Security Land & Exploration Co. v. Burns
193 U.S. 167 (1904)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Security Land & Exploration Co. v. Burns, 193 U.S. 167 (1904)

Security Land and Exploration Company v. Burns

No. 127

Argued January 19, 1904

Decided February 29, 1904

193 U.S. 167

Syllabus

The general rule that, in matters of boundaries, natural monuments or objects will control courses and distances is not absolute and inexorable.

When the plat of a government survey is the result of, and founded upon, a gross fraud, and there is actually no lake near the spot indicated thereon, and adopting the lake as it is actually located as a natural monument would increase the patentee's land fourfold, the false meander line can be regarded as a boundary, instead of a true meander line, and the patentee confined to the lots correctly described within the lines and distances of the plat of survey and of the field notes which he actually bought and paid for.

Where the patentee has in fact received and is in possession of all the land actually described in the lines and distances and is seeking for more on the theory that his plat of survey carries him to a natural boundary, a denial of that right on the ground that the plat was fraudulent, and that the natural boundary did not actually exist anywhere near the spot indicated, is a legal defense which can be set up by defendant in an action in ejectment, and it is not necessary to seek the aid of a court in equity to obtain a reformation of the patent.

This is an action of ejectment, commenced in the District Court of St. Louis County, in the State of Minnesota, to recover certain lands in that county described in the complaint. The trial was by the court, and judgment was entered for the defendant,

Page 193 U. S. 168

which was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Minnesota, and the plaintiff has sued out this writ of error to review that judgment. 87 Minn. 97.

The following facts (among others) were found by the trial court:

"1. The plaintiff is a corporation duly organized and existing under the laws of the State of Minnesota, and the defendants are husband and wife."

"2. In 1876, township fifty-seven north of range seventeen west, in St. Louis County, Minnesota, was ordered by the General Land Office of the United States to be surveyed, and a contract for the survey thereof was made by the United States Surveyor General of the State of Minnesota with one H. S. Howe, who, by said contract, was constituted a deputy United States surveyor for said purpose. Under said contract, said Howe was required, and undertook and agreed, to survey said township, to run out all section lines, and to set posts marking all section and quarter section corners throughout said township where the same could be marked upon the ground, and accurately to meander and establish upon the ground meander posts of all lakes and streams found to exist within said township."

"3. Thereafter said Howe ran and marked the exterior lines of said township, except the south township line, which had been previously surveyed, and set posts at all section and quarter section corners on said three exterior lines. He also set a meander post upon the north line of said township as surveyed by him, where said line running west from the northeast corner of said township first encountered the shore of Ely Lake, or, as it is sometimes called, Cedar Island Lake."

"4. No survey of the interior of said township was ever made, and no section lines within said township were ever run by said Howe, with the possible exception of the west line of section 36 thereof, and no section or quarter section corners were ever located, established, or marked by him (with the possible exception of the northwest corner of section 36 aforesaid), and

Page 193 U. S. 169

none of the streams or permanent lakes (of which there were several) within said township were meandered by him, and no posts of any description were ever set, nor any lines or bearing trees ever blazed, within said township, with the possible exception of a corner post at the northwest corner of said section 36."

"5. Said Howe made and filed with the United States Surveyor General of the State of Minnesota what purported to be field notes of a survey of said township made by him under said contract, purporting to give the length and directions of all interior section lines in said township, the location of all sections and quarter section posts, and the bearing trees thereof, the character of the soil and timber in said township, and all other data and information required by the statutes of the United States and the rules of the United States General Land Office to be ascertained and reported by deputy surveyors in due course of making surveys of public lands."

"6. With the exception of the description of the survey of the three exterior boundary lines of said township actually run by him, said field notes returned by said Howe were imaginary and fictitious, and the purported facts and data contained therein were not based upon any personal knowledge or inspection of the interior of said township, and were, in fact false and erroneous."

"7. From said purported field notes, it appears that there existed in the northerly part of said township, lying in sections 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, and 11 thereof, a lake known as Ely Lake, or Cedar Island Lake, with surface area, as indicated in said field notes, of 1,800 acres; in fact instead of having an area of about 1,800 acres, said lake then was and still is a body of water not exceeding 800 acres in area. It is a permanent, deep, and navigable lake, having high, steep, and heavily timbered banks except about the outlet thereof. Said lake does not in fact touch section 11 at all, and covers only an area of very small extent (less than one-half of a forty-acre tract) in the southeast corner of section

Page 193 U. S. 170

4. Between the actual water line of said lake and the meander line thereof, as returned by the purported field notes of said Howe, there were at the time of the survey and still are at least one thousand acres of high, tillable land which has never been a part of the lake and which was and is heavily timbered with trees of more than a century's growth and growing down to the water's edge."

