United States v. Winona & St. Peter Railroad Company

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United States v. Winona & St. Peter Railroad Company by David Josiah Brewer
Syllabus
Court Documents
Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

165 U.S. 463

UNITED STATES  v.  WINONA & ST. PETER RAILROAD COMPANY

This was a bill in equity filed by the United States in the circuit court for the district of Minnesota, under authority of the act of congress of March 3, 1887 (24 Stat. 556), providing for the adjustment of land grants made by congress to aid in the construction of railroads, and for the forfeiture of unearned lands, etc. The charge was that the lands specified in the bill had been wrongfully certified to the state of Minnesota for the benefit of the defendant company, and the prayer was for a cancellation of such certification, and a restoration of the lands to the public domain. After answers by the railroad company and some of the other defendants, an agreed statement of facts was prepared, upon which with the pleadings the case was submitted to the circuit court for decision. Upon hearing, a decree was entered dismissing the bill, which thereafter was affirmed by the circuit court of appeals for the Eighth circuit. 32 U.S. App. 272, 15 C. C. A. 96, and 67 Fed. 948.

By the agreed statement, the following facts appear, and upon them the rights of the parties depend: On March 3, 1857, congress passed an act (11 Stat. 195) granting to Minnesota, to aid in the building of certain lines of railroad, the alternate odd-numbered sections, for six sections in width, on each side of the line of each road. The amount of this grant was increased by the act of March 3, 1865 (13 Stat. 526), to ten sections per mile. By appropriate state legislation, the defendant railroad company became one of the beneficiaries of this grant. It duly constructed its road, and the construction was accepted and approved. The lands in controversy were within the limits and terms of the grant, and were certified to the state nearly all in the years 1872, 1873, 1874, and 1875, though two tracts were not so certified until the year 1879. At the time of the filing by the railroad company of its map of definite location, there were on the records and files of the land office homestead entries or pre-emption filings upon these lands, regular in form and prima facie valid, some of them having been made intermediate the time that the line of the railroad was surveyed, staked out, and marked on the face of the earth and the date of the filing of the map of definite location, and some having been made prior to the first-named time. Proceedings were had in the general land office, after proper notice by publication, by which all these entries and filings were duly canceled prior to the certification of the lands to the state of Minnesota. The cancellations were generally on the ground of abandonment, and from the time thereof, up to the filing of the agreed statement of facts, July 26, 1893, none of the persons who had made such homestead entries or preemption filings had ever made any claim to the lands, so far as shown by the records of the land department. The railroad company sold and conveyed the lands to parties who paid value and bought believing that the company's title was unimpeachable. Further, after the patent from the state the lands were subjected to taxation, and the land company, the grantee from the railroad company of most of these lands, alone paid over $8,000 of taxes while it held the title. It was not pretended that the amount of lands certified for the benefit of the defendant railroad company (including therein the lands in controversy) exceeded the grant. In other words, it was not claimed that the railroad company ever got more lands than it was entitled to, but only that these particular tracts were wrongly certified to it.

It was also admitted 'that on, before, and for a long time after the certification of the lands in question to the state on account of the railroad grants, it was uniformly held and ruled by the secretary of the interior and the other officers of the land department of the United States (a) that the line of a railroad became and was definitely fixed so as to attach the grant to the odd-numbered sections within the granted limits as soon as surveyed, staked out, and marked on the face of the earth; and (b) that a homestead entry in all respects regular and legal excepted the land covered thereby from the operation of a railroad grant attaching during the existence of such entry, and that the validity of a homestead entry was open to question by the company, and if it was shown that such entry was fraudulent or irregular in its inception, or that it had been abandoned before the right of the road attached, it was held not to except the land from the grant, but the burden of so showing was upon the company, and, in the absence of such proof, the entry, being valid upon its face, was held to except the land from the grant, even though subsequently abandoned; and (c) that a pre-emption claim, which may have existed to a tract of land at the time of the attachment of a railroad grant, if subsequently abandoned, and not consummated, even though in all respects legal and bona fide, was held not to operate to defeat the grant, but, upon the failure of such claim, the land covered thereby was held to inure to the grant as of the date when such grant became effective; and (d) that the rights under the grant attached to the lands in the granted and indemnity limits as of the same date, and that selection was not deemed necessary to attach the grant to any specific tract within the indemnity limits; and (e) that the lands within the indemnity limits were withdrawn at the same time as those within the primary or granted limits; and (f) that within the common limits of like character of two contemporaneous grants each was held to be entitled to an undivided moiety of the lands within such common limits; and (g) that, in pursuance of and in accordance with the aforesaid rules, the grants to and for each and all of the land-grant railroad companies in the state of Minnesota were, before, at, and for a long time after the certification of the lands in question, administered.'

