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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Davenport's Heirs, 56 U.S. 15 How. 1 1 (1853)

United States v. Davenport's Heirs

56 U.S. (15 How.) 1




Two grants of land in the country known as the neutral territory lying between the Sac River and the Arroyo Hondo confirmed, namely one for La Nana granted in 1798 and the other for Los Ormegas granted in 1795.

These grants were made by the commandant of the Spanish post of Nacogdoches, who at that time had power to make inchoate grants.

In both cases, the grants had defined metes and bounds, and the grantees were placed in possession by a public officer and exercised many acts of ownership.

The evidence of the grants was copies made by the commandant of the post and also copies made by the land office in Texas. These copies, under the circumstances, are sufficient.

At the date of these grants, it was necessary to obtain the ratification of the civil and military governor before the title became perfected. This not having been done in the present case, the title was imperfect, although the petition alleges that it was perfect, and the district court had jurisdiction under the acts of 1824 and 1844.

But the district court ought not to have decreed that floats should issue where the United States had sold portions of the land, because these vendees were not made parties to the proceedings.

This was an appeal from the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Louisiana under the acts of 1824 and 1844 so often referred to in cases previously reported.

The facts of the case are recited in the opinion of the Court.

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MR. JUSTICE CAMPBELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The appellees filed their petition in that court to establish their claim to a share in two grants of land situate on the western border of Louisiana in the country known as the

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neutral territory, lying between the Sabine River and the Arroyo Hondo.

One of these grants was issued by the commandant of the Spanish post at Nacogdoches to Edward Murphy the 1st day of July, 1798, for a tract of land called La Nana, containing 92,160 acres. The grantee, in the month of November following, conveyed it to the trading firm of William Barr & Co., of which Murphy and Samuel Davenport, the ancestor of the appellees, were respectively members.

The evidence of the grant consists in copies of the petition of Edward Murphy to the commandant, dated in February, 1798, for a donation of the tract La Nana, situate to the east of the Sabine River, on the road leading from the town of Natchitoches. The tract asked for forms a square of four leagues upon that road, the center of which is the prairie adjoining the bayou La Nana. The motive of the application was that the petitioner might have summer pasturage for his cattle and other animals. The petition was granted by the commandant, and the procurator was ordered to place the grantee in possession. The procurator fulfilled this order the first of August, 1798, by going upon the land with the grantee and in the presence of witnesses,

"took him by the right hand, walked with him a number of paces from north to south, and the same from east to west, and he, letting go his hand, the grantee, walked about at pleasure on the said territory of La Nana, pulling up weeds and made holes in the ground, planted posts, cut down bushes, took up clods of earth and threw them on the ground, and did many other things in token of the possession in which he had been placed in the name of His Majesty, of said land with the boundaries and extension as prayed for."

The act of possession was returned to the commandant, who directed "that it should be placed in the protocol of the post to serve as evidence of the same, and that a certified copy should be given to the person interested." The conveyance of Murphy to his firm bears date in the month of November after; was executed in the presence of the same commandant, and at that time the certified copies offered in evidence, purport to have been made.

The other grant is for a tract of land called Los Ormegas, containing 207,360 acres. It is founded on a petition of Jacinta Mora to the commandant of the same post in November, 1795, who asked for the concession that he might establish a stock farm for the raising of mules, horses, horned cattle &c., and to cultivate the soil. The tract described in the petition contains six leagues square on the River Sabine, the center of the Western line being opposite to the Indian crossing place of that river.

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The prayer of the petition was allowed the same day, and orders given to the procurator to place the petitioner in possession, "with all the usual formalities of style, and that he should report his proceedings for the more effectual confirmation of the property."

This order was executed in December, 1795, with the same ceremonial that was employed about the order upon the La Nana grant, and the act recording the transaction was placed in the protocol of the post.

The paper in evidence is a certified copy made by the commandant of the post in 1806, shortly before the conveyance of the grantee to the firm of William Barr & Co., and in the certificate the copy is declared to have been compared and corrected, and that it is true and genuine.

Besides these papers, the plaintiffs procured certified copies from the officers of the land office in Texas, from copies of the protocol made in 1810, which were submitted by the firm of Barr & Co. to the governor Salcedo of one of the internal provinces of New Spain, of which this post was at the time a dependency, apparently for the purpose of obtaining his sanction, either to the authenticity of the document or to the grant it evinced. This copy of the La Nana papers does not correspond with that of 1798, but that of the Ormegas grant is substantially the same as that made in 1806.

The plaintiffs, farther to support their claim, offered evidence satisfactorily explaining why these papers came to be deposited in the archives of Texas and for the fact of their discovery there.

These claims were presented in 1812 to the commissioners appointed to ascertain and adjust claims to lands in the Western District of Louisiana, and have been before the several boards which have been since constituted to effect the same object. The genuineness of the signatures which appear on these copies of the grant, that they have come from a proper depository, that the parties who now hold them have claimed them since the date of their titles; that the lands are fitted for the objects for which they were sought, and have been used for that purpose, that surveys and possession defined their limits, contemporaneously, or nearly so, with the grants are facts sufficiently established by the evidence submitted to the district court. No imputation upon the authenticity of the grants occurs in any of the reports or acts of the government, but in the various reports of the Boards of Inquiry they have been treated as genuine, resting upon just considerations and entitled to confirmation from the equity of the government.

The questions now arise have these grants been legally

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established? Were they within the competency of the persons making them? Are they binding upon the faith of the government of the United States? Does it lie within the jurisdiction of this Court to render a decree favorable to the petitioners?

