MAXWELL LAND GRANT CASE, 121 U. S. 325 (1887)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Maxwell Land Grant Case, 121 U.S. 325 (1887)

Maxwell Land Grant Case

Argued March 8-11, 1881

Decided April 18, 1887

121 U.S. 325


It does not satisfactorily appear that the grant of Governor Armijo of 1841 to Beaubien and Miranda, since ascertained to amount to 1,414,164.94 acres, was of that character which, by the decree of the Mexican Congress of 1824, was limited to eleven square leagues of laud for each grantee.

It does appear that, though the attention of Congress was turned to this question, it confirmed the grant in the Act of June 21, 1860, to the full extent of the boundaries as described in the petition of claimants.

In such case, the courts have no jurisdiction to limit the grant, as the Constitution, by Article IV, § 1, vests the control of the public lands in Congress. Tameling v. United States Freehold Co., 93 U. S. 644.

While courts of equity have the power to set aside, cancel, or correct patents or other evidences of title obtained from the United States by fraud or mistake and to correct under proper circumstances such mistakes, this can only be done on specific averments of the mistake or the fraud, supported by clear and satisfactory proof.

The general doctrine on this subject is that when in a court of equity it is proposed to set aside, to annul, or correct a written instrument for fraud or mistake in the execution of the instrument itself, the testimony on which this is done must be clear, unequivocal, and convincing, and it cannot be done upon a bare preponderance of evidence which leaves the issue in doubt.

Where the purpose is to annul a patent, a grant, or other formal evidence of title from the United States, the respect due to such an instrument, the presumption that all the preceding steps required by law had been observed, the importance and necessity of the stability of titles dependent on these official instruments, demand that the effort to set them aside should be successful only when the allegations on which this attempt is made are clearly stated and fully proved.

In this case, the evidence produces no conviction in the judicial mind of the mistakes or frauds alleged in the bill, and the decree of the circuit court dismissing it is affirmed.

The United States filed this bill in equity to set aside a patent dated May 19, 1879, granting to Charles Beaubien and Guadalupe Miranda, 1,714,764.94 acres of land in New Mexico and Colorado. The location of the land is shown on 121 U. S. S. 326� No. 2 in the opinion of the Court. After the taking of proof by complainant, an amended bill was filed December 5, 1883. The respondents demurred, and, the demurrer being overruled, answered, and, after hearing, the bill was dismissed. From this decree the United States appealed.

The Republic of Mexico in 1841 made a grant of land to Beaubien and Miranda, accompanied by juridical possession, according to the forms of Mexican law. A sketch of the official diseno, forming part of the giving of possession is in the opinion of the Court, 121 U. S. 361.

On the 15th of September, 1857, the Surveyor General of New Mexico, pursuant to § 8 of the Act of Congress of July 22, 1854, establishing the office of Surveyor General of New Mexico, &c., reported the grant to Congress for confirmation as

"a good and valid grant according to the laws and customs of the government of the Republic of Mexico and the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, as well as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo."

The grant was accordingly confirmed, as recommended by the Surveyor General, June 21, 1860, 12 Stat. 71.

In 1869, having previously become the proprietor of the grant, Maxwell applied to the Land Department for its survey, claiming that it comprised about 2,000,000 acres lying partly in Colorado but mainly in New Mexico. The matter of the survey was in due course taken to the Secretary of the Interior, and on the 31st of December, 1869, Secretary Cox decided that the confirmed grant was limited to two tracts of eleven square leagues each. In 1871, the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company, having meantime become the owner of the grant, renewed the application for a survey and patent under the claim as put forth by Maxwell in 1869; this application was refused by Secretary Delano upon the ground that the decision of Secretary Cox was final as to the extent of the grant so far as the Executive Departments were concerned. In March, 1877, the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company made another application for a patent upon the claim of locality and extent as theretofore. A survey was

Page 121 U. S. 327

ordered and executed the same year, and the patent issued under the survey May 19, 1879.

These were the facts as claimed by the United States, and in this Court their counsel maintained that the decree dismissing the bill was erroneous in the following respects:

"First. The grant of the Republic of Mexico could not under Mexican laws exceed altogether twenty-two square leagues, equivalent to 97,424.8 acres of land, to be found within the out-boundaries designated."

"Second. The report of the Surveyor General of September 17, 1857, recommended the grant for confirmation for no greater quantity of land than twenty-two square leagues."

"Third. The confirmatory act of June 21, 1860, did not operate as a grant de novo for the land in excess of twenty-two square leagues."

"Fourth. The survey under which the patent issued and the patent itself included, in addition to the twenty-two square leagues, many hundred thousand acres within the out-boundaries designated in the grant proceedings, not included in the grant as confirmed, and also several hundred thousand acres (about 400,000) lying upon the outside of the eastern and northern out-boundaries, also not included in the confirmed grant."

"Fifth. The patent was issued by the officers of the Land Department to include the lands within the out-boundaries set down in the grant proceedings, in excess of twenty-two square leagues, inadvertently and by mistake caused by ignorance of the law and of their authority in the premises, and to include the lands outside the out-boundaries, inadvertently and by mistake produced by the frauds and deceits practiced upon the Commissioner of the General Land Office by the owners of the grant and their agents, and by Surveyor General Spencer, and the deputy United States surveyors Elkins and Marmon in the interest of such owners. "

Page 121 U. S. 357

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