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San Rafael del Valle Grant

by J. J. Bowden

Rafael Elias petitioned the Treasurer General of the State of Sonora, Nicolas Maria Gaxiola, on March 12, 1827 denouncing a tract of public land adjacent to the Rancho de San Pedro for ranching purposes. On July 1, 1827 Gaxiola ordered the Alcalde of Santa Cruz, Pablo Fraijo, to survey the requested tract, have it appraised, and solicit bids for the purchase of the property pursuant to the provisions of the Act of May 20, 1825.[1] Fraijo gave public notice of his plans to survey the property, and appointed a counter, two measurers, and two markers to assist him. On August 21, 1827 he went to a point which he selected as the center point of the tract and named San Rafael del Valle. He measured thence south in the San Pedro River Valley two hundred cordeles of fifty varas each to the north boundary of the Rancho de San Pedro, which previously had been granted to Jesus Perez. The administrator of Perez’s estate met the surveying party at this point and acknowledged that it correctly designated the northern limits of Perez’s property. Returning to the center point, a line was run up the valley 200 cordeles terminating at a small limey hill. Returning to the center point, the survey party measured east 50 cordeles to a point at the foot of Sierra de las Mulas. Returning once again to the center point, they ran the final line west 50 cordeles to a point in front of Sierra de Guachuca. Elias, being satisfied with the survey, took possession of the land and agreed to erect permanent boundary monuments at each of the five points. Next, Fraijo appointed Manuel Soto and Carmilo Arvisa, as appraisers, and they valued the land at 60 pesos per sitio or a total of 240 pesos, since each sitio contained running water. A public solicitation for bids for the purchase of the premises was made at Santa Cruz each day for thirty consecutive days commencing on August 30, 1827. However, no bidders came forth. Fraijo remitted the matter to Gaxiola on September 28, 1827 for his further action. Gaxiola, in turn, submitted the proceedings to the Promoter Fiscal, Concepcion de Alamos, on February 7, 1828, for an opinion as to the validity of the steps taken up to that point. Alamos stated that he was surprised to find that the survey had been made without a compass, which was indispensable in determining courses; but, inasmuch as it would “produce grave prejudice” to Elias to require a resurvey of the tract and in view of the fact that no one had objected, he excused the omission and recommended that the “proceedings be continued to adjudication, according to the forms and requisites in use.” Based upon this opinion, Gaxiola ordered the Board of Sales to sell the property at public auction. Notice of the sale was given, and offers solicited on April 16, 17 and 18, 1828. Since no one bid against Elias, the land was “struck off” to him for the appraised amount. Although Elias paid for the land on April 18, 1828 and a notation of the sale was entered in the Toma de Razon, a titulo was not issued at that time. In response to an application made by Elias, Treasurer General Jose Maria Mendoza, on December 25, 1832 gave him a title deed evidencing his title to the Rancho de San Rafael del Valle, which recited that the land had been sold to him under Article 11 of the Act of August 4, 1824[2] and the Act of May 20, 1825[3] subject to the condition that he occupy and develop the premises, and if he abandoned it for a period of three years for any reason except for the incursions of the Apaches, it could be denounced and regranted to a third party. Elias continuously possessed the tract until the Apaches finally forced him to leave it. In 1862 his heirs sold the property to the Camou Brothers, a partnership.[4] Camou Brothers petitioned Surveyor General John Wasson on February 26, 1875, seeking the confirmation of the concession. The grant was one of the claims investigated by Special Agent Rufus C. Hopkins in Hermosillo, Mexico. He found the expediente of the grant in the proper place in the archives, that it was written on the proper class of stamped paper, the proceedings pertaining to the survey, valuation and sale were all, regular, there was a certificate showing that title had been issued. He stated that there was nothing in the original papers which raised any suspicion or doubt concerning the validity of the title papers. Based on Hopkins’ findings, Wasson, on October 29, 1879, issued a report[5] on the grant, in which he held the original title papers to be genuine and that they had been issued in good faith at the date specified therein and in accordance with both the Laws of the Mexican Republic and the State of Sonora. He also found that Camou Brothers had clearly established its deraignment of title from the original grantee. Therefore, he recommended that the grant be confirmed to Camou Brothers to the extent of four leagues, and no more, since that was the quantity which had been sought by Elias and sold by the State of Sonora. A preliminary survey of the grant was made in 1879 by Deputy Surveyor Solon A. Allis for 17,360.76 acres. A private survey made for the Camou Brothers by George J. Raskruge in 1891 showed that the tract described in the field notes of the 1828 survey covered 20,034.62 acres.[6]

