Rhode Island v. MassachusettsAnnotate this Case
45 U.S. 591 (1846)
U.S. Supreme Court
Rhode Island v. Massachusetts, 45 U.S. 4 How. 591 591 (1846)
Rhode Island v. Massachusetts
45 U.S. (4 How.) 591
The grant of Massachusetts, confirmed in 1620, included the territory "lying within the space of three English miles on the south part of Charles River, or of any or every part thereof."
In 1662, the grant of Connecticut called to be bounded on the north by the line of the Massachusetts plantations.
In 1663, the grant of Rhode Island called to be bounded on the north by the southerly line of Massachusetts.
Whether the measurement of the three miles shall be from the body of the river, or from the headwaters of the streams which fall into it, is not clear. The charter may be construed either way without doing violence to its language.
The early exposition of it is not to be disregarded, although it may not be conclusive.
In 1642, Woodward and Saffrey fixed a station three miles south of the southernmost part of one of the tributaries of Charles River.
An express order of the Crown was not necessary to run this line, as it was not then a case of disputed boundary.
In 1702, commissioners were appointed by Massachusetts and Rhode Island to run the boundary line, who admitted the correctness of the former line.
In 1710, Rhode Island appointed an agent to conclude the matter on such terms as he might judge most proper, who agreed that the stake set up by Woodward and Saffrey should be considered as the commencement of the line.
In 1711, Rhode Island sanctioned this agreement.
In 1718, Rhode Island again appointed commissioners with power to settle the line, who agreed that the line should begin at the same place. This was accepted by Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the line run accordingly by commissioners, and the running approved by Rhode Island.
The allegation that the commissioners of Rhode Island were mistaken as to a fact, and believed that the stake was within three miles of the main river and not one of its tributaries, is difficult to establish and cannot be assumed against transactions which strongly imply, if they do not prove, the knowledge.
If the first commission was mistaken, it almost surpasses belief that the second should again be misled.
To sustain the allegation of a mistake, it must be made to appear not only that the station was not within the charter, but that the commissioners believed it to be within three miles of the river, and that they had no knowledge of a fact as to the location of it which should have led them to make inquiry on the subject.
Even if the calls of the charter had been deviated from, which is not clear, still Rhode Island would be bound, because her commissioners were authorized to compromise the dispute.
It is doubtful whether a court of chancery could relieve against a mistake committed by so high an agency, in a recent occurrence. It is certain that it could not, except on the clearest proof of mistake.
This mistake is not clearly established, either in the construction of the charter, or as to the location of the Woodward and Saffrey station.
Even if the mistake were proved, it would be difficult to disturb a possession of two centuries by Massachusetts under an assertion of right, with the claim admitted by Rhode Island and other colonies in the most solemn form.
For the security of rights, whether of states or individuals, long possession, under a claim of title, is protected. And there is no controversy in which this great principle may be invoked with greater justice and propriety, than in a case of disputed boundary.
This was a case of original jurisdiction in the Supreme Court, which now came up for final argument, having been partly discussed at a former term, and reported in 12 Pet..
A full statement of the case, with an analysis of the historical documents filed by the respective parties, would require a volume. The facts are summarily recited in the opinion of the Court, which the reader is requested to peruse before reading the arguments of counsel.
MR. JUSTICE McLEAN delivered the opinion of the Court.
We approach this case under a due sense of the dignity of the parties, and of the importance of the principles which it involves.
The jurisdiction of the Court having been settled at a former term, we have now only to ascertain and determine the boundary in dispute. This, disconnected with the consequences which follow, is a simple question, differing little, if any, in principle from a disputed line between individuals. It involves neither a cession of territory nor the exercise of a political jurisdiction. In settling the rights of the respective parties, we do nothing more than ascertain the true boundary, and the territory up to that line on either side necessarily falls within the proper jurisdiction.
James the First, on 3 November, 1620, granted to the Council established at Plymouth the territory on the Atlantic lying between forty and forty-eight degrees of north latitude, extending westward to the sea. And on 19 March, 1628, the Council of Plymouth granted to Henry Roswell and others the Territory of Massachusetts, which was confirmed by Charles the First, 4 March, 1629. This grant was limited to the territory
"lying within the space of three English miles on the south part of Charles River or of any or every part thereof, and also all and singular the lands and hereditaments whatsoever lying and being within the space of three English miles to the southward of the southernmost part of Massachusetts Bay, and also all those lands and heraditaments whatsoever which lie and be within the space of three English miles to the northward of the Merrimack River or to the northward of any every part thereof,"
extending westward the same breadth to the sea.
On 13 January, 1629, the Council of Plymouth granted to the Colony of Plymouth, which on the same day was sanctioned by Charles the First,
"all that part of New England, in America aforesaid, and tract or tracts of land that lie within or between a certain rivulet or runlet there commonly called Coahasset towards the north, and the river commonly called Narraganset River towards the south,"
The Council of Plymouth surrendered its charter to the King 7 June, 1635. On 23 April, 1662, Charles the Second granted the Territory of the Colony of Connecticut,
"bounded on the east by Narraganset River, commonly called Narraganset Bay, where the said river falleth into the sea, and on the north by the line of the Massachusetts plantation,"
The charter of Rhode Island was granted 8 July, 1663, by Charles the Second, limited on the north by the southerly line of Massachusetts.
It thus appears that the disputed line is the common boundary between Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the latter lying south of the line, and the former north of it. The true location of this line settles this controversy.
More than two hundred years have elapsed since the emanation of the Massachusetts charter, calling for this boundary, and more than one hundred and eighty years, since the date of the Rhode Island charter. In looking at transactions so remote, we must, as far as practicable, view things as they were seen and understood at the time they transpired. There is no other test of truth and justice, which applies to the variable condition of all human concerns.
The words of the Massachusetts charter, "lying within the space of three English miles on the south part of Charles River, or of any or every part thereof," do not convey so clear and definite an idea as to be susceptible of but one construction. Whether
the measurement of the three miles shall be from the body of the river, or from the headwaters of the streams which fall into it, are questions which different minds may not answer in the same way. That the tributary streams of a river in one sense constitute a part of it is clear, but whether they come within the meaning of the charter is the matter in controversy. The early exposition of this instrument by those who claimed under it is not to be disregarded, though it may not be conclusive.
This line is said to have been often a matter of controversy between the Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts as early as 1638, and that in that year Nathaniel Woodward took an observation upon part of Charles River, 41