Coffee v. Groover
123 U.S. 1 (1887)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Coffee v. Groover, 123 U.S. 1 (1887)

Coffee v. Groover

Argued April 20, 1887

Decided October 17, 1887

123 U.S. 1




Grants of land made by a government in territory over which it exercises political jurisdiction de facto, but which does not rightfully belong to it, are invalid as against the government to which the territory rightfully belongs.

Where a disputed boundary between two states is adjusted and settled, grants previously made by either state of lands claimed by it and over which it exercised political jurisdiction, but which, on the adjustment of the boundary, are found to be within the territory of the other state, are void unless confirmed by the latter state, and such confirmation cannot affect the titles of the same lands previously granted by the latter state itself.

The boundary between Georgia and Florida was long in dispute, Georgia claiming to a line called Watson's Line and exercising political jurisdiction, and making grants of land to that line, whilst Florida claimed to a line called McNeil's Line, further north than Watson's. Upon running the true line as finally agreed upon by the two states, it was found to be further north than McNeil's Line. Held, 1, that the grant made by Georgia of the land in dispute, which was south of McNeil's Line, though made whilst Georgia exercised the powers of government de facto over the territory there, was nevertheless void; 2, that the confirmation by Florida of the grants made by Georgia did not invalidate or disturb the grant of the land in dispute previously made by itself.

The history of the Florida boundary stated.

Page 123 U. S. 2

Ejectment for lands in Madison County, Florida. Judgment for plaintiffs, which was affirmed by the supreme court of the state. This writ of error was sued out to review the judgment in affirmance. The case is stated in the opinion of the Court.

MR. JUSTICE BRADLEY delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is an action of ejectment for 97 acres of land in Madison County, Florida, situated near the boundary line between that state and Georgia. The plaintiffs were James M. Groover and others, heirs at law of Charles A. Groover and now defendants in error; the defendant was Andrew J. Coffee, the present plaintiff in error. Judgment was first rendered by the court of first instance in favor of the defendant below, but, being reversed by the Supreme Court of Florida, a new trial was had and judgment was given for the plaintiffs and affirmed by the supreme court. The last judgment of the supreme court is brought here for review on two grounds: first that the matter in controversy had been tried and determined by the Circuit Court of the United States for the Northern District of Florida in favor of the defendant Coffee in a suit between him and the executrix of Charles A. Groover, the ancestor under whom the plaintiffs claim title; secondly on the ground that the defendant's title to the land in controversy was claimed by him under a grant made by the United States to the State of Florida, and by the State of Florida to the defendant, which title was set aside by the state court in favor of the plaintiff's title derived under a conflicting grant from the State of Georgia.

The first ground of error is not raised on the record in such a manner as to avail the defendant. The matter of defense involved therein was set up by two pleas: first, a plea of former recovery, and secondly a plea to the jurisdiction

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of the court. These pleas were overruled on demurrer, but for what reason is not stated. The Supreme Court of Florida, however, in its opinion, very properly says:

"In ejectment, all legal defenses may be made under the plea of not guilty, and the special denials mentioned in the statute. McClelland's Dig. 481. Special pleas of matter affecting the legal title or in estoppel only encumber the record and tend to embarrassment. Wade v. Doyle, 17 Fla. 522; Neal v. Spooner, 20 Fla. 38 (June term, 1883). They should be struck out by the court sua sponte or on motion or on demurrer, because they are not proper pleas; but a judgment sustaining a demurrer will not preclude proof, on the trial, of the facts so improperly pleaded."

The pleas being overruled, no attempt was made on the trial to set up the defense by proof of the former judgment relied on. This branch of the case therefore may be laid out of view.

The second ground for reversal is stated in duplicate form in the assignment of errors, as follows, to-wit:

"(1) In the record and proceedings aforesaid, there is manifest error, to-wit, that the Supreme Court of the State of Florida, in the above-stated cause, decided that a grant for land issued by the State of Georgia is superior to a patent issued by the United States for the same land, the said land being situate within the territorial limits of the State of Florida."

"(2) There is manifest error in this, to-wit, that the Supreme Court of the State of Florida, in the above-stated cause, by the record aforesaid, it appears, held that the plaintiff in error should be ousted from certain lands embraced within the territory of the State of Florida, he holding title through the State of Florida derived from the United States, and that the defendants in error should be put in possession, they claiming under a grant issued by the State of Georgia."

By § 709 of the Revised Statutes, where the decision of the state court is against a title claimed under the Constitution or any treaty or statute of or a commission held or authority exercised under the United States, this Court has jurisdiction to review the decision. We think it will sufficiently appear

Page 123 U. S. 4

from the facts of the present case and the points of law arising thereon that it satisfies the conditions of the section. The title claimed by the defendant rested not only on a grant of the United States, but on a delimitation of territory under a treaty between the United States and Spain.