The act of March 3, 1887, is found printed below. [1]

After the passage of that act, and on March 3, 1891, congress passed an act (26 Stat. 1093) containing this provision: 'That suits by the United States to vacate and annul any patent heretofore issued shall only be brought within five years from the passage of this act, and suits to vacate and annul patents hereafter issued shall only be brought within six years after the date of the issuance of such patents.' And on March 2, 1896, congress passed a still further act (29 Stat. 42), which is also found in the footnote. [2]

Sol. Gen. Gonrad, for the United States.

Thomas Wilson, for appellees.

Mr. Justice BREWER, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the court.

Notes[edit]

^1  Be it enacted by the senate and house of representatives of the United States of America in congress assembled, that the secretary of the interior be and is hereby authorized and directed to immediately adjust, in accordance with the decisions of the supreme court, each of the railroad land grants made by congress to aid in the construction of railroad and heretofore unadjusted.

Sec. 2. That if it shall appear, upon the completion of such adjustments respectively, or sooner, that lands have been, from any cause, heretofore erroneously certified or patented by the United States to or for the use or benefit of any company claiming by, through, or under grant from the United States to aid in the construction of a railroad, it shall be the duty of the secretary of the interior to thereupon demand from such company a relinquishment or reconveyance to the United States of all such lands, whether within granted or indemnity limits; and if such company shall neglect or fail to so reconvey such lands to the United States within ninety days after the aforesaid demand shall have been made, it shall thereupon be the duty of the attorney-general to commence and prosecute in the proper courts the necessary proceedings to cancel all patents, certification, or other evidence of title heretofore issued for such lands, and to restore the title thereof to the United States.

Sec. 3. That if, in the adjustment of said grants, it shall appear that the homestead or pre-emption entry of any bona fide settler has been erroneously canceled on account of any railroad grant or the withdrawal of public lands from market, such settler upon application shall be reinstated in all his rights and allowed to perfect his entry by complying with the public land law: provided, that he has not located another claim or made an entry in lieu of the one so erroneously canceled: and provided also, that he did not voluntarily abandon said original entry: and provided further, that if any of said settlers do not renew their application to be reinstated, within a reasonable time, to be fixed by the secretary of the interior, then all such unclaimed lands shall be disposed of under the public land laws, with priority of right given to bona fide purchasers of said unclaimed lands, if any;

and if there be no such purchasers, then to bona fide settlers residing thereon,

Sec. 4. That as to all lands, except those mentioned in the foregoing section, which have been so erroneously certified or patented as aforesaid, and which have been sold by the grantee company to citizens of the United States, or to persons who have declared their intention to become such citizens, the person or persons so purchasing in good faith, his heirs or assigns, shall be entitled to the land so purchased, upon making proof of the fact of such purchase at the proper land office, within such time and under such rules as may be prescribed by the secretary of the interior, after the grants, respectively, shall have been adjusted; and patents of the United States shall issue therefor, and shall relate back to the date of the original certification or patenting, and the secretary of the interior, on behalf of the United States, shall demand payment from the company which has so disposed of such lands of an amount equal to the government price of similar lands; and in case of neglect or refusal of such company to make payment, as hereafter specified, within ninety days after the demand shall have been madde, the attorney-general shall cause suit or suits to be brought against such company for the said amount: provided, that nothing in this act shall prevent any purchaser of lands erroneously withdrawn, certified or patented as aforesaid from recovering the purchase money therefor from the grantee company, less the amount paid to the United States by such company as by this act required: and provided, that a mortgage or pledge of said lands by the company shall not be considered as a sale for the purpose of this act, nor shall this act be construed as a declaration of forfeiture of any portion of any land grant for conditions broken, or as authorizing an entry for the same, or as a waiver of any rights that the United States may have on account of any breach of said conditions.

