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Argued Feb. 13, 1855.   Decided Mar. 10, 1855.

Background to the Case. The United States contested Archibald Ritchie's purchase of lands that formerly belonged to the Suisun Land Grant. The grant was originally awarded by the Mexican Government of California to Francisco Solano, the leader of the Suisun Indians. He then sold it to Mariano Vallejo, who later sold it to Ritchie. The United States argued that Solano never legally owned the grant in the first place, which meant that when Mexico ceeded California to the United States at the end of the Mexican War, the United States became the legal owner of the grant. However, the case was decided in favor of Ritchie on Jan. 3, 1853 by the "Board of Commissioners to settle private land claims in California." The United States then appealed to the District Court for the Northern District of California, which on November 8, 1853 upheld the previous decision of the Board. The case was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on March 10, 1855 reaffirmed the lower court decision --- "The grantee of a Mexican land claim. an Indian, was, under the laws of Mexico, a citizen of that government, competent to take, hold and convey real property. It is no objection that the tract in question belonged to the mission lands."

The decision was written by Justice Samuel Nelson (1792-1873), who was appointed in 1845 by President John Tyler, and by Justice John Archibald Campbell (1811-1889), who was appointed in 1853 by President Franklin Pierce. The case documentation that follows is from court transcripts by Howard (1855), Cases Argued and Decided in the Supreme Court of the United States: December Terms, 1854. Court transcripts are also provided in part in Dobbins (1879), and Harmon (1860 & 1906), and in full in Williams (1901).



Pages 530-531

The conveyance [of the grant] by Solano to Vallejo was of 10th June, 1842; the treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo was signed 2d February, 1848; the ratifications were exchanged 30th May, 1848. During this interval, between the sale and conveyance by Solano and the treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, the Mexican government never complained of any breach of any condiiton in this grant to Solano; never instituted any proceeding to divest Solano of his heirs, of the alienee, Vallejo, of the title, and reunite it to the public domain.

At the date of the treaty, Solano was living on the land, and died there, in or about the year 1851; and his alienee, Vallejo, was also in possession and cultivating the land from 1842, until his sale and conveyance to Ritchie, in August 1850.



Pages 534-538

It appears, from the evidence in the case, that Francisco Solano, from whom the appellee derives title, was in the possession and cultivation of the land in question as early as 1832 or 1833; and that, on the 16th January, 1837, he applied for a provisional grant of the same, from M. G. Vallejo, the military commander of the northern frontier of Upper California, and director of colonization. The proceedings are as follows:

"To the Commandant-General:

Francisco Solano, principal chief of the unconverted Indians, and born captain of the 'Suisun' in due form, before your honor, represents: That, being a free man, and owning a sufficient number of cattle and horses to establish a rancho, he solicits from the strict justice and goodness of your honor that you be pleased to grant him the land of the 'Suisun,' together with its known appurtenances, which are a little more or less than four square leagues, from the 'Portzucla to the Salina de Sucha.' Said land belongs to him, by hereditary right from his ancestors, and he is actually in possession of it; but wishes to revalidate his rights in accordance with the existing laws of our republic, and of the colonization recently decreed by the supreme government.

He, therefore, prays that your honor be pleased to grant him "the land which he asks for, and to procure for him, from the proper sources‘, the titles which may be necessary for his security, and that you will also admit this on common paper, there being none of the corresponding stamp in this place.

(Signed) Francisco Solano.
Sonoma, January 16, 1837.”

“Sonoma, January 18, 1837.

“The undersigned grants, temporarily and provisionally, to Francisco Solano, chief of the tribes of this frontier and captain of the Suisun, the lands of that name, as belonging to him by natural right and actual possession. Said land is comprehended between the ‘Portzuela and the Salina de Sucha.’ The party interested will ask from the governmental of the State the usual titles, in order to make valid his rights in conformity with the new order of colonization.

(Signed) M.G. Vallejo"

He continued in the possession and occupation down to 1842, when an application was made by his attorney, Vallejo, to Juan B. Alvarado, Constitutional Governor of the Department of California, for a title in form to the tract, as follows:

“[Seal.] To his Excellency, the Governor:

The undersigned, a resident of Sonoma, respectfully appears before your Excellency, and representation makes, that, in virtue of the rights which belong to him, as shown in the annexed petition and marginal decree, he is in actual possession of the land known by the name of ‘Suisun,’ together with its dependencies; and in order to secure and legalize said ownership, he humbly petitions that your Excellency, in consideration of the document referred to, may be pleased to grant him the corresponding title of concession, perpetual and hereditary, of the aforesaid land, in order that, in no time, may the petitioner or his heirs be molested in the pacific enjoyment of his property.

