Bockfinger v. Foster - 190 U.S. 116 (1903)


U.S. Supreme Court

Bockfinger v. Foster, 190 U.S. 116 (1903)

Bockfinger v. Foster

No. 175

Argued February 26, 1903

Decided June 1, 1903

190 U.S. 116

Syllabus

Until the title to lands within any townsite boundary has been finally disposed of as provided in the Act of Oklahoma Townsite, May 14, 1890, no suit can be maintained against the Townsite Trustees as such to divest them of the title held by them in trust for occupants under that act, although a townsite occupant, after receiving title under the act, may be sued by anyone claiming that he had acquired under the homestead laws a right as to the lands prior and superior to that held by the Townsite Trustees for the use and benefit of the townsite occupants.

The Townsite Trustees do not hold an indefeasible title as of private right, with power to dispose of at will, but only as trustees for such occupants as may be ascertained, in the mode prescribed by the act of Congress, to be entitled to particular lots within the townsite boundary.

The investiture of the Trustees with title is only a step towards the transmission, finally, to the occupants of the full interest of the United States in the land.

This case involves the construction of the Act of Congress passed May 14th, 1890, entitled "An Act to Provide for Town Site Entries of Land in What is Known as "Oklahoma," and for Other Purposes." 26 Stat. 109, c. 207.

As the purpose and scope of the act can be ascertained only by examining all of its provisions, it is here given in full:

Page 190 U. S. 117

"§ 1. That so much of the public lands situate in the Territory of Oklahoma, now open to settlement, as may be necessary to embrace all the legal subdivisions covered by actual occupancy for purposes of trade and business, not exceeding twelve hundred and eighty acres in each case, may be entered as town sites, for the several use and benefit of the occupants thereof, by three trustees, to be appointed by the Secretary of the Interior for that purpose, such entry to be made under the provisions of section twenty-three hundred and eighty-seven of the Revised Statutes, as near as may be, and when such entry shall have been made, the Secretary of the Interior shall provide regulations for the proper execution of the trust by such trustees, including the survey of the land into streets, alleys, squares, blocks, and lots when necessary, or the approval of such survey as may already have been made by the inhabitants thereof, the assessment upon the lots of such sum as may be necessary to pay for the lands embraced in such town site, costs of survey, conveyance of lots, and other necessary expenses, including compensation of trustees: Provided, That the Secretary of the Interior may, when practicable, cause more than one town site to be entered and the trust thereby created executed in the manner herein provided by a single board of trustees, but not more than seven boards of trustees in all shall be appointed for said territory, and no more than two members of any of said boards shall be appointed from one political party."

"§ 2. That in the execution of such trust, and for the purpose of the conveyance of title by said trustees, any certificate or other paper evidence of claim duly issued by the authority recognized for such purpose by the people residing upon any town site the subject of entry hereunder, shall be taken as evidence of the occupancy by the holder thereof of the lot or lots therein described, except that, where there is an adverse claim to said property, such certificate shall only be prima facie evidence of the claim of occupancy of the holder: Provided, That nothing in this act contained shall be so construed as to make valid any claim now invalid of those who entered upon and occupied said lands in violation of the laws of the United States

Page 190 U. S. 118

or the proclamation of the President thereunder: Provided further, That the certificates hereinbefore mentioned shall not be taken as evidence in favor of any person claiming lots who entered upon said lots in violation of law or the proclamation of the President thereunder."

"§ 3. That lots of land occupied by any religious organization, incorporated or otherwise, conforming to the approved survey within the limits of such town site, shall be conveyed to or in trust for the same."

"§ 4. That all lots not disposed of as hereinbefore provided for shall be sold, under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior, for the benefit of the municipal government of any such town, or the same or any part thereof may be reserved for public use as sites for public buildings, or for the purpose of parks, if, in the judgment of the Secretary, such reservation would be for the public interest, and the Secretary shall execute proper conveyances to carry out the provisions of this section."

"§ 5. That the provisions of sections four, five, six, and seven of an act of the Legislature of the State [of] Kansas, entitled 'An Act Relating to Town Sites,' approved March second, eighteen hundred and sixty-eight, shall, so far as applicable, govern the trustees in the performance of their duties hereunder."

"§ 6. That all entries of town sites now pending, on application hereafter made under this act, shall have preference at the local land office, of the ordinary business of the office, and shall be determined as speedily as possible, and if an appeal shall be taken from the decision of the local office in any such case to the Commissioner of the General Land Office, the same shall be made special, and disposed of by him as expeditiously as the duties of his office will permit, and so if an appeal should be taken to the Secretary of the Interior. And all applications heretofore filed in the proper land office shall have the same force and effect as if made under the provisions of this act, and upon the application of the trustees herein provided for, such entries shall be prosecuted to final issue in the names of such trustees, without other formality, and when final entry is made, the title of the United States to the land covered by such entry shall be conveyed to said trustees for the uses and purposes herein provided. "

Page 190 U. S. 119

"§ 7. That the trustees appointed under this act shall have the power to administer oaths, to hear and determine all controversies arising in the execution of this act, shall keep a record of their proceedings, which shall, with all papers filed with them and all evidence of their official acts, except conveyances, be filed in the General Land Office, and become part of the records of the same, and all conveyances executed by them shall be acknowledged before an officer duly authorized for that purpose. They shall be allowed such compensation as the Secretary of the Interior may prescribe, not exceeding ten dollars per day while actually employed, and such traveling and other necessary expenses as the Secretary may authorize, and the Secretary of the Interior shall also provide them with necessary clerical force, by detail or otherwise."

"§ 8. That the sum of ten thousand dollars or so much thereof as may be necessary is hereby appropriated to carry into effect the provisions of this act, except that no portion of said sum shall be used in making payment for land entered hereunder, and the disbursements therefrom shall be refunded to the Treasury from the sums which may be realized from the assessments made to defray the expense of carrying out the provisions of this act."

26 Stat. 110, c. 207.

The complaint shows that the appellees are the trustees of town site board number six, duly constituted and appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, and assigned to the town site of West Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory, and had acquired the legal title to the western half of section eight, of township sixteen, north of range two, in Logan County in that territory.

Bockfinger, claiming to have become entitled, under the homestead laws of the United States, to the southwest quarter of that land -- which was embraced within the town site boundary -- brought this suit in a territorial district court against the appellees as town site trustees. The relief sought was a decree that the trustees hold the title in trust for his use and benefit, and be compelled to convey to him.

The defendants demurred to the complaint upon several grounds, among others, upon the ground that the court had no jurisdiction of the subject of the action nor of the defendants

Page 190 U. S. 120

in their capacity as town site trustees. The demurrer was sustained, and, the plaintiff electing to stand on his complaint, the suit was dismissed. Upon appeal to the supreme court of the territory, the decree of the district court was affirmed.



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