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PRIVATE LAND CLAIMS.
ORIGIN AND NATURE.
Private land claims are a class of titles situated in different sections of country, now constituting a part of the Union, having their origin under the governments preceding the United States in sovereignty.
In virtue of the treaties of cession hereinbefore shown, the area of the public domain has been increased several times its original extent. This immense increase of national territory embraced numerous individual foreign titles founded on written grants or otherwise, in form extending even to nascent claims resting upon actual settlement before change of government. The whole scope of Congressional legislation thereon shows how scrupulously this Government has made provision for fulfilling treaty stipulations and the requirements of public law, so as to secure to individuals their rights which originated under former governments. No nation has shown a higher sense of justice in this respect or a more liberal spirit. We have acknowledged and carried out the principle that, although sovereignty changes, private property is unaffected by the change, and that all claims in this relation are to be maintained sacred, including those in contract, those executory, as well as those executed. Such are the rulings of boards of commissioners for the examination of foreign titles, and the decisions of the district courts and of the Supreme Court of the United States. These courts in their rulings show how zealously private rights have been vindicated and confirmed, while the records of our Government bear evidence of the fact that multitudes of titles, derived under the former sovereignties of Great Britain, France, Spain, and Mexico, depending for validity on their colonial laws (in some very few instances they were direct from the Crown, although usually made through the instrumentality of the governors-general, intendants, subdelegates, and military commandants), have been secured to the lawful owners.
Turning to the national map it will be seen that these private claims or grants, marking the progress of early explorations and settlements on this continent, begin pon the northern shores of the Michigan lower peninsula, come down to the old French settlement at and near Detroit, pass over to Green Bay and Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin, enter into Indiana at the old Vincennes post, down the eastern side of the Mississippi, and in Illinois reach Peoria, Prairie du Rocher, and the Kaskaskias, there resting on ancient British and French grants, and all within the limits of the United States according to the treaty of limits in 1783. Thence such ancient claims are found in descending the Mississippi under other forms of grant and granting officers, to the Gulf of Mexico, extending into the southern portions of Mississippi and Alabama, and scattering all over both East and West Florida, crossing the Mississippi and following the shores of the Gulf, they are found thickly scattored over Louisiana, existing in Arkansas, and in great numbers in Missouri.
In those localities south of the thirty-first degree, east of the Mississippi, to the Perdido, and those west of the Mississippi to the present State of Missouri, inclusive, the claims are founded on Spanish and French titles, under treaty of 1803 and ancient settlements; those east of the Perdido, in the Floridas, upon Spanish titles under the treaty of 1819, and under old settlements.
In New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California, as we advance westward, there exist ancient Spanish titles, municipal and rural, claimed under the treaty of 1848 with Mexico, and what is known as the Gadsden purchase of December 30, 1853. These claims are for irregular tracts, illy defined, bounded by streams or marked by headlands, or natural objects in many cases since removed. They were made for agricultural, mining, stock-raising, or colonization, in all sizes from a village lot to a million-acre tract. The records kept by the granting authorities of Spain and Mexico have been a serious hindrance in some cases toward a satisfactory solution, being frequently of doubtful meaning.
These uitles, in view of the obligations assumed by the United States to respect private property where the same had legal inception under the former governments, have passed under the examination of Congress, and, in other cases, the power of confirmation has been delegated to the district courts, with a right of appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, by whose labors the edifice of provincial land law has risen to its present complete proportions, but the greater number hare been confirmed by the judicial tribunals of the United States and others by direct legislative acts operating upon official reports submitted.
The United States, by the enlargement of the national domain, assumed obligations under the public law, and by treaties, to recognize all titles which had lawful inception prior to the transfer of sovereignty and soil.
A primary and important duty required the separation of private from the public property.
There is no one branch of jurisprudence where greater research and extent of legal erudition have been displayed than in the discussion and determination by the judicial tribunals of the intricate questions which in this connection have arisen.
The rule of recognition of private land claims generally has been a broad one, and they have been confirmed under the largest possible allowance of equity.