Wherefore, your petitioner prays that your Excellency will deign to grant him the favor which he asks for, he swearing that he is actuated by no malice, and such other oath as is required, etc., etc.

As attorney of the petitioner,
(Signed) Juan Antonio Vallejo. see note 1
Monterey, January 15, 1852.” see note 2

“Monterey, January 20, 1842. see note 3

In consideration of the petition at the beginning of this expediente, the report of the commandant-general, and the merits and services of the Indian called Francisco Solano, rendered on the frontier of Sonoma, I declare him to be the owner in fee of the place called ‘Suisun,’ in extent four square leagues, and with the boundaries shown in the corresponding map. The corresponding patent will be made out, and this expediente directed to the most excellent departmental junta for its approbation.

Juan B. Alvarado. Constitutional Governor of the Department of the Californias, thus ordered, decreed and signed. Of which I certify.”

NOTE 1: This attorney is probably Antonio Juan Bautitsta Vallejo (1816-1857), who was the younger brother of General Mariano Vallejo..

NOTE 2: The transcript by court reporter Benjamin Howard from the United States vs. Ritchie (1855) case incorrectly shows this date as January 15, 1852, but this is undoubtedly a typo. The date on the transcript by court reporter John Harmon from the Waterman vs. Ritchie (1859) case, which is used here, is correctly given as January 15, 1842.

NOTE 3: The transcript by court reporter Benjamin Howard from the United States vs. Ritchie (1855) case incorrectly shows this date as January 28, 1842, but this is undoubtedly a typo. The date on the transcript by court reporter John Harmon from the Waterman vs. Ritchie (1859) case, which is used here, is correctly given as January 20, 1842.

And on the 21st January, 1842, the title in form was granted, as follows:

“[Seal.] Juan B. Alvarado, Constitutional Governor of the Department of the Californias:

Whereas, the aboriginal Francisco Solano, for his own personal benefit and that of his family, has asked for the land known by the name of ‘Suisun’ of which place he is a native, and chief of the tribes of the frontiers of Sonoma, and being worthy of reward for the quietness which he caused to be maintained by that unchristianized people; the proper proceedings and examinations having previously been made, as required by the laws and regulations; using the powers conferred on me in the name of the Mexican nation, I have granted to him the above-mentioned land. adjudicating to him the ownership of it. By these presents, being subject to the approbation of the most excellent departmental junta, and the following conditions. to wit:

lst. That he may inclose it, without prejudice to the crossings, roads, and servitudes, and enjoy it, freely and exclusively, making such use and cultivation of it as he may see fit; but within one year he shall build a house, and it shall be inhabited.

2d. He shall ask the magistrate of the place to give him juridical possession of it, in virtue of this order, by whom the boundaries shall be marked out; and he shall place in them, besides the landmarks, some fruit or forest trees of some utility.

3d. The land herein mentioned is to the extent of four ‘sitios de granada mayor’ (four square leagues), with the limits as shown on the map accompanying the respective expediente. The magistrate who gives the possession will have it measured according to ordinance, leaving the excess that may result to the nation, for its convenient uses.

4th. If he shall contravene these conditions, he shall lose his right to the land, and it may be denounced by another.

In consequence, I order that these presents be held firm and valid, that a register be taken of it in the proper book, and that it be given to the party interested, for his voucher and other purposes.

Given this twenty-first day of January, one thousand eight hundred and forty-two, at Monterey.
(Signed) Juan B. Alvarado,
(Signed) Manuel Jimeno, Secretary.”

[Munro-Fraser (1879, p. 133) writes that, "In September, 1845, the Committee on Vacant Lands submitted to the Departmental Assembly a report in which the approval of the grant was recommended; and, thereupon, in the following month, that body issued the following order:" ]

On the 3d October, 1845, the grant was approved by the Departmental Assembly, as follows:

“Most Excellent Sir:

The committee on vacant lands has ordered the expediente, formed at the instance of the Indian (Indigena), Francisco Solano, for the place known by the name of ‘Suisun,’ and being satisfied that the proceedings had in the said expediente were sufficient for the purpose, that the superior government should have granted the said place, offers to the deliberation of your Excellency the following proposition:

The grant made by the superior government of the department by a title legally issued, with the date 28th January, 1842, in favor of the Indian (Indigena), Francisco Solano, of the place known by the name of ‘Suisun,’ and situated in the jurisdiction of Sonoma, in accordance with the law 18th August, 1824, and article 5 of the regulations of November, 1828. is approved.

