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SLIDELL V. GRANDJEAN, 111 U. S. 412 (1884)

U.S. Supreme Court

Slidell v. Grandjean, 111 U.S. 412 (1884)

Slidell v. Grandjean

Argued January 2, 1884

Decided March 3, 1884

111 U.S. 412


In an order by a Spanish Governor of Louisiana recognizing an Indian grant and directing the issue of "a complete title," these words, as translated, refer to the instruments which constitute the evidence of title, and not to the estate or interest conveyed.

It was a usage of the Spanish government, in granting lands on the river, to reserve lands in the rear of the grants to the depth of forty arpents, the

Page 111 U. S. 413

grantee of the riverfront having the preference right to purchase the reservation.

Usages and customs respecting the alienation of lands prevailing in Louisiana previous to its acquisition by the United States have to a great extent the efficacy of law, and are to be respected in considering the rights of grantees of the former government.

When established, such usages and customs control the construction and qualify and limit the force of positive enactments.

The original Houmas grant in Louisiana from the Indians, on the 5th of October, 1774, had a defined length on the River Mississippi, and designated coterminous proprietors to the north and to the south, but no depth to the grant was named. The Spanish Governor executed a formal grant of the tract, describing it as of the common depth of forty arpents. Two years later, on the petition of the grantee, the governor directed his adjutant to give the petitioner the land which might be vacant after forty arpents in depth. This was done by a survey running the northern and southern boundaries on courses from the Mississippi for forty arpents and for two arpents additional. Held that, in view of the Spanish usages and of the action of the Spanish authorities and of the action of Congress and of United States officials, all of which are referred to, the concession extended in the designated courses to the depth of eighty arpents from the river.

In case of doubt, a legislative grant should always be construed most strongly against the grantee.

When a statute authorizes the creation of a commission of three to decide upon land grants, a majority of whom "shall have power to decide," "which decisions shall be laid before Congress, . . . and be subject to their determination," their decisions have no binding force until acted upon by Congress.

An act confirming "the decisions in favor of land claimants made by" A, B, and C, reciting their names, does not confirm a decision made by A and B and dissented from by C, although the act under which the commission was created provided that a majority of the commissioners should have power to decide.

A legislative confirmation of a grant of land of which no quantity is given, no boundary stated, and no rule for its ascertainment furnished is void for uncertainty. The distinction between such a confirmation and that passed upon in Langdeau v. Hanes, 21 Wall. 521, pointed out.

These suits, which involved the validity of the titles to land in Louisiana under what is known as the Houmas grant, were heard together. The court below held that that grant was limited to a depth of 40 arpents from the river. The claimants under the grant appealed from this decision in three of the cases and brought their writ of error to reverse the fourth. The voluminous facts, action of Spanish authorities, action of Congress, action of United States authorities, decisions of commissions,

Page 111 U. S. 414

and decisions of courts which go to make up the issues or bear upon them are fully set forth in the opinion of the Court.

On the argument of these cases the contention of the plaintiffs was that the grant of Governor Galvez to Maurice Conway, on the 21st of June, 1777, embraced all the land in the rear of the original grant to him and Latil by Governor Unzaga in November, 1774, included within the boundary lines of that grant extended to the limits of the possessions of the Spanish Crown. In support of that contention, reliance was placed upon the report of the commissioners appointed under the act of Congress of 1805, the plats of the surveyor Lafon and the alleged confirmation by the Act of June 2, 1858. We held that the grant of Galvez derived no aid from these sources, but must depend for its extent upon the language of the concession and the proceedings of the adjutant Andry in establishing its northern and southern boundaries, and that it was therefore limited to two arpents in the rear of the original grant.

The plaintiffs ask a rehearing, contending that if they are not entitled to the land claimed under the report of the commissioners construed by reference to the plats of Lafon and the confirmatory Act of June 2, 1858, they are entitled by virtue of the concession and accompanying report of Andry construed in accordance with the usages of the country, having the force of law, to forty arpents, the quantity alleged to be the amount intended in the absence of specific designation to be ceded in

Page 111 U. S. 415

cases of grants in the rear of the land of proprietors on the river, thus giving to the two grants an extent of eighty arpents from the river. And the plaintiffs have presented so may considerations in support of this view, that the court will receive arguments from counsel upon this point, to be in writing and filed within two weeks from date. The clerk will give to the counsel of the plaintiffs and to the Attorney General a copy of this memorandum.

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