Stuart v. Easton
170 U.S. 383 (1898)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Stuart v. Easton, 170 U.S. 383 (1892)

Stuart v. Easton

No. 197

Argued April 12-13, 1898

Decided May 9, 1898

170 U.S. 383

Syllabus

The construction and legal effect of a patent for land is matter for the court, and evidence to aid in that construction is incompetent.

The clear intent of the Act of the Province of Pennsylvania of March 11, 1752, authorizing trustees to acquire the land in question, was that while the legal estate in fee in the land should be acquired by the trustees, the beneficial use or equitable estate was to be in the inhabitants of the county, and the provision following the authorization to acquire the land, "and thereon to erect and build a courthouse and prison," was

Page 170 U. S. 384

no more than a direction to the trustees as to the use to be made of the land after it had been acquired.

The language of the habendum that the conveyance is "in trust," nevertheless to and for the erecting thereon a courthouse for the public use and service of the said county, and to and for no other use, intent, or purpose whatsoever, under the decisions of the courts of Pennsylvania amounted simply to conforming the grant to the legislative authority previously given, and cannot be deemed to have imported a limitation of the fee.

The purposes of the grant by the patent of 1764 of the lot in the center of the public square at Easton, in conformity to the clear intent of the act of 1752, was undoubtedly to vest an equitable estate in the land in the inhabitants of the county, the trust in their favor being executed so soon as the county became capable of holding the title.

If the grant be viewed as one merely to trustees to hold "for the uses and purposes mentioned in the act of the assembly," it is clear that the fee was not upon a condition subsequent, nor one upon limitation.

Without positively determining whether the estate in the county is held charged with a trust for a charitable use or is an unrestricted fee simple on the theory that the trustees were merely the link for passing the title authorized by the act of 1752, it is held that the trial court did not err in directing a verdict for the defendant.

By an act of the General Assembly of the Province of Pennsylvania passed on March 11, 1752, the County of Northampton was created out of a portion of the County of Bucks. In the sixth and seventh clauses of the act, it was provided as follows:

"VI. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid that it shall and may be lawful to and for Thomas Craig, Hugh Wilson, John Jones, Thomas Armstrong and James Martin, or any three of them, to purchase and take assurance to them and their heirs of a piece of land situate in some convenient place in the said town [of Easton], in trust and for the use of the inhabitants of the said county, and thereon to erect and build a courthouse and prison sufficient to accommodate the public service of the said county and for the ease and convenience of the inhabitants."

"VII. And be it enacted by the authority aforesaid that, for the defraying the charges of purchasing the land, building, and erecting the courthouse and prison aforesaid, it shall any may be lawful to and for the commissioners and assessors

Page 170 U. S. 385

of the said county, or a majority of them, to assess and levy, and they are hereby required to assess and levy, so much money as the said trustees, or any three of them, shall judge necessary for purchasing the land and finishing the said courthouse and prison. Provided always the sum of money so to be raised does not exceed three hundred pounds current money of the province."

On March 4, 1753, an act was passed in which it was recited that the amount specified in the Act of March 11, 1752, had been expended in building a prison, and authority was given to assess and levy a further sum not exceeding a stated amount, as the persons named in the act, or any three of them, should judge necessary for building a courthouse and finishing the prison already erected.

On July 9, 1762, the following warrant of survey was issued:

"Pennsylvania, ss.:"

"By the Proprietaries"

"Whereas in and by an act of General Assembly of this Province entitled 'An Act of erecting the northwest part of Bucks into a separate county,' which in and by the said act is called Northampton and Thomas Craige, Hugh Wilson, John Jones, Thomas Armstrong and James Martin, or any three of them, were appointed trustees to purchase and take assurance to them and their heirs of a piece of land situate in some convenient place in the Town of Easton in the said county, and thereon to erect and build a courthouse and prison sufficient to accommodate the public service of the said county, and for the ease and convenience of the inhabitants, as in and by the said act appears. And whereas, on application and request of said trustees, and out of our regard to encourage and promote the improvement of the said town and general good and convenience of the inhabitants of the said county, we have condescended and agreed to grant to the said trustees a lot or piece of ground of eighty feet square to be laid out in the center of the great square in the middle of the said Town of Easton for a courthouse for the use and the accommodation of the inhabitants of the said town and county forever. These are

Page 170 U. S. 386

therefore to require you to survey and lay out, or cause to be surveyed and laid out, a lot or piece of ground in the center of the great square in the said Town of Easton of the said dimensions of eighty feet square for the public use of a courthouse for the inhabitants of the said town and county, and make return thereof into our Secretary's office in order for confirmation to the said trustees and their heirs for the use aforesaid, and for your so doing this shall be your sufficient warrant."

