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The Supreme Court, Florida Land Claims, and Spanish Colonial Law


The Supreme Court, Florida Land Claims, and Spanish Colonial Law



After Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821, Congress established commissions to determine private land ownership in the territory. A series of federal laws on this subject followed until the mid-nineteenth century. Commissioners and the decisions of territorial courts, such as the Superior Court of East Florida, determined many claims. Some large claims were appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States where Spanish colonial law, more properly "derecho indiano" as used in this Chapter, was employed to decide questions of title to land. With the bulk of these appeals in the 1830s and 1840s, the Supreme Court was the final arbiter in approximately sixty cases of titles to land in Florida. The stakes were high. Disputed grants often exceeded 10,000 acres and some claims exceeded one million acres. The largest successful claim was for 1,200,000 acres, approximately the size of the state of Rhode Island. Two larger claims for 1,850,000 and 12,000,000 acres were denied. The Supreme Court confirmed grants totaling nearly two million acres. These cases have received very sparse or no treatment in the standard histories of the Court during this period.

This study focuses on the way the Supreme Court dealt with these cases with special attention to its use of derecho indiano, an early. and unusual example of the Court's necessary use of foreign law. It examines the Court's sources, skill, limitations, and biases when addressing complex issues of land title under a foreign legal system. Some lawyers developed a level of expertise in these matters and were consulted in such cases. Although focusing on the Supreme Court, this contribution notes that the records of lower courts and claims commissions are promising and neglected sources for studying the development of comparative law and legal methodologies in U.S. tribunals.

Part II of this Chapter describes the applicable treaty provision, the commissions established by statute, and the Supreme Court's jurisdiction in these cases. Part III analyzes the cases determined by the Supreme Court, and Part IV delves into the Court's use of derecho indiano to decide claims to land.



Publication Date



Talbot Publishing


Clark, New Jersey


supreme court, florida land claims, spanish colonial law


Courts | Law

The Supreme Court, Florida Land Claims, and Spanish Colonial Law