Homestead Company v. Valley Railroad/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

84 U.S. 153

Homestead Company  v.  Valley Railroad

This case presents another phase of the Des Moines River land litigation.

The main question involved in this case is the question of title to the Des Moines River lands, which was settled several years ago by the decision in the cases of Wolcott and Burr, [11] and in the subsequent and unreported case of Riley v. Wells, adversely to the title set up by the appellants. At the present term of this court, the principles involved in these decisions have been reconsidered and reaffirmed. [12] It is therefore no longer an open question that neither the State of Iowa nor the railroad companies, for whose benefit the grant of 1856 was made, took any title by that act to the lands then claimed to belong to the Des Moines River grant of 1846, and that the joint resolution of 2d of March, 1861, and act of 12th of July, 1862, transferred the title from the United States and vested it in the State of Iowa for the use of its grantees under the river grant. If so, the claim of title by the appellants, who are grantees under one of these railroad companies, to the lands certified to the State of Iowa, under the act of August 8th, 1846, above the Raccoon Fork of the Des Moines River, has no foundation to rest upon.

But the appellants insist if they cannot recover these lands they are cestui que trusts for a portion of the indemnity lands obtained by the State under the act of July 12th, 1862. Congress by this act extended the grant originally made to the State in 1846, for the improvement of the Des Moines River, so as to include the alternate sections of land (designated by odd numbers) between the Raccoon Fork and the northern boundary of the State, and consented that a portion of these lands should be applied to the construction of a railroad, which, by change of name, is called the Des Moines Valley Road.

This legislation was intended to put the State in exactly the position it would have been, if there had been no dispute as to the extent of the grant in 1846, and accordingly the Secretary of the Interior was directed if any of the lands within the granted limits should have been sold or otherwise disposed of by the United States before the passage of the act, to set apart an equal quantity elsewhere in the State in lieu thereof.

In case the State also had sold and conveyed any of these lands, the title to which had proved invalid, the act directed that the land set apart by the Secretary of the Interior should be held in trust for the benefit of those persons whose titles had thus failed. This latter provision was rendered necessary by the conflict in opinion which had for a series of years existed concerning this river grant. The State had always maintained that the original grant, properly construed, extended above the Raccoon Fork, while on the contrary, the United States had at different times both denied and admitted the claim of the State. It was to be expected in this condition of the dispute that both the State and General Government had disposed of a portion of these lands. If so, and the title of the grantees of the State had proved invalid, it was eminently proper that they should be protected, and there was no better way to do this than to require the State, in the first instance, to use the indemnity lands for this purpose.

It is admitted in the record that the State has conveyed to the Des Moines Valley Railroad Company, one of the defendants in this suit, for good and valuable considerations performed by the company, all the lands received by the State under the act in question, except those only which had been conveyed by the State under the act of August 8th, 1846, and the legislation pursuant thereto.

The inquiry arises, whether the State, at the time of the passage of the act of 12th of July, 1862, had conveyed to the grantor of the appellants any portion of the lands lying within the river grant. If not, they are not within the purview of the act, for they have not suffered any loss by reason of any transaction with the State, and are, therefore, not in a position to claim compensation. The Iowa legislature, by the act of July 14th, 1856, conveyed to the Dubuque and Pacific Railroad Company, the grantor of the appellants, the lands granted to the State by the act of Congress of May 15th, 1856. The conveyance did not specify any particular lands, but in a general way transferred to the company all the rights and interests which the State received from the United States under this grant. If, therefore, the river lands were not granted to the State by the act in question, they were not embraced in the conveyance which the State made to the company, and the State, therefore, has not broken its engagement with the company. This court having decided and reaffirmed the decision that the grant of 1856 did not include the lands claimed by the State to belong to the river improvement, it is difficult to see on what grounds the appellants can rest their right to indemnity under the act of July 12th, 1862, for they cannot be cestui que trusts, as they never had any title which has proved invalid.