"Given under my hand and the seal of the Land Office, by virtue of certain powers from the said Proprietaries at Philadelphia, the ninth day of July, 1762."

"To John Lukens James Hamilton"

"Surveyor-General"

A survey was made and returned in which it was recited:

"In pursuance of a Warrant dated the 9th, day of July 1762. Surveyed the 8th day of October, 1763, to Thomas Craig and others the above described lot of ground situate in the public square of the Town of Easton in the County of Northampton. Containing in length north & south eighty feet and in breadth east & west eighty feet."

Forming part of the certificate was a plat exhibiting a large open space, three hundred and twenty feet square, intersected from north to south and east to west by two eighty feet wide streets (Northampton and Pomfret). In the center of the open space referred to, facing the streets mentioned, was a square plot of ground, marked as being eighty feet on each side.

On September 8, 1764, a patent was executed as follows:

"Thomas Penn & Richard Penn Esquires true and absolute Proprietaries and Governors in Chief of the Province of Pennsylvania & Counties of Newcastle Kent and Sussex upon Delaware To all unto whom these Presents shall come Greeting Whereas in and by an Act of General Assembly of the said Province passed in the twenty-fifth year of the Reign of our late Sovereign Lord the Second Intituled 'An Act for Erecting the North West part of Bucks into a separate

Page 170 U. S. 387

county' which in and by the said Act is called Northampton and John Jones Thomas Armstrong James Martin John Rinker and Henry Allshouse or any of them are appointed trustees to purchase and take Assurance to them and their Heirs of a Piece of Land situate in some convenient Place in the Town of Easton in the said county and thereon to erect and build a Courthouse & Prison sufficient to accommodate the public Service of the said county as by the said Act appears, And whereas in Pursuance of a Warrant dated the ninth of July 1762 under the Seal of our Land Office we have at the special Instance & Request of the said trustees caused a Lot of Ground situate in the Center of the said Town of Easton to be laid out for a courthouse for the Public Use and Service of the said county (another Lot of Ground in the said Town having been heretofore laid out for a Prison or Common Goal erected thereon) which said lot in the Center Square contains in Length North and South eighty feet and in Breadth East and West eighty feet As by the said Warrant and Survey of the said Lot remaining in the Surveyor Generals Office and from thence Certified into our Secretary's Office more fully appears Now know ye that, for the further Encouragement and better promoting the Public Benefit and Service of the said Town and county And for and in Consideration of the yearly Quitrent herein after reserved and of the Sum of Five Shillings to us in Hand paid by the said trustees (The Receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged) We have given granted released confirmed and by these Presents do give grant release and confirm unto the said trustees John Jones Thomas Armstrong James Martin John Rinker and Henry Allshouse and their Heirs the said Lot of Ground situate in the Center of the Great Square in the said Town of Easton containing eighty feet in Length North & South and eighty feet in breadth East and West Together with all Ways Waters Watercourses Liberties Easements Privileges Profits Commodities Advantages and Appurtenances thereto belonging And the Reversions and Remainders thereof. To have and to hold the said herein before described Lot of Ground with the Appurtenances unto

Page 170 U. S. 388

the said John Jones Thomas Armstrong James Martin John Rinker and Henry Allshouse their Heirs and Assigns forever. In Trust nevertheless to and for the Erecting thereon a courthouse for the public Use and Service of the said county and to and for no other Use Intent or Purpose whatsoever to be holden of us our Heirs and Successors Proprietaries of Pennsylvania as of our Manor of Fermor in the County of Northampton aforesaid in free and common Socage by Fealty only in Lieu of all other Services Yielding & Paying therefor yearly unto us, our Heirs and Successors at the Town of Easton aforesaid at or upon the first day of March in every Year from the first day of March next one Red Rose for the same or value thereof in Coin Current according as the Exchange shall then be between our said Province and the City of London to such Person or Persons as shall from Time to Time be appointed to receive the same And in case of Nonpayment thereof within ninety days next after the same shall become due That then it shall and may be lawful for us our Heirs and Successors our and their Receiver or Receivers into and upon the hereby granted Lot or Piece of Ground and Premises to Reenter and the same to hold and Possess until the said Quitrent and all arrears thereof Together with the Charges accruing by Means of such Nonpayment and Reentry be fully paid and discharged."

