142 U.S. 161 (1891), Knight v. United Land Ass'n

Citation:142 U.S. 161, 12 S.Ct. 258, 35 L.Ed. 974
Party Name:KNIGHT v. UNITED LAND ASS'N et al.
Case Date:December 21, 1891
Court:United States Supreme Court

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142 U.S. 161 (1891)

12 S.Ct. 258, 35 L.Ed. 974




United States Supreme Court.

December 21, 1891

In error to the supreme court of the state of California. Reversed.


[12 S.Ct. 258] Edward R. Taylor and S. M. Wilson, for plaintiff in error.

Chas. N. Fox and Philip G. Galpin, for defendants in error.


Mr. Justice LAMAR delivered the opinion of the court.

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This was an action of ejectment, brought in the superior court in and for the city and county of San Francisco, Cal., by the United Land Association, a corporation of that state, and one Clinton C. Tripp, against Thomas Knight, to recover a block of land in that city bounded by Barry, Channel, Seventh, and Eighth streets, and known as 'Block No. 40.' The controversy involves an interesting question of title to the property described, the plaintiffs asserting that the premises were below the line of ordinary high-water mark at the date of the conquest of California from Mexico, and, therefore, upon the admission of the stated into the Union in 1850, inured to it in virtue of its sovereignty over tide-lands; and

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the defendant insisting that the lands are a portion of the pueblo of San Francisco, as confirmed and patented by the United States.

The complaint, filed on the 23d of November, 1880, alleged that the plaintiffs were the owners in fee of the premises described, and were entitled to the possession thereof, and that they had been wrongfully dispossessed thereof by the defendant, who continued to hold such unlawful possession, to their damage in the sum of $100, and to their loss of the rents and profits thereof in the sum of $500. Wherefore they prayed a judgment of restitution and damages aforesaid.

The answer consisted of a general denial of all the allegations of the complaint; and the cause, being at issue, was, by stipulation of counsel referred to a referee to take testimony, 'try all the issues, and report his findings and judgment thereon.'

In obedience to the order of the court the referee tried the case, making an elaborate finding of facts, and concluding, as matter of law, that judgment should go for the plaintiffs. Accordingly, on the 2d of June, 1888, a judgment was entered in the superior court in favor of the plaintiffs. That judgment was afterwards [12 S.Ct. 259] affirmed by the supreme court of the state on appeal; and, after two separate rehearings, and judgment of affirmance was adhered to by a bare majority of the court, three of the judges dissenting. 85 Cal. 474, 24 P. 823, and 85 Cal. 448, 24 P. 818. This writ of error was then sued out.

It appears from the bill of exceptions that on the trial of the case before the referee the plaintiffs, to sustain the issues on their behalf, introduced evidence tending to show the location of the premises to be as alleged in the complaint, and also a complete and good title in themselves under a grant from the state and certain mesne conveyances, provided the title to the premises was originally in the state, and provided certain deeds (which were also introduced) from the state tide-land commissioners, dated, respectively, November 24 and 27, 1875, were effectual to convey said title. For the purpose of proving title in the state they offered parol testimony to show that in 1854 the premises were below the line of ordinary

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high-water mark, and that Mission creek (which is an estuary of the Bay of San Francisco, and runs along-side this block) was, at that time, navigable for a considerable distance above them. This evidence was objected to, on the ground that parol evidence was inadmissible to prove the boundary lines of the decree of confirmation of the pueblo lands; but the objection was overruled, and an exception noted.

The plaintiffs then offered in evidence certain documents relative to the confirmation to the city of San Francisco of its pueblo lands, and also the first survey of those lands under the decree of confirmation, which survey, made by Deputy-Surveyor Stratton, approved by the survey or general of California, and confirmed by the commissioner of the general land-office, did not include the premises in controversy. They also produced a witness who testified that the produced a witness who dinary high-water mark, as laid down on such survey. To the introduction of this survey as evidence, and to the parol proof of the location of the premises with reference to the line of high tide, as delineated thereon, the defendant objected, on the ground that the survey was not matter of record; that it did not tend to prove, as between the parties hereto, where the line of high tide was, being res inter alios acta; and that it had been canceled and superseded by another survey subsequently made in accordance with instructions of the secretary of the interior. The objection was overruled, the survey was admitted in evidence, and the defendant duly excepted.