But the appellants insist if they are not the holder of any titles which have failed within the meaning of the act of July 12th, 1862, they are, nevertheless, entitled to a portion of the indemnity lands certified to the State under that act, because they were certified upon the assumption that the river lands had been granted by the act of May 15th, 1856. It is undoubtedly true that in 1866, on this theory, the State of Iowa, through its authorized agent, made an adjustment with the Commissioner of the General Land Office, by which a large quantity of lands were certified to the State, as indemnity for the lands which it was claimed had been disposed of by the United States by the grant for railroad purposes in 1856. It is equally true that the construction by these officers of the different acts of Congress relating to this subject, by which this result was obtained, was erroneous, as we have held in three different cases. But the decision in Wolcott's case, the first of the three, was not then announced, and the adjustment was doubtless induced by the decision in Litchfield's case, that the river grant did not extend above the Raccoon Fork. Whatever may have caused the adjustment, it is quite apparent, as the lands were erroneously certified under the act of July, 1862, that something more was needed than the action of the land commissioner, fortified as it was by the approval of the Secretary of the Interior, to pass a valid title to the State and its grantees. That which was requisite to accomplish this object was obtained by the legislation of the State and of Congress. The legislature of Iowa, in March, 1868, on the performance of certain conditions, directed a conveyance to be made to the Des Moines Valley Railroad for all the lands embraced in the act of Congress, approved the 12th of July, 1862, and ratified the adjustment made with the Commissioner of the General Land Office. In accordance with this legislation the lands in controversy were patented by the State to the company, the conditions imposed upon the company before this could be done having been complied with. Although the ratification of the adjustment and the grant to the Valley Railroad would seem to be inconsistent acts, yet Congress, with full knowledge on the subject, on the 3d of March, 1871, confirmed the title to the State and its grantees. It is true the law by which this is done, says it is in accordance with the adjustment, and the act of the General Assembly of Iowa, but, as we have seen, this act not only ratified the adjustment, but also granted the lands to the Valley Road.

Indeed, the main purpose of the act was to secure the construction of the road, by the transfer to it of the lands obtained under the adjustment. Whether the State of Iowa in the disposition which it made of these lands, conformed to the adjustment, is not a question for us to consider.

This consideration was properly addressed to Congress, who, with full knowledge that the legislature had parted with the lands to the Valley Road, chose to confirm the title to 'the State and its grantees.'

If Congress had withheld its consent to what the State had done, neither the State nor the road would have taken anything by the action of the officers certifying the lands. This was also known to Congress, because the decision in Wolcott's case was then before the country.

Congress, therefore, with full information that the State of Iowa was not entitled to these indemnity lands by reason of any previous legislation, thought proper, nevertheless, to give them to the State, knowing at the time that they were to be used in building a railroad along the line of the Des Moines River. It had already consented that a part of the lands originally designed for the improvement of this river by locks and dams, should be applied to the construction of this road, and was doubtless induced to give the direction it did to the indemnity lands, because it was satisfied that further aid was necessary to secure the completion of the Valley Road, while the east and west roads were either completed or nearly so. If we are correct in these views there is an end of this controversy, because Congress had the undoubted right to dispose of these lands for such purposes as in its judgment might best subserve the public interests, and having decided this question for itself, the Homestead Company is not in a position to question the authority of that decision. As the grant in 1856 did not cover the river lands in place, this corporation is not within the terms of the act of July 12th, 1862, and have, therefore, no rights which either the State of Congress were bound to respect.

It must be conceded that its expectation to share in the result of the adjustment concluded between the authorized agent of the State and the land department of the General Government was reasonable under the circumstances; but this expectation was not founded on any legal right, and cannot, therefore, be the subject of judicial inquiry.

It seems that the appellants, during this litigation, paid the taxes on a portion of these lands, and claim to be reimbursed for this expenditure in case the title is adjudged to be in the defendants, on the ground that they paid the taxes in good faith and in ignorance of the law. But ignorance of the law is no ground for recovery, and the element of good faith will not sustain an action where the payment has been voluntary, without any request from the true owners of the land, and with a full knowledge of all the facts. It is an elementary proposition, which does not require support from adjudged cases, that one person cannot make another his debtor by paying the debt of the latter without his request or assent.

It is true, in accordance with our decision, the taxes on these lands were the debt of the defendants, which they should have paid, but their refusal or neglect to do this did not authorize a contestant of their title to make them its debtor by stepping in and paying the taxes for them, without being requested so to do. Nor can a request be implied in the relation which the parties sustained to each other. There is nothing to take the case out of the well-established rule as to voluntary payments. If the appellants, owing to their too great confidence in their title, have risked too much, it is their misfortune, but they are not on that account entitled to have the taxes voluntarily paid by them refunded by the successful party in this suit.


Mr. Justice MILLER took no part in this decision.

At the same time with the preceding was adjudged another, Crilley v. Burrows, which the court said (Mr. Justice DAVIS delivering the opinion) was 'in no essential respect different from it;' and had 'no principle which had not already been passed upon by this court in some one of the suits relating to this protracted litigation.' On this account it is no further reported.


^11  5 Wallace, 681.

^12  Williams v. Baker, supra, p. 144.

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).