"Witness John Penn Esquire Lieutenant Governor of the said Province who by virtue of certain Powers and Authorities to him for this Purpose inter alia granted by the said Proprietaries hath hereunto set his Hand and caused the Great Seal of the said Province to be hereunto affixed at Philadelphia this twenty eighth day of September, in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and sixty four The Fourth year of the Reign of George the Third the King over Great Britain &c And Forty seventh Year of the said Proprietaries government."

A courthouse was built upon the property between the years 1763 and 1766, and remained thereon until the year 1862, when it was removed. No buildings have since been placed upon the ground, but it was asserted in argument that a public fountain had been erected thereon.

Page 170 U. S. 389

By an act of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania of date April 15, 1834, the title of the trustees was vested in the County of Northampton.

On July 25, 1888, William Stuart, as sole heir of the original grantors, by his duly authorized attorney, made entry upon the lot in question for a breach of an alleged condition as to its use, claimed to have been incorporated in the patent of 1764, and which, it was asserted, revested the land in the claimant as succeeding to the rights of the original grantors. Being ousted by the representatives of the County of Northampton and the citizens of Easton, Stuart soon after instituted an action of ejectment in the United States Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to recover possession of the land. At the trial, a verdict was directed for the defendant, and the case subsequently came into this Court for review, when the judgment was reversed because of an omission of the plaintiff to properly plead his alienage. 156 U. S. 156 U.S. 46. Thereafter, William Stuart having died, his son, the present plaintiff in error, was substituted as plaintiff, and, the pleadings having been amended, a new trial of the action was had in April, 1895. During the course of the trial, counsel for the plaintiff separately offered in evidence:

1. A certified copy of the deed referred to in the acts of 1752 and 1753, acquiring land on which to erect a prison, stating that he proposed to follow this by the offer of a subsequent grant to the county by the heirs of Penn of the reversion of the prison lands. The purpose of the offer was declared to be to throw light on the terms of the grant of land for the courthouse, and thereby to demonstrate that the county was estopped from claiming that the grant of such land by the patent of 1764 was not upon a condition.

2. A deed by Granville John Penn and Richard Penn to the County of Northampton, dated in 1852, for the reversion in the prison lot, which was offered for two purposes: first, for the former purpose of establishing an estoppel upon the county, and second to show grants by Penn of land in the township of Easton subsequent to the divesting act, to be followed by other deeds made by Penn subsequent to the divesting act.

Page 170 U. S. 390

The Divesting Act referred to was an act passed November 27, 1779 (1 Smith's Laws, 479), vesting the title to the Province of Pennsylvania in the commonwealth.

3. A deed by John Penn to Peter Schuyler et al., for a lot in the County of Easton, subsequent to the divesting act.

4. A certified copy from the books of the land office showing that the records of the Department of Internal Affairs of Pennsylvania contain a number of warrants issued for lots in the Town of Easton, Pennsylvania, and surveys made in pursuance thereof, and lots granted by the proprietaries of the Province of Pennsylvania.

5. That no evidence can be found to indicate that any warrants were issued and surveys made or patents granted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for any lots in the Town of Easton, Pennsylvania.

Offers Nos. 3, 4, and 5, it is claimed in argument, were made to establish that the property in question was part of the private estate of the Penns, preserved to them by section 8 of the Divesting Act.

Upon objection that the evidence was irrelevant to the issue, it was excluded, and exceptions to such rulings were reserved.

At the close of the testimony for the plaintiff, counsel for defendant moved the court to direct a verdict for the defendant. This motion was granted, the court instructing the jury that the deed on its face was a conveyance to trustees for the use and benefit of the people of Northampton County in the erection and use of public buildings, and that the land had not reverted to the grantors by a diversion of the use. Judgment having been entered in favor of the defendants, the cause was taken by writ of error to the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which affirmed the judgment. 74 F. 854. A writ of certiorari was subsequently allowed by this Court.

Page 170 U. S. 391

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