The continued failure of Congress to pass upon the validity of private land claims in Arizona proved detrimental to all who were interested in real estate in the southeastern portion of the territory. Therefore, the creation of the Court of Private Land Claims pleased the grant claimants, as well as the anti grant claimants. On December 3, 1891 Juan Pedro Camou, who had succeeded to the rights of Camou Brothers, filed[7] his petition for the confirmation of the grant. The government opposed the confirmation on the ground that the State of Sonora had no jurisdiction over the public lands lying within its boundaries after the passage of the National Colonization Law of August 18, 1824.[8] It further contended that the grant, even if originally valid, had been annulled by certain decrees[9] of Antonio Lopes de Santa Ana while acting as dictator of Mexico, and, therefore, the United States, in purchasing the territory under the Gadsden Treaty, had recognized Santa Ana’s authority over such land. The Court, in its decision[10] dated March 30, 1894, sustained the government’s position and rejected the claim. Camou appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which, by opinion[11] dated May 31, 1898, held, while in the Coe Case[12] it had found the states had no power to make valid concessions of public land after the adoption of the National Constitution of 1836,[13] it had not passed on the states’ authority to grant or sell public land prior to that time. After noting that there was a question as to whether the national government or the states had jurisdiction over public lands in the period immediately following the independence of Mexico, it pointed out that the national government, under Article 11 of the Act of August 4, 1824,[14] had conceded to the states the revenues derived from the sale of vacant lands located within their respective limits. Although this decree did not specifically refer to vacant public lands, the Supreme Court believed that both the national government and the states understood that its effect was to grant the states authority to sell such land. It found that this position was further strengthened by the fact that several of the Mexican states passed acts authorizing­ the sale of the public lands, actually made sales in a multitude of cases, and kept the revenues derived from such sales for their internal use. Therefore, it held that a Mexican state had authority to make valid sales of vacant land within their limits prior to the adoption of the Constitution of 1836, and such sales, unless subsequently annulled by the national government, would be considered as grants which the United States was obligated to recognize under the terms of the Gadsden Treaty. Turning next to the question of whether the grant had been annulled by Santa Ana by decree dated November 25, 1853,[15] the Supreme Court held that in view of the fact that the sale vested title in Elias, the grant had not been denounced in a judicial proceeding under the Mexican government, and Elias had not been disturbed in his possession of the premises, the arbitrary decree by a temporary dictator should not preclude the recognition of the claim. However, it noted that Camou claimed an area in excess of the four leagues granted and for which Elias had paid. Therefore, it reversed the decision and remanded the case to the Court of Private Land Claims for further proceedings in accordance with the rule laid down in the Ely case.[16]

The case came up for further hearing at the May, 1899 session of the Court at Tucson, Arizona, at which time further testimony was presented on behalf of Camou. It was shown that the natural object mentioned in the original field notes did in fact embrace an area of 20,034.62 acres, but the center point could not be located. Therefore, he suggested that the four sitios which had been confirmed be located by culling down each side proportionately “or to 17,353/20,034.62 of its original length.” The government, on the other hand, urged that since the center point could not be found, the grant was a 17,353 acre “float” within a 20,034.62 acre tract, and therefore should be rejected under the doctrine of the Ainsa case[17] on the ground that it had not been located as required by Article VI of the Gadsden Treaty.[18] The court, on June 2, 1899, entered its majority decree,[19] confirming the grant for four sitios to be located by reducing the length of the boundaries as suggested by Camou. It described the tract as confirmed as a four sitio, or 17,474.93 acre, rectangular parcel of land situated on the San Pedro River, which faced Sierra de los Mulas on the east and Sierra de Guachuca on the west, and being more particularly described as:

Commencing at a point South 13° 31´ 30˝ East 6,013 feet from a point and monument on a limy hill Thence North 76° 28´ 30˝ East 6,897.5 feet; Thence South 13° 31´ 30˝ East 55,180 feet; Thence South 76° 28´ 30˝ West 13,795.0 feet; Thence North 13° 31´ 30˝ West 55,180 feet; and Thence North 76° 28´ 30˝ East 6,897.5 feet to the place of beginning.

Justices William W. Murray and Thomas C. Fuller dissented, on the ground that the grant had not been duly located. The government’s attorney, in his report[20] to the Attorney General, stated that in his opinion the location of the grant was purely arbitrary and without justification so far as the title papers were concerned. Therefore, he recommended the decision be appealed. By decision[21] dated March 17, 1902, the Supreme Court affirmed the decision and distinguished the Ainsa case on the ground that the San Rafael del Valle had a definite location, and possession had been given to Elias prior to the date of the Gadsden Treaty. The grant, as confirmed, was patented to Rafael Elias, his heirs, successors and assigns, on November 6, 1903.[22]


[1] Reynolds, Spanish and Mexican Land Laws 129‑131 (1895).

[2] Ibid., 118‑120.

[3] Ibid., 129‑131.

[4] The San Rafael del Valle Grant, No. 3 (Mss., Records of the S.G.A.).

[5] (Stet.)

[6] Ibid.

[7] Camou v. United States, No. 3 (Mss., Records of Ct. Pvt. L. Cl., Ariz. Dist.).

[8] Reynolds, Spanish and Mexican Land Laws, 121 (1893).

[9] On November 25, 1853, only a month before signing the Gadsden Treaty, Santa Ana issued a decree, in which he declared that the public domain was the exclusive property of the nation, and never could have been alienated by local authorities of the states and territories, and, consequently, any such concessions were null and void unless approved by the general authorities in the manner prescribed by law. He issued an even more specific decree on July 5, 1854, which required the approval of all concessions of public land made in Mexico after September, 1821 by the supreme governments otherwise they would “have no value and shall constitute no right of property.” Ibid., 324‑326.

[10] 1 Journal 71 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt. L. Cl., Ariz. Dist.).

[11] Camou v. United States, 171 U.S. 277 (1838).

[12] United States v. Coe, 170 U.S. 687 (1998).

[13] Reynolds, Spanish and Mexican Land Laws, 203-205 (1895).

[14] Ibid., 118.

[15] Op. Cit., see Note 9.

[16] Ely v. United States, 171 U.S. 220 (1889). In this case the Supreme Court discharged its duty when it recognized a grant “to the amount of land paid for.”

[17] Ainsa v. United States, 161 U.S. 208 (1895). This case held that a Mexican grant of a specific quantity of land within the exterior boundaries containing a larger quantity, which was not located prior to the signing of the Gadsden Treaty was an incomplete and imperfect claim, and therefore, could not be confirmed by the Court.

[18] 6 Miller, Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America, 293‑302 (1942).

[19] 1 Journal 153‑154 (Mss., Records of the Ct. Pvt, L. Cl., Ariz. Dist.).

[20] Report of the United States Attorney dated January 2 1900, in the Case Camou v United States, Mss., Records of the General Services Administration, National Ar­chives, Washington, D.C.), Record Group 60.

[21] United States v. Camou, 184 U.S. 572 (1902).

[22] B.L.M. to J.J.B., August 8, 1968.