Decided Guidance: Case Examinations—Wood v. Mandrilla, 167 Cal. 607 (California Supreme Court 1914)

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This case is about a misunderstanding between the buyer and seller of land. Both parties took a different meaning of the word "half." The seller originally took title to the whole southwest quarter of Section 30 containing a generous 180 acres per the G.L.O. plat/patent. This quarter section, under one entry and as one tract, was patented in 1872. The plat shows a "lotted" surplus as expected. The buyer subsequently took title and possession of the east half of the seller’s quarter section in 1909. In 1914 The Supreme Court of California (The Court) ruled that the seller did in fact convey half of the aggregate area of the quarter section containing 90 acres more or less rather than the standard G.L.O. 80 acres. That’s a hard pill for both Federal and local surveyors to swallow however, the Court’s decision is well founded and here’s why.

First and foremost the Court respected the rights and authority of the 1909 grant. Second, the Court employed the written legal description and preserved the chain of title. Third, the Court recognized that this 1909 grant was the original subdivision of the quarter section. Let’s break it down.

The Court respected the rights and authority of the grant. There seems to be no question that a valid conveyance occurred. The Court did not nullify, cancel, or otherwise monkey around with that fact. A good surveyor will recognize this concept and consider a survey as being one of many moving parts in a land grant. The intentions of the property owner are the motive for the measurement. The Court accepted the willful deeds in full force and embraced a person’s right to convey and receive property.

The Court employed the written legal description and preserved the chain of title. There was no creation, redistribution, or manipulation of the title to these properties. The question should not be confused with adverse possession or acquiescence but recognized as a simple clarification of a quantity. The legal descriptions left the courtroom the same as they entered. This is important. The Court did not convey any land but rather clarified the expectations of the deed’s language according to law. Again, the Court respected the doings of the grant.

The Court recognized that this grant was the original subdivision of the quarter section. This is a big deal to us retracement surveyors because the subdivision in fact occurred outside of the federal arena. The Manual mentions this but appropriately offers little guidance. Why? I suppose because it is truly outside of federal authority. A grantor has the right to divvy up his land how he sees fit. This notion includes original methods, misnomers, and mistakes by his local surveyor. We are obligated to respect that original subdivision as it was performed regardless of original adherence to the Manual of Instruction. The Court wisely recognized that we can’t re-cut the cake after we dish out the pieces. In this case it appears that a formal survey was not performed with the land division created by this deed. That doesn’t leave us much to work with except perhaps possession and acquiescence. In the absence of an original field survey the Surveyor may be retracing the actions of the owners and evidence according to the deed. Yep, that’s right; the owners did the original survey themselves without a license. Surprise! They’re allowed to do so in this reality we call "the non-federal arena." Once again, the Court respected the actions of the parties and adheres to the force of the grant.

So, what are the lessons? The biggest thing I see is that the Court did not wave any magic wands and try to make the world right again. The Court simply accepted everything that did or didn’t happen. Think about it. There was no order to survey, resurvey, or even mark the line in question and no order to convey anything. The Court simply looked at what the word "half" meant because the parties had two different notions. It’s no wonder there was confusion between buyer and seller. No lines run, no monuments set, no occupation lines, no acquiescence and no instrument in the public records defining the "east half" of the SW 1/4 until this transaction. The Court didn’t ignore the Manual either. The Court looked at how the tract "should" have been cut up by G.L.O instructions but recognized it never was officially subdivided under those rules. Don’t let your mind play tricks with this. The facts were established that the land division happened outside of the federal arena so the normal State definitions were used, not the PLSS meanings. Yes, the land division lies within the PLSS, but private hands created the parcel out of a private domain. It’s the same deal as any old sawmill Joe selling the east half of his town lot. Get it? This case is the essence of retracement work, which is of course determining what actually happened rather than what should have happened.

Now, before anybody accuses me of being full of myself, or something else, I’ll offer this disclaimer. My initial suggestion to the land owner/ client would most likely be to maintain the integrity of the G.L.O plat and divide the land with PLSS lotting. However, I am merely executing my client’s will. The disinterested owner may find it logical to market several equally sized parcels. He is the king of his domain and has that authority.

Interestingly enough the Court dabbled in the unconventional suggestion that lottings are tentative. It also felt that the manual said to use the normal "half way & straight lines" if the lotting didn’t take effect. That seems crazier than a pet coon to me but it does kind of simplify things for property owners. Regardless, this case simply points out that the bona fide acts of owners are respected by the courts. The Manual continually says to preserve bona fide rights. When your state code says "refer to the manual", that includes the parts about preserving bona fide rights. This case really isn’t a lesson in "what-to-do" surveying methods. I suspect it’s more a "what-happens-withoutsurveys" and great example of what bona fide rights look like.

A PDF of this case is available at

Jason Foose is the County Surveyor of Mohave County Arizona. He originally hails from The Connecticut Western Reserve Township 3, Range XIV West of Ellicott’s Line Surveyed in 1785 but now resides in Township 21 North, Range 17 West of the Gila & Salt River Base Line and Meridian.

A 2.509Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE