170 U.S. 681 (1898), 8, United States v. Coe

Docket Nº:No. 8
Citation:170 U.S. 681, 18 S.Ct. 745, 42 L.Ed. 1195
Party Name:United States v. Coe
Case Date:May 23, 1898
Court:United States Supreme Court

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170 U.S. 681 (1898)

18 S.Ct. 745, 42 L.Ed. 1195

United States



No. 8

United States Supreme Court

May 23, 1898

Argued March 14-15, 1898




After a careful examination of all the acts of the Mexican authorities upon which the appellee claims that his title to the grant in question in this case is founded, the Court arrives at the conclusion that the officers who made the grant had no power to make it, and the decree of the Court of Private Land Claims establishing it is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.

[18 S.Ct. 746] This suit was originally instituted February 2, 1892, by the Algodones Land Company, under provisions of an act entitled "An act to establish a Court of Private Land Claims and to provide for the settlement of private land claims in certain states and territories," approved March 3, 1891.

Pending the litigation, the Algodones Land Company conveyed the property to Earl B. Coe, and upon motion, the action was revived in his name.

The basis of the claim is an alleged grant, which shows that one Fernando Rodriguez, on January 4, 1838 at Hermosillo, presented a petition to the Treasurer General of the State of Sonora, Mexico, stating that he had sufficient means to settle and cultivate a tract of vacant desert land on the northern frontier of the state, situated between the Colorado and Gila Rivers, said lands including the tract from the southern side of the Gila River, in front of the junction of the same with the Colorado River, as far as the crossing (paso) of the Algodones,

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and from said point following the eastern margin of the Colorado River as far as the junction of the same with the Gila, a distance of five leagues.

"Wherefore, in the name of the sovereign authority of the state," he formally registered the same, and asked that a person be appointed to make the measurements and valuation and the necessary publications, "as required by law."

He also offered at the proper time to furnish satisfactory evidence as to his ability to pay the just taxes (derecho) into the public Treasury,

it being understood, senor treasurer, that the registry that I now make is under the condition that the settlement and occupation of the said vacant lands by me shall be when the notorious condition and circumstances of the region of the country in which said lands are situated may permit the same to be done, since the said vacant lands are situated in a country desert and uninhabitable on account of the hostility of savages; it being well known that a settlement made by the Spanish government in the desert country Colorado was entirely destroyed in a short time by the Yuma Indians and other savages,


Thereupon a commissioner was appointed by the treasurer general, who was directed to ascertain whether the grant would conflict with the rights of any other parties; also to survey and appraise the lands and offer the same for sale under the provisions of certain designated laws of the state.

This commissioner, in the performance of the duties assigned him, caused the land to be appraised and surveyed, and thereafter offered the same for sale at public outcry on each day for thirty consecutive days.

In his petition, Rodriguez offered to pay for the land the amount at which it should be appraised, and, no other person having bid at any of the public offers, the record of the proceedings was returned to the treasurer general for final action. That officer thereupon referred the matter to the promoter fiscal of the public treasury, who, upon a review of the proceedings, declared that Rodriguez ought to be admitted to a composition with the treasury of the state for said lands, and

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recommended that three public offers be made, closing his report with the following language:

"This is the report of the undersigned fiscal. Your honor (the treasurer general) will do what is proper in the premises."

The treasurer general thereupon ordered that three public offers of sale be made of said lands in the manner established by law. The "junta de almoneda," or board of sale, thereupon proceeded to make three public offers of sale on consecutive days, and on the third offer declared Rodriguez to be the purchaser.

Thereafter the treasurer general executed a formal instrument in writing in which, after referring to the proceedings thereto had, he recites as follows:

Wherefore in the exercise of the faculties conceded to me by the laws, decrees, and regulations, and the superior existing orders in relation to lands, by these presents, and in the name of the free, independent, sovereign State of Sonora, as well as that of the august Mexican nation, I concede and confer upon in due form of law, the Senor Don Fernando Rodriguez . . .

The five square leagues, and adjudicate the same to him under the conditions which have been admitted as equitable and just by interested party, the Senor Don Fernando Rodriguez -- that is, that he shall settle and cultivate said lands so soon as the circumstances surrounding that distant and desert portion of the state may permit him to do so, in view of the imminent risk and danger there is on account of the savages, but when the said land shall once be settled and cultivated, they shall be kept in condition, and that they shall not be unoccupied and abandoned for any time, and if the same shall be abandoned for the space of three consecutive years, and anyone else denounce said lands, in that event, after the necessary proceedings, they shall be adjudicated anew to the highest bidder, excepting, as is just, those years in which the abandonment was occasioned by the invasion of the enemies, and this only for the time that this condition of things exists,


[18 S.Ct. 747] The "junta de almoneda," or board of sale, consisted of

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certain officers, among whom was the treasurer general. The powers of the board with reference to the sale of public lands were conferred and defined by the laws of the central Mexican government.

MCKENNA, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE McKENNA, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the court.

We shall assume the genuineness of the title papers. It was so found by all the judges of the court below, and, notwithstanding some irregularities in them, we are disposed to concur in the finding. The question which remains is did the officers who made the grant have the power to do so?

Section 4 of the act establishing the Court of Private Land Claims provides that the petition of petitioners

shall set forth fully the nature of their claims to the lands, and particularly state the date and form of the grant, concession, warrant, or order of survey under which they claim, by whom made, . . . and pray in such petition that the validity of such title or claim may be inquired into and decided.

In conformity to the act, the petition in this case, after alleging ownership of the land, proceeds as follows:

Your petitioner further represents that it owns, holds, and possesses said land under and by virtue of a certain instrument of writing, now and hereafter designated as a grant title, bearing date the 12th day of April, 1838, duly made and executed by and on behalf of the State of Sonora, in the Republic of Mexico, under and by virtue of article two (2) of the sovereign decree, number seventy (70) of the 4th of August, 1824, therein conceding to the state the revenues

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(rentas) which by said law are not reserved to the general government, one of which is the vacant land in the respective districts pertaining to the same, and thereunder the honorable constituent congress of Sonora and Sinaloa passed a law, being a law numbered thirty (30), bearing date 20th of May, 1825, and whereunder there was subsequent legislation passing other decrees, considering the same matter, and being embodied in sections 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 of chapter 90 of the organic law of the treasury, being law numbered twenty-six (26) of the second of July, 1834.

The source of the title is therefore alleged to be in the State of Sonora, and the basis of its authority is explicitly given:

(1) Article two of the sovereign decree No. 70 of the 4th of August, 1824.

(2) A law passed by the constituent congress of Sonora and Sinaloa, being No. 30, and bearing date 20th of May, 1825.

(3) Other decrees, being embodied in sections 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 of chapter 90 of the organic law of the treasury, being law numbered 26 of the second of July, 1834.

The petition then proceeds to allege that under and by virtue of said laws and decrees, such proceedings were thereunder regularly and lawfully had as that the government of the State of Sonora, by its officers duly authorized by the laws aforesaid, and of said state, duly and regularly and for a good and valuable consideration, to-wit, the sum of four hundred dollars ($400) in the lawful money of the state, and for other good and valuable considerations, in said grant title set forth and described, did on the 12th day of April, 1838, sell and convey to one Senor Don Fernando Rodriguez the land hereinbefore mentioned, and more particularly hereinafter described.

The allegation or claim, then, is a grant from the State of Sonora. There is no claim of a grant from the Mexican government. The grant, however, recites that it is done "in the name of the free and independent sovereign State of Sonora as well as of the august Mexican nation."

It is conceded that the ownership of the public lands was in

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Spain, and passed to Mexico upon its independence, and afterwards vested in the Mexican confederation or republic.


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