Lewis v. Marshall
30 U.S. 470 (1831)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Lewis v. Marshall, 30 U.S. 5 Pet. 470 470 (1831)

Lewis v. Marshall

30 U.S. (5 Pet.) 470

Syllabus

By a statute of Kentucky passed in 1796, several defendants, who claim separate tracts of land from distinct sources of title, may be joined in the same suit.

The statute of limitations of Kentucky, under which adverse possession of land maybe set up, prescribes the limitation of twenty years within which suit must be brought, and provides

"That if any person or persons entitled to such writ or writs or title of entry shall be or were under the age of twenty-one years, feme covert, non compos mentis, imprisoned, or not within the commonwealth at the time such right accrued or came to them, every such person, his or her heirs, shall and may, notwithstanding the said twenty years are or shall be expired, bring or maintain his action or make his entry within ten years, next after such disabilities removed or death of the person so disabled, and not afterwards."

The entries on the register of burials of Christ's Church, St. Peter's and St. James' in Philadelphia and the entries of the death of the members of the family in a family bible are evidence in an action for the recovery of land in Kentucky to prove the period of the decease of the person named therein.

The statute of limitations of Kentucky is a bar to the claims of an heir to a nonresident patentee holding under a grant from the State of Kentucky founded on warrants issued out of the land office of Virginia prior to the separation of Kentucky from Virginia if possession has been taken in the lifetime of the patentee. Had the land descended to the heirs before a cause of action existed by an adverse possession, the statute could not operate against them until they came within the state. If adverse possession commences prior to the decease of the nonresident patentee, his heirs are limited to ten years from the time of the decease of their ancestor for the assertion of their claim.

That a statute of limitations may be set up in defense in equity, as well as at law, is a principle well settled.

Statutes of limitations have been emphatically and justly denominated statutes of repose. The best interests of society require that causes of action should not be deferred an unreasonable time. This remark is peculiarly applicable to land titles. Nothing so much retards the growth and prosperity of a country as insecurity of titles to real estate. Labor is paralyzed when the enjoyment of its fruits is uncertain, and litigation without limit produces ruinous consequences to the individuals. The Legislature of Kentucky has therefore wisely provided that unless suits for the recovery of land shall be brought within a limited period, they shall be barred by an adverse possession.

Page 30 U. S. 471

The appellants claimed in their bill under the heirs of Charles Willing, deceased, a tract of land in the State of Kentucky by virtue of certain entries made in the lifetime of Charles Willing with the proper surveyor on 27 December, 1783, and amended on 11 and 12 March, 1784, and carried into grant by virtue of legal and valid surveys. This entry was averred to be good and valid. The patent was dated thirty years before the filing of the bill.

The bill states that Thomas Barbor had, by and under a void entry, obtained the legal title, elder in date, to the title held by Charles Willing to a large portion of the land included in the patent to Charles Willing, and that the defendants had become vested with the title to the whole or parts of the land patented to Barbor and are in possession of the same. It prays that those who hold the said land under the elder legal title of Barbor may be decreed to convey the same to them, and for general relief.

The defendants, in their answer, resist the equity asserted by the complainants and assert that the entries of Charles Willing were void. They set up in addition to the entry of Barbor other claims and entries under which they, other than Marshall and Fowler, originally settled and held.

The validity of all that enters was denied by the complainants. These defendants rely upon twenty years' adverse possession prior to the commencement of the suit.

Humphrey Marshall resisted the equity claimed in the bill and asserted in himself a previously acquired title to 12,313 acres, part of the land in contest, under an entry in the name of Isaac Halbert. That he afterwards acquired from John Fowler an interest in Barbor's patent, exhibiting evidence of this asserted title.

He states that for a valuable consideration he had sold and conveyed, under Barbor's title, certain portions of land to his co-defendants, and exhibited the deeds showing the extent of the same and of the possession of each under the claim of Barbor. That these defendants were found by him in possession under claims adverse to Barbor's, and he compromised with them and gave them conveyances.

Page 30 U. S. 472

Thomas Barbor, on 23 September, 1804, conveyed the 4,530 acres patented by him to John Fowler.

In 1813, Halbert conveyed his title to H. Marshall. Neither Fowler or Marshall at these dates was in possession of any part of the land under either title, nor has either of them ever been in possession of any part of the interference.

In 1819, Marshall and Fowler entered into a contract by which Marshall was authorized to sell and convey to persons in possession the title of Barbor.

In support of the heirship of the complainants as the heirs of Charles Willing, the patentee, a deposition of William Jackson was taken, who deposed that he was acquainted with Charles Willing, late of Pennsylvania, and that he died in 1798; that Thomas Willing, Richard Willing, Elizabeth Willing, and George C. Willing were his only children and heirs. Also the deposition of A. G. Bird, the clerk of Christ's Church in Philadelphia, who swore that he has the register book of burials of said church, and copies from said book, an entry which is authenticated, and reads as follows: "Burial in Christ's Churchyard, 23 March, 1788, Charles Willing."

Richard Willing, of the City of Philadelphia, deposed that he has the family Bible of his father, Thomas Willing, who, he swears, was very particular in entering the names of the births, marriages and deaths of his, the said Thomas' brothers and sisters, and that in said Bible is the following entry or record: "Charles Willing, son of Charles and Ann Willing, died at Coventry farm, 23 March, 1788, and was interred in Christ's Churchyard."

The circuit court dismissed the bill, principally on the ground that the statute of limitations of the State of Kentucky, as applied to courts of equity, barred the claim of the complainants

The complainants appealed to this Court.

Page 30 U. S. 473

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