, to be assigned and measured off from the northern portion of the peninsula, upon which the city of San Francisco is situated, and that the city has succeeded to such claim or interest. This has been held by the Supreme Court of the State after the most elaborate and extended consideration. But what is of more consequence, and is conclusive upon this court, it has been so adjudged by the Circuit Court of the United States, and that adjudication has been made final, as we shall hereafter see, by the legislation of Congress, and the dismissal of the appeal to this court, which followed that legislation.

By the laws of Mexico, which prevailed in California at the date of the conquest, pueblos or towns, when once established and officially recognized, were entitled, for their benefit and the benefit of their inhabitants, to the use of lands, embracing the site of such pueblos or towns, and of adjoining lands within certain prescribed limits. This right, as we observed in Townsend v. Greeley,*fn4 appears to have been common to the cities and towns of Spain from an early period in her history, and was recognized in the laws and ordinances for the settlement and government of her colonies on this continent. The same general system of laws for the establishment and government of pueblos, and the assignment to them of lands that prevailed under Spain, was continued in Mexico, with but little variation, after her separation from the motion country. These laws provided for the assignment to the pueblos, for their use and the use of their inhabitants, of land not exceeding in extent four square leagues. Such assignment was to be made by the public authorities of the government upon the original establishment of the pueblo, or afterwards upon the petition of its officers or inhabitants; and the land was to be measured off in a square or prolonged form, according to the nature and condition of the country. All lands within the general limits stated, which had previously become private property, or were required for public purposes, were reserved and excepted from the assignment.

Until the lands were thus definitely assigned and measured off, the right or claim of the pueblo was an imperfect one. It was a right which the governmet might refuse to recognize at all, or might recognize in a qualified form; it might be burdened with conditions, and it might be restricted to less limits than the four square leagues, which was the usual quantity assigned. Even after the assignment the interest acquired by the pueblo was far from being an indefeasible estate such as is known to our laws. The purposes to be accomplished by the creation of pueblos did not require their possession of the fee. The interest, as we had occasion to observe in the case already cited, amounted to little more than a restricted and qualified right to alienate portions of the land to its inhabitants for building or cultivation, and to use the remainder for commons, for pasture lands, or as a source of revenue, or for other public purposes. And this limited right of disposition and use was in all particulars subject to the control of the government of the country.

It is not pretended that any assignment of lands was ever made to the pueblo of San Francisco under the former government. Her claim or right to any lands being therefore an imperfect one, required the recognition and action of the new government before it could be turned into an absolute and indefeasible estate. Nor did it any the less require such recognition and action by reason of the presumption raised by the fourteenth section of the act of March 3d, 1851, of a grant of land to a city, town, or village, which was proved to have been in existence on the 7th of July, 1846. That section does not specify the extent of the grant which, for the purpose of determining the claim of the lot-holders, and of the city, was to be presumed to have been made; nor does it furnish any measure by which the limits of such grant could be fixed. The claim of the city had, therefore, as the law then stood, to undergo judicial investigation before the board of land commissioners created under the act of March 3d, 1851, and to depend for its validity and extent upon the determination of the board, and of the tribunals of the United States to which it could be carried. The authorities of the city so regarded the claim, and by their direction it was presented to the board in July, 1852. In December, 1854, the board confirmed the claim, as we have already stated, to a portion of the four square leagues, embracing the premises in suit, and rejected it for the residue. From the decision an appeal was taken by the filing of a transcript of the proceedings and decision of the board with the clerk of the District Court. The appeal was by statute for the benefit of the party against whom the decision was rendered; in this case of both parties–of the United States, which contested the entire claim, and of the city, which asserted a claim to a greater quantity than that confirmed–and both parties gave notice of their intention to prosecute the appeal. Subsequently, in February, 1857, the Attorney-General withdrew the appeal on the part of the United States, and in March following, the District Court, upon the stipulation of the district attorney, ordered that appeal to be dismissed, and gave leave to the city to proceed upon the decree of the board as upon a final decree. The counsel of the plaintiff contend that this decree closed the controversy between the city and the United States as to the lands to which the claim was confirmed. But in this view they are mistaken. Had the city accepted the leave granted, withdrawn her appeal, and proceeded under the decree as final, such result would have followed. But this course she declined to take. She continued the appeal for the residue of her claim to the four square leagues. This kept open the whole issue with the United States. The proceeding in the District Court, though called in the statute an appeal, was not in fact such. It was essentially an original suit, in which new evidence was given and in which the entire case was open. ...

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