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UNITED STATES V. VIGIL, 80 U. S. 449 (1871)

U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Vigil, 80 U.S. 13 Wall. 449 449 (1871)

United States v. Vigil

80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 449


The departmental assemblies had no power under the laws of Mexico regulating the disposition of the public domain to give it away, either with or without the assent of the governor, except for the purposes of settlement or cultivation. The right to dispose of it for other purposes rested with the supreme government alone.

Held accordingly that a grant by a departmental assembly of a tract of land embracing an area of over two millions of acres, the grantees binding themselves to construct two wells for the relief and aid of travelers and to establish two factories for the use of the state and to protect them from hostile invasion was void, whether such grant were approved by the governor or not.

On the 28th of December, 1845, one Vigil and certain other persons addressed a petition to the Most Excellent Departmental Assembly, through Armijo, Governor of New Mexico, asking for a grant of a tract of land called the Jornada del Muerto, binding themselves, if the grant were made, to construct two wells for the relief and aid of travelers and establish two factories for the use of the state, and to protect them from hostile invasion. The governor transmitted

Page 80 U. S. 450

the petition to the Assembly, but declined to recommend that favorable action should be taken upon it on account of the novel character of the application. Notwithstanding the refusal of the governor to recommend favorable action, the assembly, on the 10th of January, 1846, granted the tract to the petitioners for the purpose of constructing wells and cultivating the lands, so far as their means would permit, without being entitled to an exclusive right to the pasture. The tract disposed of in this way embraced an area of over two millions of acres. Soon after this, as is known, war broke out between the United States and Mexico, and the whole region where the land lay passed by conquest and treaty to the government of our own country. Hereupon Vigil and the other parties, asserting title under the grant, presented their claim to the Surveyor General of New Mexico for confirmation. He, however, rejected it. The claimants then applied to Congress for relief, and a law was passed for their benefit which authorized them to institute a suit in the Supreme Court of the Territory of New Mexico against the United States, the law declaring further that the same principles should be applied to the determination of the controversy which Congress had prescribed for the decision of similar land claims in California, derived under the authority of the Mexican government. Suit was accordingly brought in the court mentioned -- the court below -- and that court confirmed the claim. From the decree of confirmation the case was now here on appeal by the United States.

The case was ably and elaborately argued, and a wide range taken in the discussion of questions presented by the record, but collateral to the history already given, which it is not necessary to notice in view of the grounds hereinafter set forth, on which the decision of this Court is rested.

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