Ever since the province of Louisiana was acquired from France by the treaty of 30th April, 1803, the United States have earnestly and patiently sought by every proper expedient to induce persons claiming property in lands by virtue of grant, concession, oriler of survey, permission to settle, or any other authority whitsoever derived from former sovereigns, to make known their claims to the new Government, in order that their lands might be distinguished from the mass of the vacant diomain which had vested in that new Government by the treaty, and which policy and Anecessity demanded should be surveyed, brought into market, and speedily sold to Afeimburse the price paid by the United States for the province. In practically carrking out this obvious and just design, many acts were passed, beginning with that of March 2, 1805. They are very numerous, and for the most part have long since been repealed, have expired by limitation, or have become obsolete; some of them applied only to particular districts, others to the whole State; some were of short duration others were more extended, while others still revived, re-enacted, explained, or modified those preceding; some provided boards of commissioners, with deputy commissioners, before whom the claims were to be presented, while others, and the larger number, made the registers and receivers for the established land districts ex-officio commis-, sioners for receiving and reporting on the claims; some conferred ample, others limited, powers upon the commissioners, and all denounced severe penalties from time to time against those who failed to present their claims.
DECISIONS OF THE SUPREME COCRT OF THE UNITED STATES RELATING TO LOUISIANA
AND FLORIDA PURCHASES. The decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States in cases relating to the Louisiana purchase of 1803, and the Florida purchase of 1819, as to grants or private
land claims, are given below. The principles and law laid down therein fix the rule of interpretation governing this class of claims, under the treaties applicable thereto.
The decisions of the Supreme Court, in cases arising under these treaties, have been:
By the treaty of St. Ildefonso, made on the first of October, 1800, Spain ceded Louisiana to France; and France, by the treaty of Paris, signed the 30th of April, 1803, ceded it to the United States. Under this treaty the United States claimed the countries between the Iberville and the Perdido. Spain contended that her cession to France comprehended only that territory which, at the time of the cession, was denominated Louisiana, consisting of the island of New Orleans, and the country which had been originally ceded to her by France west of the Mississippi. The land claimed by the plaintiffs in error, under a grant from the Crown of Spain, made after the treaty of Št. Ildefonso, lies within the disputed territory; and this case presents the question, to whom did the country between the Iberville and Perdido belong after the treaty of St. Ildefonso ? Had France and Spain agreed upon the boundaries of the retroceded territory before Louisiana was acquired by the United States, that agreement would undoubtedly have ascertained its limits. But the declarations of France, made after parting with the province, cannot be admitted as conclusive. In questions of this character, political considerations have too much influence over the conduct of nations to permit their declarations to decide the course of an independent government in a matter vitally interesting to itself. (Foster et al. v. Neilson, 2 Peters, 306.)
If a Spanish grantee had obtained possession of the land in dispute, so as to be the defendant, would a court of the United States maintain his title under a Spanish grant, made subsequent to the acquisition of Louisiana, singly on the principle that thé Spanish construction of the treaty of St. Ildefonso was right, and the American construction wrong? Such a decision would subvert those principles which govern the relations between the legislative and judicial departments, and mark the limits of eack. (Ibid., 309.)
The sound construction of the 8th article of the treaty between the United States and Spain, of the 22d of February, 1819, will not enable the court to apply its provisions to the case of the plaintiff. (Ibid., 314.)
The article does not declare that all the grants made by his catholic majesty before the 24th of January, 1818, shall be valid to the same extent as if the ceded territories had remained under his dominion. It does not say that those grants are hereby con. firmed. Had such been its language, it would have acted directly on the subject, and it would have repealed those acts of Congress which were repugnant to it; but its language is that those grants shall be ratified and confirmed to the persons in possession, &c. By whom shall they be ratified and confirmed? This seems to be the language of contract; and if it is, the ratification and confirmation which are promised must be the act of the legislature. Until such acts shall be passed, the court is not at liberty to disregard the existing laws on the subject. (I bid.)
By the treaty by which Louisiana was acquired, the United States stipulated that the inhabitants of the ceded territories should be protected in the free enjoyment of their property. The United States, as a just nation, regard this stipulation as the avowal of a principle which would have been held equally sacred, although it had not been inserted in the treaty. (Soulard et al. v. The United States, 4 Peters, 511.)
The term property, as applied to lands, comprehends every species of title, inchoate or complete. It is supposed to embrace those rights which lie in contract; those which are executory, as well as those which are executed. In this respect the relations of the inhabitants of Louisiana to their government is not changed. The new government takes the place of that which has passed away. (Ibid.)
The stipulations of the treaty ceding Louisiana to the United States, affording that protection or security to claims under the French or Spanish government to which the act of Congress refers, are in the first, second, and third articles. They extended to all property, until Louisiana became a member of the Union ; into which the inhabitants were to be incorporated as soon as possible, "and admitted to all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States." The perfect in violability and security of property is among these rights. (Delassus v. The United States, 9 Peters, 117.)