The case is one of conflicting grants of the same land lying near the boundary line between Georgia and Florida. The fact that the land in controversy was covered by both grants was settled by the jury. It is conceded to lie within the bounds of Florida according to the line recently agreed upon by the two states.

The occasion of conflicting grants being made was the uncertain location at the time of the true boundary line referred to and the fact that Georgia claimed one line and the United States and Florida claimed another.

The plaintiffs, to maintain their title to the land in dispute, gave in evidence on the trial two patents from the State of Georgia to one James Groover, each bearing date the first day of January, 1842 -- one for 226.2 acres of land, described as situate in the Fifteenth District of Irwin County, Georgia, and known and distinguished in the plan of said district by the number 199, and having the shape, form, and marks shown by a plat annexed, the other patent being for 250.2 acres of land, situate in the same district and county, known and distinguished by the number 200, and having the shape, form, and marks shown by a plat annexed. The plats showed that the two lots joined each other east and west, and that they were both bounded on the south by a common line called on the plats "Florida Line;" and it was testified that the line thus marked on the plats was a line known as the "Watson Line." Mesne conveyances were then given in evidence showing that said lots were conveyed by James Groover to Thomas A. Groover by deed dated December 31, 1855, and by Thomas A. Groover to Charles A. Groover by deed dated July 8, 1860, and it was further shown that Charles A. Groover died in 1866, and that the plaintiffs were his heirs at law. Evidence was also given tending to show that the said patentee and grantees, respectively, had possession of said lands under and

Page 123 U. S. 5

in conformity with their said titles until the plaintiffs were ousted by the defendant in 1876.

Evidence was further given to show that another line, called the "McNeil Line," ran about 14 chains north of the Watson Line and parallel thereto, and that the land in controversy lay between the said two lines, having the Watson Line on the south, and the McNeil Line on the north. Also that a third line, called the "Orr and Whitner Line," ran still further north than either of the aforesaid lines, which Orr and Whitner Line was conceded to be the boundary line between the states of Georgia and Florida as recently fixed by mutual agreement between the two states by certain laws and resolutions of their respective legislatures, confirmed by act of Congress.

The plaintiffs also introduced evidence tending to show that the Watson Line was formerly considered the state line between Georgia and Florida; that Georgians worked the Georgia roads to the Watson Line and Floridians worked the Florida roads to that line; that as far back as one of the witnesses could remember, he being for many years a lawyer and judge in one of the border counties of Georgia, that state had claimed and exercised jurisdiction to the Watson Line until the Orr and Whitner Line was agreed upon as the boundary between the two states; that the people living north of the Watson Line did jury duty and voted in Georgia; that the wills of people dying there were probated in the Georgia courts, and their estates were administered upon in those courts; that the Georgia courts took jurisdiction of offenses committed as far south as the Watson Line, and tried cases in which people living there were interested; that the officers of the Georgia courts executed writs as far south as that line; that persons were tried in Georgia for offenses committed between that line and the Orr and Whitner Line. And, on the other hand, as correctly stated by the Supreme Court of Florida in its opinion, there is nothing in the record nor in the history of the government of the territory or of the State of Florida showing that the authorities of the latter exercised any of the powers of government north of the

Page 123 U. S. 6

Watson Line prior to the said settlement of the boundary between the two states.

The defendant, to maintain the issue on his part, gave in evidence first a certified copy of a patent from the United States to the State of Florida, bearing date July 6, 1857, issued under and in pursuance of the Act approved September 28, 1850, known as the act for granting to certain states the "swamp and overflowed lands" therein, by which patent there was granted to said state as swamp and overflowed lands certain designated fractional sections of land, among others "the whole of fractional section 29," in township 3 north, range 9 east, which fractional section was proved to be bounded on the north by McNeil's Line and to include the land in controversy. The defendant also produced in evidence a certificate of sale issued by the Register of Public Lands for the State of Florida to one McCall and one Stripling for said fractional section 29, and other land named in said patent, which certificate bore date September 2, 1857, and acknowledged the receipt of one hundred dollars in cash, and of certain bonds for the remainder of the purchase money of said lands, as provided by the land laws of Florida. The defendant further gave in evidence a deed from McCall and Stripling to himself, bearing date November 12, 1858, conveying to him all the lands included in said certificate of sale, with a covenant that they were free from encumbrances; also a deed of grant and conveyance of the same lands to the defendant from the trustees of the internal improvement fund of the State of Florida -- the proper authority for that purpose -- which last deed bore date September 12, 1874. The defendant, being sworn as a witness, testified that McCall and Stripling paid all the purchase money for the lands to the state, but that the certificate was lost, and he (the defendant) afterwards made proof of it, and had the trustees of the improvement fund make him a deed; but that the original receipt had since been found. He also testified that he had lived near the Georgia line for over forty years, and never heard of the Watson Line until about ten or twelve years ago. He worked the public roads up to the McNeil Line, and the

Page 123 U. S. 7

Georgians worked their roads down to the McNeil Line, and no further; that the McNeil Line was understood by citizens living near the line in both states to be the boundary line between the two states.

