Steinbach v. Stewart Et Al

Decision Date01 December 1870
PartiesSTEINBACH v. STEWART ET AL
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

ERROR to the Circuit Court for the District of California.

This was an action of ejectment for a tract of land situated in the State of California. Issues having been joined the case was called on for trial before a jury, and evidence was introduced by the respective parties. After all the evidence on both sides was concluded, the attorneys of the parties who had appeared in the action stipulated that the jury should be discharged, and that the issues be tried and determined by the court. The jury were accordingly discharged, and the facts established were substantially as follows: On the 14th day of October, 1839, one Lazaro Pena presented a petition to the commandant general of the department of California for a grant of land situated in the present county of Sonoma, in that State, known by the name of Agua Caliente, of which land Pena had been years previously in the possession; and the commandant gave to him a provisional concession of the land until he should petition the government for the proper title. Afterwards, on the 13th day of October, 1840, Pena obtained a grant of the land from Alvarado, then governor of the department of California, and on the 8th day of October, 1845, this grant was appreved by the Departmental Assembly. Pending the proceedings to obtain the grant the petitioner, Pena, sold and conveyed all his interest in the land to one M. G. Vallejo. Subsequently, March 2d, 1853, Vallejo presented a petition to the board of land commissioners, created under the act of March 3d, 1851, for a confirmation of his claim under the grant. By the board his claim was rejected; but afterwards, on appeal, the District Court of the United States for the Northern District of California confirmed his claim. The decree of confirmation was entered on the 13th July, 1859, and was accompanied by the following proviso:

'Provided, that this confirmation of the above land to the said M. G. Vallejo shall be without prejudice to the rights of the legal representatives of Lazaro Pena, the original grantee, or whoever may be entitled to said lands under him; and said confirmation to said Vallejo shall enure to the benefit of any person or persons who may own or be entitled to said land by any title, either at law or in equity, derived from the original grantee by deed, devise, descent, or otherwise.'

Afterwards, on appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, this decree was affirmed in so far as it confirmed the original grant. The tract thus confirmed embraced the premises in controversy.

On the 17th of January, 1863, vallejo, for the consideration of $3000, sold and conveyed his interest in the entire tract to the plaintiff Steinbach, and the deed was duly recorded under the laws of California in the recorder's office of the county. On the 5th of February, 1864, Vallejo executed for the like consideration a second deed of the same premises, which was also duly recorded in the same office.

Four of the defendants, namely, G. W. Whitman, Martha C. Watriss, C. V. Stewart, and J. B. Warfield, claimed each a portion of these premises under Vallejo, through an instrument executed by him to one Andres Hoeppener, on the 12th of August, 1846. The original was in Spanish, and was indorsed on the espediente of Pena. The following is a correct translation of the document:

'The undersigned certifies that he legitimately and formally purchased from the citizen Lazaro Pena the tract of land of the 'Agua Caliente,' to which the preceding approval of the Departmental Assembly of Alta California has reference. I grant and transfer all the right which I have in the land mentioned to Don Andres Hoeppener, who shall make such use thereof as may be most convenient to him. And for the necessary purposes and uses I give this, at Sonoma, this 12th day of August, 1846.

'M. G. VALLEJO.

'Witness:

'A. A. HENDERSON,

'J. P. LEESE.'

It was at the time admitted that Pena had previously executed a deed of the tract to Vallejo, bearing date December 4th, 1839, and that at the time the deed from Vallejo to Hoeppener was executed Hoeppener received full possession of the premises from Vallejo, and continued thereafter in the possession until the land was sold by him.

The counsel for plaintiff objected to the reception of this document in evidence, on the ground that the same did not convey any estate from Vallejo to Hoeppener, but was a mere license to occupy, which terminated and was extinguished when Hoeppener asserted title to or attempted to convey the lands; which objection was overruled by the court and the evidence admitted, to which ruling an exception was duly taken.

