The Yosemite Valley Case


Congress granted Yosemite territory to California prior to a settler entering the land, buildings a house, fencing it, and cultivating the land.  That settler, upon improving it, sold his land to James Mason Hutchings for $400 in gold and moved onto the land.  It was Hutchings’ intent to obtain the title.  Hutchings had subsequently opened his own hotel on the land that was granted to California.  The state of California tried to seize the land, but Hutchings refused to leave.


“Whether a party, by mere settlement upon lands of the United States, with a declared intention to obtain a title to the same under the pre-emption laws, does thereby acquire such a vested interest in the premises as to deprive Congress of the power to divest it by a grant to another party.”


No.  Because Congress has the authority to grant the land, they also have the power to regrant it to another party so long as it is granted for public use – such as for arsenals, fortifications, lighthouses, hospitals, custom-houses, etc.  “It would require very clear language in the acts of Congress before any intention thus to place the public lands of the United States beyond its control by mere settlement of a party, with a declared intention to purchase, could be attributed to its legislation.”

Congress divests itself of some rights to the property only after the settler has undertaken all the necessary acts proscribed by congress.  When the settler completes these prerequisites, he has a vested interest in the property which cannot be deprived by Congress.   Of these prerequisites is the improvement of the land and its eventual purchase.  In the meantime, it would be ridiculous to say that a settler – who at that point has a preference in the land’s eventual purchase –  acquires a right to compel the owner to sell the land “… or such an interest in the property as to deprive the owner of the power to control its disposition.”

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