165 U.S. 675 (1897), 298, United States v. Santa Fe

Docket Nº:No. 298
Citation:165 U.S. 675, 17 S.Ct. 472, 41 L.Ed. 874
Party Name:United States v. Santa Fe
Case Date:March 01, 1897
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 675

165 U.S. 675 (1897)

17 S.Ct. 472, 41 L.Ed. 874

United States


Santa Fe

No. 298

United States Supreme Court

March 1, 1897

Argued January 7-8, 1896



The Spanish law did not, proprio vigore, confer upon every Spanish villa or town a grant of four square leagues of land, to be measured from the center of the plaza of such town.

Although, under that law, all towns were not, on their organization, entitled by operation of law to four square leagues, yet, at a time subsequent to the organization of Santa Fe, Spanish officials adopted the theory that the normal quantity which might be designated as the limits of new pueblos to be thereafter created was four square leagues.

The rights of Santa Fe depend upon Spanish law as it existed prior to the adoption of that theory.

An inchoate claim, which could not have been asserted as an absolute right against the government of either Spain or Mexico and which was subject to the uncontrolled discretion of Congress, is clearly not within the purview of the Act of March 3, 1891, c. 539, creating the Court of Private Land Claims, but the duty of protecting such imperfect rights of property rests upon the political department of the government.

The case is stated in the opinion.

WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Page 676

This case comes on appeal taken by the United States from a decree of the Court of Private Land Claims confirming to the lot holders in privity with the City of Santa Fe the lots held by them in severalty in that city, and confirming to the city itself, in trust for the use of its inhabitants, a tract of four square leagues claimed by the city, except mines of gold, silver, and quicksilver, and property appropriated, used, occupied, possessed, or owned by the United States.

It is conceded or shown that, prior to 1680, there existed a Spanish town known as "La Villa de Santa Fe," which was the seat of government of the Spanish province of New Mexico, and that there was also prior to that date the official mechanism required by the Spanish law to direct the affairs of a Spanish villa or town. The origin of the town or villa is obscure, but the record indicates that as early as 1543, the settlement was made by deserters from the Spanish military force under Coronado, who refused to accompany their commander on his return to Mexico, and settled at Santa Fe. In 1680, the Spaniards were driven out by an Indian insurrection, and Santa Fe was destroyed, the Spaniards retreating to Paso del Norte, where they remained until 1692, when Diego de Vargas reconquered the country. In 1693, De Vargas reestablished Santa Fe. From that time to the American occupation -- although the record does not fix the precise character of the municipal government -- there is no doubt that there was a settlement on the site of the old villa of Santa Fe, and that it was also the capital of the province. In 1851, Santa Fe was incorporated, and its boundaries defined by act of the Territorial Legislature of New Mexico. Laws of New Mexico, 1851-52, Kearney's Code 112. The municipal charter granted in 1851 was shortly thereafter repealed, and the probate judge of the county became, by operation of law, the custodian of the records of the corporation, and was a trustee to wind up its affairs. Laws of New Mexico, 1851-52, Kearney's Code 272. No municipal body existed from this time until the year 1891, when Santa Fe was again organized pursuant to the laws of New Mexico.

Under the eighth section of the Act approved July 22, 1854,

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10 Stat. 308, the probate judge of the County of Santa Fe presented to the surveyor general of New Mexico a claim on behalf of the city for four square [17 S.Ct. 473] leagues of land. This claim was substantially based upon the averment that, as the City of Santa Fe was in existence during the whole period of Spanish sovereignty over New Mexico, it was certain that,

under the Spanish laws, usages, and customs, the inhabitants thereof were, as a community, entitled to receive, and your petitioners believe and claim did in fact receive, a grant from the crown for at least four square leagues of land and commons, which they now claim.

As the legal authority for this asserted right of the city, reference was made to specified provisions of the law of Spain, and the prayer of the petition was

that said land be surveyed, and that a patent therefor be issued by the United States to the probate judge for the time being of said County of Santa Fe, in trust for the use and benefit of the landholders and inhabitants within said tract and for the City of Santa Fe until the same be by law incorporated under charter, and thereby become the rightful custodian of the patent for said tract of land.