The counsel for the defendants then, on the part of the defendant, Whitman, offered in evidence a deed from Hoeppener to Carlos Glein, dated December 1st, 1847, together with various mesne conveyances, by which the title acquired by said Glein had passed to and vested in said Whitman. In the deed from Hoeppener to Glein the land intended to be conveyed is described as follows:

'All that certain tract and parcel of land containing three hundred acres, more or less, being a portion of the rancho named Agua Caliente, as transferred to the said Andres Hoeppener by M. G. Vallejo; the said three hundred acres being more particularly bounded and described as follows, to wit: On the west side by Sonoma Creek, on the east side by the Napa Hills, on the north by Yeltan's farm, and on the south by the land of Ernest Rufus.'

The defendants' counsel then proved, on the part of the defendant Whitman, that Glein, at the time of his purchase from Hoeppener, took possession of the tract thus conveyed (and which is the same tract held and possessed by Whitman), and that said Glein, together with all his successive grantees, including Whitman, at the date of their respective conveyances, paid a valuable consideration therefor, and took possession of the tract, and remained in the open and notorious possession of the same until they parted with their interests therein; but that Whitman had never parted with his interest therein; and that, at the date of the conveyance from Vallejo to Steinbach of his interest in the Agua Caliente rancho, he (Whitman) was in the open and notorious possession of the tract, claiming to own the same.

The plaintiff's counsel objected to the admission of this deed in evidence, because it did not import to convey the title to any particular tract of land; that it created no legal estate, and was therefore incompetent evidence to prove any issue made in this action, and was irrelevant and immaterial.

The court overruled the objection and admitted the evidence; to which ruling of the court exception was duly taken.

The counsel for the defendants then, on behalf of the defendant Watriss, offered a deed from Hoeppener to J. J. Dopken, dated November 14th, 1846, together with various mesne conveyances, by which the title acquired by the said Dopken had possed to and vested in the said Watriss. In the deed from Hoeppener to Dopken the land intended to be conveyed is described as follows:

'One mile square of land, English measure, containing 640 acres, situated, lying, and being in the district of Sonoma, and being part and parcel of all that certain tract of land called Agua Caliente, formerly taken up by Lazaro Pena, by a grant from the government and lately purchased from the said Lazaro Pena by M. G. Vallejo, and granted by the said M. G. Vallejo unto the aforesaid Andrew Hoeppener, together with all and singular the advantages, profits, privileges, and appurtenances whatsoever, right, title, and interest of the said Hoeppener, of, in, and to the same, belonging or in any way pertaining.'

The defendants' counsel then proved, on the part of the defendant Martha C. Watriss, that Dopken, at the time of his purchase from Hoeppener, took possession of the tract thus conveyed (and which is the same tract held and possessed by the said Martha and described in her answer), and that Dopken, together with all his successive grantees, including the said Martha, at the date of their respective conveyances, took possession of said tract and remained in the open and notorious possession of the same until they parted with their interests therein, but that Martha had never parted with her interest therein; and that, at the date of the conveyances from M. G. Vallejo to Steinbach of his interest in the Agua Caliente rancho, the said Martha was in the open and notorious possession of the tract, claiming to own the same.

To the admission of which deed the counsel for the plaintiff objected that the said deed, by reason of the indefiniteness of the said description, was insufficient to convey title or to create any legal estate; and that it was therefore irrelevant, immaterial, and inadmissible; which objection the court overruled and admitted the deed in evidence, in connection with the testimony as to the occupation of the particular premises, to which ruling an exception was duly taken.

After the defendants had closed their testimony, the plaintiff's counsel offered to prove, by statements made by Hoeppener in 1848, that Hoeppener and Vallejo agreed that Hoeppener should teach Vallejo's family music, for which Vallejo was to convey him the rancho; that in the meanwhile Hoeppener was to occupy it; that neither Hoeppener nor Vallejo intended or considered the said instrument as a conveyance, or more than a license to occupy; that Hoeppener did not perform his agreement, but, after part performance, abandoned it, and admitted that he had no claim to the land. All which took place in the year 1847-1848.

The court refused to receive any testimony as to statements of Hoeppener subsequent to the date of his conveyances to others, and excluded the testimony; to which ruling of the court an exception was duly taken.

The plaintiff also proved that he paid to Vallejo for the two...

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