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decided: May 24, 1897.



Author: Harlan

[ 167 U.S. Page 724]

 MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the court.

This action is in form ejectment. It was brought May 17, 1886, in the Superior Court of the county of Los Angeles, California, by Ana J. Dominguez De Guyer and others to recover the possession of a certain island known as Mormon Island in the inner bay of San Pedro, California. At mean high tide the island has an area of less than one acre; at mean low tide, about 18.88 acres. The area of the bay, including the island, is 1100.59 acres.

The defendant Banning filed an answer, in which he denied the allegations of the complaint; also, a cross-complaint asserting title in himself, and asking a judgment declaring him to be the owner and of right in possession of the premises in controversy.

A jury having been waived, and the cause having been tried by the court, judgment was rendered that the plaintiffs take nothing by their action, and that the defendant was the owner, seized in fee and entitled to the possession of the lands described in the pleadings. That judgment was reversed by the Supreme Court of California. Three of the members of that court as then constituted -- Justices Fox, Sharpstein and

[ 167 U.S. Page 725]

     Paterson -- were of opinion that the island, as well as the whole of the inner bay within the exterior lines of a grant alleged to have been made by the Mexican government to Christobal Dominguez, belonged to the claimants under that grant, and that the title was vested in the plaintiffs. Mr. Justice Thornton was of opinion that the plaintiffs were entitled to recover the island and such other portion of the land sued for as contained 18.88 acres, and was not covered by the navigable waters of the inner bay. Chief Justice Beatty and Justice McFarland dissented.

Upon a rehearing the court, then constituted of Chief Justice Beatty and Justices De Haven, McFarland, Harrison, Garoutte and Sharpstein, unanimously affirmed the judgment of the inferior court. 91 California, 400.

The present appeal was prosecuted by the Los Angeles Terminal Land Company and George Carson, trustee, they having, after the final decision in the state court, become vested with all the right, title and interest of the original plaintiffs.

The case has been twice orally argued in this court, and we have, in addition, the benefit of a brief filed by leave of court, on behalf of the United States in support of the judgment below, the Solicitor General having stated that the Government has a deep interest in the result of the litigation by reason of the fact that it has heretofore expended vast sums of money in improving the navigation of the inner bay of San Pedro, and the entrance thereto; and that this bay is regarded as one of the most important points on the Pacific Coast as a harbor of refuge.

The history of the title to the lands in controversy, as shown by acts of Congress, public documents and records is substantially as follows:

By the act of Congress of March 3, 1851, 9 Stat. 631, c. 41, provision was made for the appointment of a Board of Commissioners to ascertain and settle private land claims in California.

That act declared that every person claiming lands in that State by virtue of any right or title derived from the Spanish

[ 167 U.S. Page 726]

     or Mexican government should present the same to that Board, together with such documentary evidence and testimony of witnesses as the claimant relied upon in support of his claim -- the decision when rendered to be certified, with the reasons on which it was founded, to the District Attorney of the United States for the District in which it was rendered. § 8. In case of the rejection or confirmation of a claim, provision was made for a review of the decision by the District Court of the District in which the land was situated; and an appeal was allowed from the judgment of that court to the Supreme Court of the United States. §§ 9, 10. When deciding on the validity of any claim the Board, as well as the courts, were to be governed by the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the law of nations, the laws, usages and customs of the government from which the claim was derived, the principles of equity and the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States as far as they were applicable. § 11.

By the thirteenth section f the act it was provided "that all lands, the claims to which have been finally rejected by the Commissioners in manner herein provided, or which shall be finally decided to be invalid by the District or Supreme Court, and all lands the claims to which shall not have been presented to the said Commissioners within two years after the date of this act, shall be deemed, held, and considered as part of the public domain of the United States; and for all claims finally confirmed by the said Commissioners, or by the said District or Supreme Court, a patent shall issue to the claimant upon his presenting to the General Land Office an authentic certificate of such confirmation, and a plat or survey of the said land, duly certified and approved by the surveyor general of California, whose duty it shall be to cause all private claims which shall be finally confirmed to be accurately surveyed, and to furnish plats of the same; and in the location of the said claims, the said surveyor general shall have the same power and authority as are conferred on the register of the land office and receiver of the public moneys of Louisiana, by the sixth section of the act 'to create the office of surveyor of the public lands for the State of Louisiana,'

[ 167 U.S. Page 727]

     approved third March, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-one. . . ."