The right of property is protected and secured by the treaty, and no principle is better settled in this country than that an inchoate title to land is property. This right would have been sacred, independent of the treaty. The sovereign who acquires an inhabited country, acquires full dominion over it; but this dominion is never supposed to divest the vested rights of individuals to property. The language of the treaty ceding Louisiana excludes any idea of interfering with private property. (Ibid.)
After the acquisition of Florida by the United States, in virtue of the treaty with Spain of 22d of February, 1819, various acts of Congress were passed for the adjustment of private land claims within the ceded territory. The tribunals authorized to decide on them were not authorized to settle any which exceeded a league square; on those exceeding that quantity they were directed to report, especially, their opinion for the future action of Congress. The lands embraced in the larger claims were defined by surveys, and plats retained. These were reserved fron, sale, and remained unsettled until some resolution should be adopted for a final adjudication of them, which was done by the passage of the law of the 22d May, 1828. By the sixth section it was provided “that all claims to land within the Territory of Florida, embraced by the treaty, which shall not be finally decided and settled under the provisions of the same law, containing a greater quantity of land than the commissioners were authorized to decide, and above the amount confirmed by the act, and which have not been reported as antedated or forged, shall be received and adjudicated by the judges of the superior court of the district in which the land lies, upon the petition of the claimant, according to the forms, rules and regulations, conditions, restrictions, and regulations prescribed to the district judge, and to the claimants, by the act of 26th May, 1824." By a proviso, all claims annulled by the treaty, and all claims not presented to the commissioners, &c., according to the acts of Congress, were excluded. (United States v. Arredondo et al., 6 Peters, 706.)
The validity of concessions of land by the authorities of Spain in East Florida is expressly recognized in the Florida treaty, and in the several acts of Congress. (Ibid.)
The eighth article allows the owners of land the same time for fulfilling the conditions of their grants from the date of the treaty as is allowed in the grant from the date of the instrument, and the act of the 8th of May, 1822, requires every person claiming title to lands under any patent, grant, concession, or order of survey dated previous to the 24th of January, 1818, to file his claim before the commissioners appointed in pursuance of that act. All the subsequent acts on the subject observe the same language; and the titles under these concessions have been uniformly confirmed when the tract did not exceed a league square. (Ibid.)
A claim to lands in East Florida, the title to which was derived from grants by the Creek and Seminole Indians, ratified by the local authorities of Spain before the cession of Florida by Spain to the United States was confirmed. It was objected to the title claimed in this case, which had been presented to the superior court of Middle Florida, under the provisions of the act of Congress for the settlement of land-claims in Florida, that the grantees did not acquire, under the Indian grants, a legal title to the land: Held, That the acts of Congress submit these claims to the adjudication of this court as a court of equity; and those acts, as often and uniformly construed in its repeated decisions, confer the same jurisdiction over imperfect, inchoate, and inceptive titles, as legal and perfect ones, and require the court to decide by the same rules on all claims submitted to it, whether legal or equitable. (Mitchell et al. v. The United States, 9 Peters, 711.)
Under the Florida treaty, grants of land made before the 24th January, 1818, by his catholic majesty, or by his lawful authorities, stand ratified and confirmed to the same extent that the same grants would be valid, if Florida had remained under the dominion of Spain; and the owners of conditional grants, who have been prevented from fulfilling all the conditions of their grants, have time by the treaty extended to them to complete such conditions. That time, as was declared by the Supreme Court in Arredondo's case, 6 Peters, 478, began to run in regard to individual rights from the ratification of the treaty; and the treaty declares, if the conditions are not complied with within the terms limited in the grant, that the grants shall be null and void. (United States v. Kingsley, 12 Peters, 476.)
The treaty with Spain by which Florida was ceded to the United States, is the lar of the land, and admits the inhabitants of Florida to the enjoyment of the privileges, rights, and immunities of the citizens of the United States. They do not, however, participate in political power; they do not share in the Government until Florida shall become a State. In the mean time Florida continues to be a Territory of the United States, governed by virtue of that clause in the Constitution which empowers "Congress to make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States." (American Ins. Co. t. Three Hundred and Fifty-six Bales of Cotton, 1 Peters, 542.)
The object of the treaty with Spain which ceded Florida to the United States, dated 220 February, 1819, was to invest the commissioners with full power and authority to receive, examine, and decide upon the amount and validity of asserted claims upon Spain, for damages and injuries. Their decision, within the scope of this authority, is conclusive and final, and is not re-examinable. The parties must abide by it as a decree of a competent tribunal of exclusive jurisdiction. Å rejected claim cannot be brought again under review, in any judicial tribunal. But it does not naturally follow that this authority extends to adjust all conflicting rights of different citizens to the fund