The surveyor general reported for confirmation to Congress the claim thus made (H. of R. Ex.Doc. 239, 43d Cong., 1st Sess.), and, the recommendation not having been acted upon, this suit was commenced by the City of Santa Fe under the provisions of the Act of March 3, 1891, creating the Court of Private Land Claims. 26 Stat. 854, c. 539.

The petition originally filed on behalf of the city, after setting out the existence of the Spanish villa known as "La Villa de Santa Fe," substantially averred that the municipality of Santa Fe occupied the situs of the Spanish villa and possessed jurisdiction over the same territory, and therefore was, in law, the successor to all the rights enjoyed by the Spanish villa. It alleged that prior to the Indian insurrection in 1680, the villa had received a pueblo grant of four square leagues of land, the central point of which was in the center of the plaza of the City of Santa Fe; that the grant was made by the King of Spain; that juridical possession was given thereunder, and that such facts were evidenced by a valid testimonio; that

Page 678

the archives and records of the villa were destroyed in the Indian insurrection of 1680, and therefore the title could not be produced. The fact was also averred that the claim had been submitted to the surveyor general, and had been by him recommended favorably to Congress. The prayer was for a confirmation of the grant to the city

in trust for the use and benefit of the inhabitants thereof, and of such grantees and assignees of parts of the said lands as have derived, or may hereafter acquire by due assignments, allotments, and titles in severalty to said parts respectively.

The defendant demurred on the ground that the petition stated no cause of action, and also because it failed to disclose the fact that there were many adverse claimants, under Spanish grants, to the land sued for, and that such claimants were necessary parties defendant.

Appearances were thereafter filed by seventeen persons, alleging that they were the holders of Spanish titles to land within the area claimed and that their interests were therefore adverse to those of the city. Thereupon an amended petition was filed by the city which in its caption mentions as defendants not only the original defendant, the United States, but the seventeen persons who had made appearance as having adverse interests. This amended petition substantially reiterated the averments of the original petition as to the foundation and existence of the villa of Santa Fe, but omitted the allegations on the subject of an express grant to La Villa de Santa Fe, the delivery of juridical possession thereunder, and the issuance of a testimonio. The allegation on these subjects was that, prior to the insurrection in 1680,

La Villa de Santa Fe was entitled to, and had under the laws of the Kingdom of Spain in force in that territory at that time, a municipal or pueblo grant conceding to and vesting in said Spanish town or villa a certain tract of land containing four square Spanish leagues.

The positive averment in the original petition as to the destruction during the insurrection of 1680 of the evidence showing the existence of an express grant was replaced by a qualified averment that "all the muniments of title of such municipal grant, if any such existed, were utterly destroyed by the hostile Indians engaged in such insurrection."

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The amended petition also averred that within the boundaries of the grant claimed there

are now living about seven thousand people and about fifteen hundred heads of families, nearly all of whom own, occupy, and have improved lands which they claim to hold under the said grant to the Villa de Santa Fe, and there is erected thereon buildings and improvements in public and private ownership claiming under said grant, to the value of several millions of dollars, and that none of said claimants and occupants are in any sense adverse claimants to your petitioner. And your petitioner further shows that there are claimed to be certain private land grants to individuals named as defendants in this proceeding of tracts of land within the exterior line of said four square leagues granted to your petitioner as aforesaid. But your petitioner avers that if any such exist, each and all of them are junior in date, subordinate, and subject to the said municipal grant to your petitioner's predecessor as a town and villa, and whether the said private land grants are claimed adversely to your petitioner or not your petitioner is not advised, but it states that all of said private land grants have been filed before this Court for adjudication, and have already been set for hearing in this Court for the same date as this case, and that all of said claimants have subjected themselves to this Court, with their alleged private land grants for its determination and decision, when the [17 S.Ct. 474] matter of their interests as against...

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