The plaintiffs also produced in evidence certain maps made by persons in official station in 1853, 1857, 1859, and 1864, showing the line of high tide at about the same line as on the aforesaid Stratton survey. Objections were made to these maps as evidence, but they were overruled, and exceptions were noted.

The plaintiffs also introduced in evidence the original minute-book of the board of supervisors of the city and county of San Francisco, and read a resolution passed by the board on the 23d of December, 1878, that no appeal should be taken from the action of the commissioner of the general land-office

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approving the Stratton survey. Objection was made to this evidence, but it was overruled, and an exception was noted.

The plaintiffs then offered in evidence the deeds from the state land commissioners to one Ellis, (from whom they derived their title,) together with the letter of the attorney general of the state advising the board to dispose of all the tide-lands not in litigation, and where they could ascertain to whom the state title ought to go, in pursuance of the tide-land acts. The deeds embrace the property in dispute. The defendant objected to these deeds on the ground that they were incompetent, in that the board of tide-land commissioners had no power or jurisdiction to make them, and on the further ground that there was nothing to show that the board was advised by the attorney general to make such deeds. The objection was overruled, and an exception was noted. The plaintiffs thereupon rested their case.

The defendant, to sustain the issues on his part, offered in evidence the patent of the San Francisco pueblo lands, regularly issued to that city on the 29th of June 1884, and also the plat of said pueblo lands surveyed under instructions from the United States surveyor general by Deputy-Surveyor Von Leicht in December, 1883, which showed an indorsement of approval by the commissioner of the general land-office, under date of May 15, 1884, and was also indorsed as follows: 'The field-notes of the survey of the pueblo lands of San Francisco, from which this plat has been made, are strictly in accordance with the instructions of the honorable commissioner of the general land-office received with his letter, dated November 25, 1883, as the same appear of record and on file in this office. United States surveyor general's office, San Francisco, California, January 17th, 1884. W. H. BROWN, United States Surveyor General for California.'

It was admitted that the land in question is included within the exterior bound aries of the patent; but the patent was objected to as incompetent to show title in the city of San Francisco, as against grantees of the state of the premises, for the following reasons:

'(1) The state of California acquired her title by virtue of

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her sovereignty on her admission into the Union, and her title could not be overthrown by declarations of the United States, made after title had vested in her.

'(2) That as to lands acquired by virtue of her sovereignty, the state was not the owner of a private land claim, and was not bound to present her claims to the board of land commissioners, organized under the act of congress entitled 'An act to ascertain and settle the private land claims in the state of California, passed March 3, 1851;' nor is she concluded as to her rights by not presenting them as provided in section 13 thereof, nor by any decision on the claim of another person. [12 S.Ct. 260] The act did not apply to her or her property.

'(3) The only authority for the patent was a decree of the United States circuit court, which court was not vested with jurisdiction over the state or the property of the state, although it was vested with jurisdiction over natural persons and corporations. Neither the decree nor any proceedings under the decree could affect the title of the state, or furnish evidence against her.

'(4) The state was not a party to the record in the case of The City, etc., v. The United States, nor is she affected as a natural person or corporation would be by a failure to attend before the United States surveyor general and object to a survey, as provided in section 1 of the act of congress approved July 1, 1864, and entitled 'An act to expedite the settlement of titles to lands in the state of California.' But, being a stranger to the entire record and proceeding, the patent is not competent evidence against her or her property.

'(5) The first survey is the final adjudication of the land-office of the location of the premises described in the decree, because----

'( a) In confirming a survey under the acts of March 3, 1851, and July 1, 1864, the commissioner acts in a special judicial capacity, and his decisions are not appealable to the secretary of the interior.

'( b) The city refused to appeal, and this refusal appears in the record, and there was no appeal.

'( c) The first confirmed survey is better evidence...

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