Howard v. Ingersoll/Separate Curtis

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Opinion of the Court
Separate Opinions

United States Supreme Court

54 U.S. 381

Howard  v.  Ingersoll

Mr. Justice CURTIS.

In these cases I concur with the majority of the court in the opinion that each of the judgments should be reversed, but I withheld my assent from much of the reasoning contained in the opinion. I do so, because I am not entirely satisfied of its correctness, as I apprehend its extent and bearings; and because the cases involve a question of boundary between the States of Georgia and Alabama, and highly important riparian and other rights connected therewith, or dependent thereon, in reference to which I desire to stand committed to no opinion, and to no course of reasoning, beyond what seems to me absolutely necessary for a final decision upon the private rights now before us.

This obliges me to state my own views of what I deem necessary to be decided, and the conclusions at which I have arrived. I shall do so very briefly, and without entering into an examination of the principles and authorities which have brought my mind to those conclusions.

My opinion is:-1. That the calls contained in the act of cession, place the western line of Georgia on the western bank of the Chattahoochee River, at the place in question in these cases.

2. That the act of cession is silent as to the particular part of the bank on which the line is to be run. But inasmuch as it must be run on some particular part of the bank, we are obliged to resort to the presumed intentions of the commissioners and the parties, inferable from the nature of the line, as a line of boundary of political jurisdiction as well as of proprietorship, and, according to that presumed intention, we must declare it to be on that part of the bank which will best promote the convenience and advantage of both parties, and most fully accomplish the apparent and leading purpose to establish a natural boundary.

3. That the banks of a river are those elevations of land which confine the waters when they rise out of the bed; and the bed is that soil so usually covered by water as to be distinguishable from the banks, by the character of the soil, or vegetation, or both, produced by the common presence and action of flowing water. But neither the line of ordinary high-water mark, nor of ordinary low-water mark, nor of a middle stage of water, can be assumed as the line dividing the bed from the banks. This line is to be found by examining the bed and banks, and ascertaining where the presence and action of water are so common and usual, and so long continued in all ordinary years, as to mark upon the soil of the bed a character distinct from that of the banks, in respect to vegetation, as well as in respect to the nature of the soil itself. Whether this line between the bed and the banks will be found above or below, or at a middle stage of water, must depend upon the character of the stream. The height of a stream, during much the larger part of the year, may be above or below a middle point between its highest and least flow. Something must depend also upon the rapidity of the stream and other circumstances. But in all cases the bed of a river is a natural object, and is to be sought for, not merely by the application of any abstract rules, but as other natural objects are sought for and found, by the distinctive appearances they present; the banks being fast land, on which vegetation, appropriate to such land in the particular locality, grows wherever the bank is not too steep to permit such growth, and the bed being soil of a different character and having no vegetation, or only such as exists when commonly submerged in water.

4. Taking along with us these views respecting the bed and banks of a river, it will be obvious that the lowest line of the bank, being the line which separates the bank from the bed, is a natural line, capable of being found in all parts of the river, impressed on the soil; and this is true of no other line on the bank; for though in some places the banks of a river may have so marked a character, that there would be no difficulty in tracing the upper line of the bank, and pronouncing, with certainty, that the bank there terminates, yet it is not to be supposed that this would be true throughout the course of a long river, and one of these cases finds, that in some places the banks of this river are low, and the adjacent lands on either side subject to occasional inundation. In such places it would be impracticable to fix on a precise line as the upper termination of the bank. Now, it is clear, that inasmuch as this line of the act of cession was to be a line of boundary of political jurisdiction, it must have been deemed by the commissioners when they fixed it, and by the parties when they assented to it, of great importance, to have a natural boundary, capable, not only of being ascertained upon inquiring, but of being seen and recognized in the common practical affairs of life. And, therefore, I am of opinion, that as the calls for this line do not expressly require it to be on any particular part of the bank, it should be located on the bank where the leading purpose, to have a natural boundary between the two jurisdictions, will be most effectually attained. The convenience and advantage of both parties require this. The line, therefore, is at the lowest edge of the bank, being the same natural line which divides the bank from the bed of the river.

The above brief statement of my views, while it exhibits all to which I have given my assent in these cases, will show why I concur in the opinion that the rulings, brought before us by these writs of error, were erroneous.

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).