The defendant also gave in evidence the testimony of one Lanier, County Surveyor of Madison County, Florida, who testified that he had surveyed the lands in controversy and gave it as his opinion that the plats of land annexed to the plaintiff's grants did not cover the said land, not having marks thereon for ponds, swamps, and streams which he found on the premises; that the Watson Line at the place in controversy runs through a large swamp not shown in said plats; that until the establishment of the Orr and Whitner Line, the McNeil Line was always considered as the boundary line between Georgia and Florida; that he had frequently surveyed on the Georgia line, and always surveyed to the McNeil Line; that he never heard of the Watson Line until the controversy that led to this suit.

The court charged the jury that if they believed from the evidence that the State of Georgia, anterior to the year 1842, considered the land in controversy within her territorial limits and incorporated within one of her counties over which the authorities of said state exercised the usual powers of government, and that in 1842 the Governor of Georgia granted the identical lands in controversy to James Groover, and that said James Groover conveyed the same lands to Thomas A. Groover in 1855, and that said Thomas A. Groover conveyed the same lands to Charles A. Groover in 1860, and that said Charles A. Groover was dead, and that the plaintiffs were his heirs, then they must find for the plaintiffs; but that if the evidence failed to induce the jury to believe that the lands sued for were the same as those described in the said grants and conveyances, or that the Georgia grants included the lands to the Watson Line, they must find for the defendant. Under this charge, the jury found for the plaintiffs, thus establishing the fact that Georgia, anterior to 1842, did claim jurisdiction to the Watson Line, and that the lands in controversy adjoining that line were included in the grant of Georgia to James Groover in 1842.

Page 123 U. S. 8

The Supreme Court of Florida sustained the charge of the court below, it being in accordance with its own opinion given when the case was first before it, as reported in 19 Fla. 64. The position assumed is that grants in a disputed territory by a government exercising therein sovereign jurisdiction de facto are valid and to be sustained notwithstanding that, by a subsequent settlement of boundaries, the disputed territory is conceded to the other contesting sovereign. Georgia undoubtedly at the time of the grant to James Groover exercised the powers of government de facto over the territory in which the land in controversy was situated, and it is assumed by the Supreme Court of Florida that the boundary line subsequently agreed upon, by which said land was conceded to lie in the State of Florida was a mere arbitrary line, adopted by way of compromise, and was never acknowledged to be the true legal line established by previous treaties and laws. The argument is that whatever may be the law with regard to grants made by a government clearly beyond its lawful boundaries and jurisdiction, it is certain that grants made within its jurisdiction, being lawful when made, are not invalidated by a subsequent cession of the territory to another sovereign, because in such case the rights of sovereignty only, and not those of private property, are changed. It is then assumed that in cases of disputed boundary where a line is finally fixed by compromise, the portions of territory previously possessed by either of the contracting parties, and conceded by the adopted line to the other, are to be regarded and treated as ceded territory, and not as territory that always really belonged to the sovereign who gets it by the compromise. he Supreme Court of Florida, speaking of the decision of the lower court (which it affirmed), says:

"What they did decide was that grants by a government de facto of parts of a disputed territory in its possession are valid against the state which had the right, Dela Croix v. Chamberlain, 12 Wheat. 600, and that when a territory is acquired by treaty, cession, or conquest, the rights of the inhabitants to property are respected and sacred. Rhode Island v. Massachusetts, 12 Pet. 657, 37 U. S. 749, 45 U. S. 4 How. 591, 45 U. S. 639; United States v.

Page 123 U. S. 9

Clarke, 8 Pet. 436, 33 U. S. 445. And the principle applies to the states of this union. Poole v. Fleeger, 11 Pet. 185, 36 U. S. 209. In the latter case, the Court said (p. 36 U. S. 210):"

"Although, in the compact, Walker's Line is agreed to be in future the boundary between the two states, it is not so established as having been for the past the true and rightful boundary."

"We decided this to be the rule in the present case when it was before us on the former appeal, 19 Fla. 61, and the cause was tried the second time under the influence of the opinion and judgment of this Court. We find no reason for modifying that judgment, and the error assigned is not sustained."