Sec. 5. That where any said company shall have sold to citizens of the United States, or to persons who have declared their intention to become such citizens, as a part of its grant, lands not conveyed to or for the use of such company, said lands being the numbered sections prescribed in the grant, and being coterminous with the constructed parts of said road, and where the lands so sold are for any reason excepted from the operation of the grant to said company, it shall be lawful for the bona fide purchaser thereof from said company to make payment to the United States for said

lands at the ordinary government price for like lands, and thereupon patents shall issue therefor to the said bona fide purchaser, his heirs or assigns: provided, that all lands shall be excepted from the provisions of this section, which at the date of such sales were in the bona fide occupation of adverse claimants under the pre-emption or homestead laws of the United States, and whose claims and occupation have not since been voluntarily abandoned, as to which excepted l lands the said pre-emption and homestead claimants shall be permitted to perfect their proofs and entries, and receive patents therefor: provided further, that this section shall not apply to lands settled upon subsequent to the first day of December eighteen hundred and eighty-two, by persons claiming to enter the same under the settlement laws of the United States, as to which lands the parties claiming the same as aforesaid shall be entitled to prove up and enter as in other like cases.

Sec. 6. That where any such lands have been sold and conveyed, as the property of any railroad company, for the state and county taxes thereon, and the grant to such company has been thereafter forfeited, the purchaser thereof shall have the prior right, which shall continue for one year from the approval of this act, and no longer, to purchase such lands from the United States at the government price, and patents for such lands shall thereupon issue: provided, that said lands were not, previous to or at the time of the taking effect of such grant, in the possession of or subject to the right of any actual settler.

Sec. 7. That no more lands shall be certified or conveyed to any state or to any corporation or individual, for the benefit of either of the companies herein mentioned, where it shall appear to the secretary of the interior that such transfers may create an excess over the quantity of lands to which such state, corporation or individual would be rightfully entitled.

^2  Be it enacted by the senate and house of representatives of the United States of America in congress assembled, that suits by the United States to vacate and annul any patent to lands heretofore erroneously issued under a railroad or wagon road grant shall only be brought within five years from the passage of this act, and suits to vacate and annul patents hereafter issued shall only be brought within six years after the date of the issuance of such patents, and the limitation of section eight of chapter five hundred and sixty-one of the acts of the second session of the Fifty-First congress and amendments thereto is extended accordingly as to the patents herein referred to. But no patent to any lands held by a bona fide purchaser shall be vacated or annulled, but the right and title of such purchaser is hereby confirmed: provided, that no suit shall be brought or maintained, nor shall recovery be had for lands or the value thereof, that were certified or patented in lieu of other lands covered by a grant which were lost of relinquished by the grantee in consequence of the failure of the government or its officers to withdraw the same from sale or entry.

Sec. 2. That if any person claiming to be a bona fide purchaser of any lands erroneously patented or certified shall present his claim of the secretary of the interior prior to the institution of a suit to cancel a patent or certification, and if it shall appear that he is a bona fide purchaser, the secretary of the interior shall request that suit be brought in such case against the patentee, or the corporation, company, person, or association of persons for whose benefit the certification was made, for the value of said land, which in no case shall be more than the minimum government price thereof, and the title of such claimant shall stand confirmed. An adverse decision by the secretary of the interior on the bona fides of such claimant shall not be conclusive of his rights, and if such claimant, or one claiming to be a bona fide purchaser, but who has not submitted his claim to the secretary of the interior, is made a party to such suit, and if found by the court to be a bona fide purchaser, the court shall decree a confirmation of the title, and shall render a decree in behalf of the United States against the patentee, corporation, company, person, or association of persons for whose benefit the certification was made for the value of the land as hereinbefore provided. Any bona fide purchaser of lands patented or certified to a railroad company, and who is not made a party to such suit, and who has not submitted his claim to the secretary of the interior, may establish his right as such bona fide purchaser in any United States court having jurisdiction of the subject-matter, or at his option, as prescribed in sections three and four of chapter three hundred and seventy-six of the acts of the second session of the Forty-Ninth congress.

Sec. 3. That if at any time prior to the institution of suit by the attorney-general to cancel any patent or certification of lands erroneously patented or certified a claim or statement is presented to the secretary of the interior by or on behalf of any person or persons, corporation or corporations, claiming that such person or persons, corporation or corporations, is a bona fide purchaser or are bona fide purchasers of any patented or certified land by deed or contract, or otherwise, from or through the original patentee or corporation to which patent or certification was issued, no suit or action shall be brought to cancel or annul the patent or certification for said land until such claim is investigated in said department of the interior; and if it shall appear that such person or corporation is a bona fide purchaser as aforesaid, or that such persons or corporations are such bona fide purchasers, then no such suit shall be instituted and the title of such claimant or claimants shall stand confirmed; but the secretary of the interior shall request that suit be brought in such case against the patentee, or the corporation, company, person, or association of persons for whose benefit the patent was issued or certification was made for the value of the land ashereinbefore specified.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 469-472 intentionally omitted]

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).