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The following is the original Introduction to the Spanish Land Grants in Florida, a five-volume transcription and abstraction of the Spanish land grants created and published in 1942 by the WPA's Florida Historical Records Survey, under supervision of the State Library Board. While historian Louise Biles Hill wrote the Introduction specifically as a guide for readers of that original publication, it is still useful as an extensive history of the creation, use and preservation of the Spanish land grants. Until the State Archives of Florida made them available online, the WPA's publication was the main source for researchers on the Spanish land grants and the Second Spanish Period Florida (1783-1821). For more recent research on these materials and the Second Spanish Period, see Published Works.
By Act of Congress on February 8, 1827, the "secretary of the late commissioner" for East Florida was directed to deliver all land papers in his possession to the Register and Receiver of the Land Office for
East Florida who should examine and decide the remaining claims subject to the several laws on Congress. Claimants were directed to file their claims before November 2 and the Register and Receiver to report on January 1, 1828. Conflicting claims were to be subject to court decision. Holders of claims of more than 3,500 acres and other claims not yet reported by commissioners, or by Register and Receiver, were to furnish to the surveyor within one year the information concerning their claims so that he might connect them with the township plats then under survey. (140)
On May 23 of the following year Congress enacted a law limiting to one league square the amount of land which might be confirmed in any one claim. (141) The Register and Receiver were directed to continue to examine and decide the remaining claims in East Florida until the first Monday in December, 1828, after which it would be unlawful for any claimant to exhibit any evidence in support of a claim.
Spanish claims not settled before that date, containing a greater amount of land than the commissioners were authorized to decide, and which had not been reported as antedated by the commissioners or the Registers and Receivers, were to be adjudicated by the judge of the superior court of the district within which the land lay, upon petition of the claimant, under restrictions prescribed to the district judge. The judge was not to take cognizance of any claims annulled by the treaty not any claim presented to the commissioners or to Registers
140. U.S. Stat. Large, IV, 202-204
141. This amount had been fixed upon in Louisiana as the maximum.—G&S, V, 474. Several claimants in Florida accepted one league square in lieu of the whole grant.
and Receiver. Claimants were to be permitted to take an appeal from the superior court to the Supreme Court of the United States within four months after the decision, Claims which exceeded one league square and all other cases in which the United States district attorney thought the superior court had erred were to be appealed. Claims were to be brought before the court by petition within one year and prosecuted to a final decision within two years or be forever barred both by law and equity, but decrees so rendered were to be conclusive between the United States and claimant only and were not to affect the interest of third persons. (142)
The question of certain claims which the Spanish government had confirmed subsequent to January 24, 1818, and which the commissioners had reported favorably to Congress, had not been passed upon by that body. On May 26, 1830, a law was passed providing that these claims should be re-examined and reported by the Register and Receiver before the next session of Congress. The act further provided that all remaining claims which had been resented according to law and not finally acted upon were to be adjudicated as prescribed in the act of May 23, 1828. All confirmations of land titles were to operate only as a relinquishment of the right of the United States and were not to be construed either as a guarantee of such titles or in any manner affect the rights of other persons to the same lands. Those who availed themselves of the opportunity to take one league square in lieu of the whole grant were
142. U.S. Stat. at Large, IV, 284-286.
allowed one year in which to execute their relinquishment. (143)
Legislation respecting the settlement of Spanish land claims was now ended. Henceforth cases were settled in the courts. When Florida attained statehood in 1845 it abolished the superior court and transferred its former territorial jurisdiction to the state circuit courts. By the act of February 22, 1847, Congress transferred the Federal jurisdiction which the court had exercised to the newly created district court of the United States for the District of Florida, and land cases pending in the superior courts were transferred to it. (144)
In February, 1835, the House of Representatives asked for a detailed report on claims pending in the courts under the Act of 1828 and on those confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, together with an opinion as to whether the pending cases come within the provisions of those already decided by the court. The report, made in the following December by Richard Keith Call, Receiver at Tallahassee and counsel for the United States in the settlement of claims, shows:
No. 1—Abstract of mill grants 20 in number
No. 2—Abstract of grants "alleged to have been made
For services rendered the Spanish government" 19 " "
No. 3—Abstract for claims under grants made on
Condition of habitation and cultivation 4 " "
No. 4—Abstract of miscellaneous cases 16 " "
Pending in superior Court of East Florida at St. Augustine 60 " "
Petitions filed but not yet placed on docket 18 " "
Pending in Superior Court of East Florida at Jacksonville 14" "
Appeals made to the U.S. Supreme Court
143. Ibid., pp. 405-406
144. Ibid., IX, 128-130.
from decisions against the government rendered in the
Southern Judicial District 2 in number
Pending in Western and Middle Districts 1 " "
Call was of the opinion that three of the mill grants might be confirmed in line with the case of Francisco Richard (U.S. v. Richard, 8 Peters, 470) who had built a mill and so fulfilled the condition. In his discussion of group No. 2, Call said that under the careful scrutiny of the commissioners these claims had been abandoned, but under the law of 1828 they again "sprang up" and while the Register and Receiver did not positively declare them forgeries and so exclude them from the courts under the law of 1828, it was evident that they regarded the claims as fraudulent. He was critical of the Supreme Court's favorable decision in the case of Mitchell et al v. United States (9 Peters 711) in which he said the court accepted as authentic documents which were "copies of copies", none of which were executed by a notary public and authenticated under his official seal. He thought the "badges of fraud" were as strongly developed in that case as in any of the pending cases, and if the latter were to be decided according to the principles laid down in the Mitchell case, then all the pending cases against the government would be confirmed. (145)
145. G&S, VIII, 247-260.