Coffee v. Groover, 20 Fla. 64, 81.

Whether the view of the case thus taken by the Supreme Court of Florida is the correct one, regard being had not only to the facts found by the jury but also to the treaties and acts of the federal government as well as of Georgia in regard to the line in question, and whether the rule of law relied on by the court is a sound one, and rightly applicable to the case in hand, are the questions to be determined.

It is no doubt the received doctrine that in cases of ceded or conquered territory, the rights of private property in lands are respected. Grants made by the former government, being rightful when made, are not usually disturbed. Allegiance is transferred from one government to the other without any subversion of property. This doctrine has been laid down very broadly on several occasions by this Court, particularly in cases arising upon grants of land made by the Spanish and other governments in Louisiana and Florida before those countries were ceded to the United States. It is true that the property rights of the people in those cases were protected by stipulations in the treaties of cession, as is usual in such treaties, but the Court took broader ground, and held, as a general principal of international law, that a mere cession of territory only operates upon the sovereignty and jurisdiction, including the right to the public domain, and not upon the private property of individuals which had been segregated from the public domain before the cession. This principle is asserted in the cases of

Page 123 U. S. 10

United States v. Arredondo, 6 Pet. 691; United States v. Percheman, 7 Pet. 51, 32 U. S. 86-89; Delassus v. United States, 9 Pet. 117; Strother v. Lucas, 12 Pet. 428; Doe v. Eslava, 9 How. 421; Jones v. McMasters, 20 How. 17, and Leitensdorfer v. Webb, 20 How. 176. In United States v. Percheman, Chief Justice Marshall said:

"It may not be unworthy of remark that it is very unusual, even in cases of conquest, for the conqueror to do more than to displace the sovereign and assume dominion over the country. The modern usage of nations, which has become law, would be violated, that sense of justice and of right which is acknowledged and felt by the whole civilized world would be outraged, if private property should be generally confiscated and private rights annulled. The people change their allegiance, their relation to their ancient sovereign is dissolved, but their relations to each other, and their rights of property, remain undisturbed. If this be the modern rule even in cases of conquest, who can doubt its application to the case of an amicable cession of territory? Had Florida changed its sovereign by an act containing no stipulation respecting the property of individuals, the right of property in all those who became subjects or citizens of the new government would have been unaffected by the change."

7 Pet. 32 U. S. 86-87.

But while this is the acknowledged rule in cases of ceded, and even conquered, territory with regard to titles acquired from former sovereign who had undoubted right to create them, it does not apply (as well shall see) to cases of disputed boundary in relation to titles created by a sovereign in possession, but not rightfully so. In the latter case, when the true boundary is ascertained or adjusted by agreement, grants made by either sovereign beyond the limits of his rightful territory, whether he had possession or not (unless confirmed by proper stipulations), fail for want of title in the grantor. This is the general rule. Circumstances may possibly exist which would make valid the grants of a government de facto -- as for example where they contravene no other rights. Grants of public domain made by Napoleon, as sovereign de facto of France, may have had a more solid basis of legality

Page 123 U. S. 11

than similar grants made by him as sovereign de facto of a Prussian province derogatory to the rights of the government and King of Prussia.

As the case before us depends upon a disputed boundary between two states, it cannot be properly understood or determined without adverting to the historical facts connected with that boundary. Some of these are referred to by the Supreme Court of Florida in its opinion, but several others are necessary to be stated in order to show the circumstances under which the boundary between Georgia and Florida was finally settled and to determine whether the assumption of the court that the territory containing the land in controversy was ceded by Georgia to Florida is well founded. The case, if it can be avoided, ought not to be decided upon a narrow selection of facts which might determine the question one way before one jury today and another way before another jury tomorrow, but upon a broad view of all the historical events which relate to this boundary line. We shall proceed, therefore, to review these events as far as they have come to our knowledge from public documents.

In early colonial times, there were always mutual complaints of encroachment between the British provinces and the Spanish province of Florida, sometimes resulting in military conflicts, and no boundary was ever settled between them. The difficulty was finally removed by the treaty of 1763, by which Florida was ceded to Great Britain. See Treaty, Arts. VII, XX, 1 Chalmers' Collection of Treaties Between Great Britain and Other Powers 473, 479. Soon after this event, on the seventh of October, 1763, King George III, by proclamation, erected governments in the newly acquired territories of Canada and the Floridas, and established the boundaries of the latter as follows, to-wit:

"The government of East Florida, bounded to the westward by the Gulf of Mexico and the Appalachicola River, to the northward by a line drawn from that part of said river where the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers meet to the source of the St. Mary's River, and by the course of the said river to the Atlantic Ocean."

West Florida was bounded north by the parallel of 31

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