United States v. Winona & St. Peter R. Co.
165 U.S. 463 (1897)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Winona & St. Peter R. Co., 165 U.S. 463 (1897)

United States v. Winona and St. Peter Railroad Company

No. 321

Argued November 30, December 1, 1896

Decided February 15, 1897

165 U.S. 463

Syllabus

In view of the fact that many years have passed since the certification of the lands in controversy, and since the railroad company, in reliance upon the title which it believed it had acquired, disposed of them, and that other parties have become interested in them, and have dealt with them as private property, the appellees are justified in saying that they have large claims upon the equitable consideration of the courts.

The Act 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 the Act of March 2, 1896, 29 Stat. 42, operated to confirm the title to purchasers from a railroad company of lands certified or patented to or for its benefit notwithstanding any mere errors or irregularities in the proceedings of the Land Department and notwithstanding the fact that the lands so certified or patented were, by the true construction of the land grants, although within the limits of the grants, excepted from their operation, provided that they purchased in good faith, and paid value for the lands, and provided also that the lands were public lands in the statutory sense of the term, and free from individual or other claims.

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, c. 376, 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

Page 165 U. S. 464

bill, which thereafter was affirmed by the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. 67 F. 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, c. 99, 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, c. 105, 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 preemption 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 cancelled 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

Page 165 U. S. 465

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 preemption 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

Page 165 U. S. 466

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. [Footnote 1]

Page 165 U. S. 467

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

Page 165 U. S. 468

on March 2, 1896, Congress passed a still further act (29 Stat. 42), which is also found in the footnote. [Footnote 2]

Page 165 U. S. 469

"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 as hereinbefore specified. "

Page 165 U. S. 472

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