It was further provided "that the final decrees rendered by the said Commissioners, or by the District or Supreme Court of the United States, or any patent to be issued under this act, shall be conclusive between the United States and the said claimants only, and shall not affect the interests of third persons." § 15.

On the 19th day of October, 1852, Manuel Dominguez, Conception Roche and others presented to the Board of Commissioners appointed under the above act a petition, claiming a certain tract of land in the county of Los Angeles, known by the name of San Pedro, containing ten square leagues, more or less. The petition stated that some of the plaintiffs claimed by inheritance and a portion by purchase from the heirs of Christobal Dominguez, who, it was alleged, died seized in fee thereof, having inherited from his uncle, Juan Jose Dominguez, who also died seized thereof in fee about the year 1809 or 1810; that the latter previous to his death obtained "a perfect grant or concession of the said tract, but at what particular date or from what precise governor cannot now be discovered, owing to the fact that during his lifetime the papers issued and granted, it is believed by Jose Dario Arguello, governor of the peninsula, in pursuance of the power duly vested in him, were burnt or lost; which said papers, it is averred, contained a complete or perfect grant to the said Juan Jose"; that such title had been frequently and repeatedly acknowledged by both the Spanish and Mexican governments, and particularly by Don Pablo Vincente de Sola, governor of the province of California, by decree bearing date December 31, 1822; that the said Christobal Dominguez, the father and grandfather of the majority of the petitioners, possessed the tract peaceably and quietly up to his death, and died in the full and legal seizure thereof about 1823; that since that time his heirs and representatives have held and still hold the full, recognized and peaceable possession thereof, except as thereafter stated in the petition, which possession was known to the Mexican government and

[ 167 U.S. Page 728]

     approved, ratified and confirmed by it in numberless instances; that the lines and boundaries of the tract were and had always been well known, defined and respected; and that about the year 1817 the judicial possession thereof was given by competent authority, and its lines and boundaries marked out and clearly defined.

The petitioners, after stating their relationship to Christobal Dominguez, averred that they claimed "in fee the said Rancho of San Pedro as tenants in common in the shares and proportions as aforesaid in virtue of the aforesaid grants, of their long pacific possession, and of the ratification, approval and acknowledgment of their title by the Mexican government."

The prayer of the claimants was that their title to the Rancho San Pedro be confirmed.

The Board of Commissioners sustained the claim of the petitioners, and an appeal was prosecuted by the Government to the District Court of the United States for the Southern District of California. In that court, on the 10th day of February, 1857, the following judgment was rendered:

"It is ordered, adjudged and decreed that the decision of the said Board of Land Commissioners be, and the same hereby is, affirmed. And it is further adjudged and decreed that the claim of the appellees to the lands claimed in this case is good and valid and the same are hereby confirmed to them as follows: The lands of which confirmation is hereby made are those known as the 'Rancho of San Pedro,' situate in Los Angeles County, and bounded as follows:

"Commencing at the large sycamore tree (aliso) standing on the side of the high road leading from San Pedro to Los Angeles, thence running in a westerly direction to a stone placed near the high road above mentioned and near a small arroyo or creek; thence crossing the plain and following the line of said stones, which are placed as landmarks along said boundary line, to a large stone placed as a monument in said line on the top of a sand hill; thence to the sea, passing by and including the salt ponds known by the name of Las Salinas; thence along the sea until it reaches a point opposite the northern line of the Rancho Palos Verdes, occupied

[ 167 U.S. Page 729]

     by and confirmed by said commissioner to the Sepulvedas; thence following said line in an easterly direction to some sand hills for about twelve thousand varas; thence southerly to a point called La Goleta on the sea coast; thence following the sea coast easterly to the river San Gabriel; thence up said river to a point where a line drawn from the stone first mentioned through said sycamore tree would strike said river; thence ...

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