Hall of the committee, in the City of Los Angelos, September 29, 1845
(Signed) Francisco de la Guerra.
(Signed) Marceso Bartela."

“Angelos, October 3d. 1845.

In session of this day the proposition of the foregoing report was approved by the Most Excellent Departmental Assembly, ordering the original expediente to be returned to his Excellency, the Governor, for suitable purposes.

(Signed) Pio Pico, President.
(Signed) Augustin Olono, Secretary.
On the same day, the proper copy was issued to the party interested.”

[The Decision by Justice Nelson follows]

The tract was duly surveyed. the boundaries fixed and the grantee put in judicial possession, in conformity with the conditions of the grant, and which possession corresponded with the provisional possession previously ceded to him in 1837. On the 10th of May, 1842, Solano sold and conveyed the premises to Mariano Guadaloupe Vallejo, in full property, for the consideration of one-thousand Mexican dollars; and on the 29th May, 1850, Vallejo sold and conveyed the same to A. A. Ritchie, the appellee, for the consideration of $50,000.

No question is made as to the genuineness and good faith of the original grant to the Indian, Solano, nor but that it was made by the competent authority of the government to dispose of the public lands.

The only objections taken to its validity, and upon which it is denied that it had the effect and operation to separate the lands granted from the public domain are:

1. That Solano, being an Indian, was not competent, according to the laws of Mexico concerning the disposition of the public lands at the time of the grant, to take and hold real property; and hence, that the grant by the Governor, and approved by the Departmental Assembly, was inoperative and void; and,

2. That, if it should be held that Solano was competent to take and hold real property, still, the grant is void, on the ground that the tract known by the name of “Suisun” belonged to the mission lands in California, which the public authorities of that department had no power to grant.

[text omitted from portions of pages 538-540]



Page 540

Solano, the grantee in this case, was a civilized Indian, was a principal chief of his race on the frontiers of California, held a captain's commission in the Mexican army, and is spoken of by the witnesses as a brave and meritorious officer.

Our conclusion is, that he was one of the citizens of the Mexican government at the time of the grant to him, and that, as such, he was competent to take, hold and convey real property, the same as any other citizen of the Republic.

As to the objection that the tract in question belonged to the mission lands, which the public authorities in California had no power to grant, there appears to be no foundation for this objection.

[text omitted from portions of pages 540-541]



Page 541

[The Decision by Justice Campbell follows]

I concur in the judgment of the court upon the facts disclosed in the record.

I am unable to find evidence to show that the lands in dispute were attached to the mission of San Francisco Solano. The single sentence in the deposition of Vallejo, “that in 1835, according to the rules of secularization, the grantee had acquired the rights of possession,” is too vague, and includes too little of a reference to facts to rest any argument that the grant to Solano was of mission lands, contrary to the laws of Mexico. I therefore am not willing to pass any judgment upon the subject of the mission lands of California. Nor do I consider the sufficiency of the conveyance from Solano to Vallejo a question before us. The conveyance to Solano was recognized before a public officer, and has been followed by possession. For the purposes of this case this is sufficient. This was decided in Percheman’s case, 7 Pet. 51-98. The court say there, that the questions upon the validity of mesne conveyances have no interest to the United States, and they cannot be investigated or decided. Decree of The District Court affirmed.



Dobbins, A.J. (1879), "Mexican Grants" in The History of Solano County (J.P. Munro-Fraser, ed.), Wood, Alley & Co., San Francisco, California, p. 130-136. --- Discusses both the United States vs. Ritchie and the Waterman vs. Smith cases, both of which involve the Suisun Indian Land Grant.

Harmon, John B. (1860), "Waterman et al. v. Smith" in Reports of Cases determined in the Supreme Court of the State of California, Published by Josiah J. Lecount, San Francisco, California, v. XIII, p. 373-422.

Harmon, John B. (1906), "Waterman et al. v. Smith" in Reports of Cases determined in the Supreme Court of the State of California, Bancroft-Whitney Co., San Francisco, California, v. XIII, p. 373-422.

Howard, Benjamin C. (1855), "United States v. Ritchie" in Cases Argued and Decided in the Supreme Court of the United States: December Terms, 1854, Little Brown and Company (Law Publishers and Booksellers), Boston, v. XVII, p. 525-541.

Williams, Stephen K., LLD. (1901), "United States v. Ritchie" in Cases Argued and Decided in the Supreme Court of the United States: December Terms, 1854, The Lawyers Co-Operative Publishing Company, Rochester, New York, p. 236-241.