"8. The field notes and report of survey made and filed by said Howe were approved by the Surveyor General for the District of Minnesota August 7, 1876, and a plat of said township was made in accordance with said purported filed notes under the direction of said Surveyor General, and was approved by him on said seventh day of August, 1876, and a duly certified copy thereof was transmitted by him to the proper local United States land office on the 24th day of August, 1876, and another duly certified copy of the same was by him forwarded to the General Land Office of the United States, and filed therein August 23, 1876, and was by that office accepted as representing a correct survey of said township, and as the official plat thereof. Such survey and plat of said township were the only ones ever made by or under the authority of the United States government."

"[The plat, which is to be found at 189 U. S. illustrates with sufficient accuracy the township in which the lands in question lie, and it delineates the meandering of Cedar Island Lake, the outer meander line representing that which was marked on the official plat of the survey and as shown by the field notes of Howe, and the inner meander line representing the lake as it actually existed in 1876, when the field notes were made and filed, and as it now exists. A portion of the land lying between these lines is the land involved in this action, being land lying between the lake and the lots 3, 5, 6, and 7, in section 4, of the township mentioned."

"The dotted lines on the plat show the courses which would have to be followed in order to permit each of the lots above named to reach the lake as it actually exists.] "

Page 193 U. S. 171

"9. Since the spring of 1892, the defendants have been in actual and continuous occupancy of a portion of the land lying between the meander line described and returned by said Howe in his said purported field notes, and as located upon the government plat of said township, and the actual water line of said lake. Said occupancy has been under the claim that the lands occupied by said defendants were and are unsurveyed government lands, subject to homestead entry, and that they have not been patented by the government. The defendants have made valuable and lasting improvements upon the lands occupied by them respectively."

"10. According to the plat of said township, the land in section 4 was divided into eight fractional government lots, lots 1, 2, and 8 comprising all of the land in the east half of said section, containing an aggregate of 122.3 acres, and lots 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 containing an aggregate of 182.08 acres, comprising all of the land in the west half of said section."

"11. Between December, 1879, and March, 1887, all of said government lots [and all the surveyed lands within said township] were patented and conveyed by the United States, pursuant to the laws relating to the disposal of public lands, and by patents containing the usual clause, 'according to the official plat of the survey of said lands returned to the General Land Office by the Surveyor General.' By divers mesne conveyances from said patentees, the title to said lots 3, 5, 6 and 7, containing, according to said plat and to the patents of said lands, the following quantities of land, respectively: lot 3, 50.37 acres; lot 5, 34.75 acres; lot 6, 30.5 acres, and lot 7, 25.25 acres, became vested in the plaintiff in the year 1891 and prior to the commencement of the actions, and the plaintiff is still the owner thereof, and, as such owner, has within the boundary of said lots, as shown upon said plat, and within the meander line of said lake described in said field notes, the full quantity of land above described as contained therein."

"* * * *"

"If the side lines of said lot three were produced and extended

Page 193 U. S. 172

in straight lines southerly from its southern boundary, as shown upon the government plat and as herein found and determined, and the said lot was so extended to the southerly boundary of said section 4, then in that event the said lot would not touch said Ely Lake, nor would there be any lake frontage thereon, and said lot would then contain one hundred and sixty acres of land; neither would said lines nor said lot reach said lake, no matter how far extended."

"If the side lines of said lot five were produced and extended easterly from the eastern boundary of said lot, as shown upon the government plat, and as herein found and determined, to the eastern boundary of said section 4, the northern line of said lot following the old meander line of said lake, and the southern line of said lot being produced and extended in a straight line, and said lot was so extended, then in that event the said lot would not touch said Ely Lake, nor would there be any lake frontage thereon, and said lot would contain about one hundred and twelve acres of land."

"If the side lines of lot six were produced and extended in straight lines easterly from the eastern boundary of said lot, as shown upon the government plat and as herein found and determined, to the eastern boundary of section 4, and said lot was so extended, then in that event the said lot would not touch said Ely Lake, nor would there be any lake frontage thereon, and said lot would then contain one hundred sixty acres of land."

"If the side lines of said lot seven were produced and extended in straight lines easterly from its eastern boundary, as shown upon the government plat and as herein found and determined, to the eastern boundary of said section 4, and the said lot was so extended, in that event the south line of said lot would touch said Ely Lake, and a few feet of lake frontage would then be contained in said lot, and said lot would contain about one hundred and thirty-nine acres of land."

"I further find that it would be impossible to extend said lots within their respective side lines, as above specified, without

Page 193 U. S. 173

instant and irreconcilable interference with each other, and that no one of said lots has any prior or superior right over any of the others to be so extended. "

Page 193 U. S. 178

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