The copies made by the Spanish commandant from the protocol, and certified by him to be true and genuine, though dated long after the protocol, would be received in evidence in the courts of Spain as possessing equal claims to credit as the primordial or originals for the reason that those, like these, are certified by the same officer whose attestation gives authenticity to the protocol and who is charged to preserve it. 2 Escriche, Dic. de leg. 185. And this Court for the same reason has uniformly received them as having the same authority. United States v. Percheman, 7 Pet. 51; United States v. Delespine, 15 Pet. 319, and cases cited.

In this case, the evidence of the loss or destruction of the protocol is satisfactory, and the copies would be admitted as secondary evidence upon well settled principles.

The power of the commandants of posts in the Spanish colonies to make inchoate titles to lands within their jurisdictions has been repeatedly acknowledged by this Court.

Under the laws and regulations of the Spanish Crown, it is a question of some doubt whether grants for the purpose of grazing cattle were anything more than licenses to use the lands and whether they were designed to operate upon the dominion. This question was presented in the case of the United States v. Huertas, 8 Pet. 475, upon a grant

"with the precise condition to use the lands for the purpose of raising cattle, without having the faculty to alienate the said land by sale, transfer, control of retrocession, or by any other title in favor of a stranger without the knowledge of this government"

was confirmed by a decree of this Court against that objection upon the part of the government, 33 U. S. 8 Pet. 475-709. We consider the question closed by the decision in that case in reference to the country formerly held by Spain lying to the east of the Sabine.

The land comprehended in these grants at their respective dates was within the unquestioned dominions of the Crown of Spain. The evidence clearly established that the commandants of the posts at Nacogdoches, before and subsequently, were accustomed to make concessions to lands in the neutral territory. This was not at all times an unquestioned jurisdiction, but between the years 1790 and 1800 it seems to have been generally acquiesced in. Some of the grants made within that period have been confirmed by the United States. The dispute of this jurisdiction was a dispute raised by other local commandants, and had no relation to the controversy which arose

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between the United States and Spain, upon the construction of the treaty of St. Ildefonso and the limits of the cession it made. Had these grants been executed after the date of that treaty, they would probably have been controlled by the doctrine of the case of the United States v. Reynes, 9 How. 127, and those of a kindred character. Having been executed by officers of the Crown of Spain within its dominions and in the exercise of an apparently legitimate authority, the presumption is in favor of the rightfulness of the act. No evidence has been given on the part of this government to impugn it, and much evidence has been adduced to uphold and sustain it.

The petition of the appellees describes the grants to be complete, wanting nothing to their validity from the authorities of Spain.

They have adduced evidence to show that such was the estimation in which they were held by the inhabitants of the district of Nacogdoches. If the court had adopted this conclusion, it could have taken no jurisdiction of the case. Its jurisdiction under the act of 1844 is merely to supply the deficiencies in the titles, which were in their incipient state at the termination of the Spanish dominion.

The facts pleaded enable us to determine the case without a reference to these legal conclusions of the parties. In United States v. Clarke, 8 Pet. 436, this Court reviewed the ordinances and regulations of the Crown of Spain for the disposition of its uncultivated lands in the Indies, so as to ascertain in whom, among its officers, the power to grant resided. From the examination, it was concluded that in 1774 it was confided to the civil and military governors, from whom it had been for some years previously withdrawn, and that it remained with these officers till a period subsequent to the date of these grants in the territories bordering upon the Gulf of Mexico. The commandants of posts and other sub-delegates of this officer were charged only with a superintendence of the incipient and mediate states of the title, but the power of completely severing the subject of the grant from the public domain was uniformly retained by that central jurisdiction. We are therefore of the opinion that these concessions must be treated as imperfect and dependent upon the sanction of the United States. Upon a full examination of the evidence, we think they are sustained upon principles of equity, and that the decree of the district court that declares them to be valid, should be affirmed.

That portion of the decree which provides that the petitioners be entitled to locate so many acres of land as have at any time been sold or otherwise disposed of out of said subdivisions by the United States, or any other unappropriated land

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belonging to the United States within the State of Louisiana falls within the objections, stated in the case of United States v. Moore, 12 How. 209, and of United States v. McDonogh, at this term, and cannot be maintained. To this extent the decree of the district court is reversed. The effect of which reversal and of the decree rendered, is to exempt the lands sold or disposed of by the United States from the operation of the plaintiff's claim and to leave the question of indemnity between the claimant and the political department of this government.


This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record from the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Louisiana, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, it is the opinion of this Court that the grants set forth in the record are valid grants, and that so much of the decree of the district court as confirms them should be affirmed, but that such of the lands embraced by the said grants as have been sold or otherwise disposed of by the United States are exempt from the operation of the said grants, and that so much of the decree of the said district court as authorizes the location of so many acres of the lands embraced in the said grants as have been sold or otherwise disposed of by the United States on any other unappropriated lands of the United States within the State of Louisiana, is erroneous and should be reversed.

Whereupon, it is now here ordered, adjudged, and decreed that so much of the decree of the district court as authorizes the location of so many acres of the land as have been disposed of by the United States on any other unappropriated lands of the United States within the State of Louisiana be and the same is hereby reversed and annulled, and that the lands so sold or otherwise disposed of by the United States be and the same are hereby exempted from the operation of the said grants.

And it is now here further ordered, adjudged, and decreed that so much of the decree of the said district court as declares the said grants to be valid, be and the same is hereby affirmed.

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