Gibson v. Chouteau
80 U.S. 92 (1871)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Gibson v. Chouteau, 80 U.S. 13 Wall. 92 92 (1871)

Gibson v. Chouteau

80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 92

Syllabus

1. Statutes of limitation of a state do not apply to the state itself unless it is expressly designated or the mischiefs to be remedied are of such a nature that it must necessarily be included, and they do not apply to the United States.

2. The power of Congress in the disposal of the public domain cannot be interfered with or its exercise embarrassed by any state legislation, nor can such legislation deprive the grantees of the United States for the possession and enjoyment of the property granted by reason of any delay in the transfer of the title after the initiation of proceedings for its acquisition.

Page 80 U. S. 93

3. The patent is the instrument which, under the laws of Congress, passes the title of the United States, and in the action of ejectment in the federal courts for lands derived from the United States the patent, when regular on its face, is conclusive evidence of title in the patentee. And in the action of ejectment in the state courts when the question presented is whether the plaintiff or the defendant has the superior legal title from the United States, the patent is also conclusive.

4. The occupation of lands derived from the United States, before the issue of their patent, for the period prescribed by the statutes of limitation of a state for the commencement of actions for the recovery of real property is not a bar to an action of ejectment for the possession of such lands founded upon the legal title subsequently conveyed by the patent. Nor does such occupation constitute a sufficient equity in favor of the occupant to control the legal title thus subsequently conveyed, whether asserted in a separate suit in a federal court, or set up as an equitable defense to an action of ejectment in a state court.

5. The doctrine of relation is a fiction of law adopted by the courts solely for the purposes of justice, and where several proceedings are required to perfect a conveyance of land, it is only applied for the security and protection of persons who stand in some privity with the party that initiated the proceedings and acquired the equitable claim or right to the title. It does not affect strangers not connecting themselves with the equitable claim or right by any valid transfer from the original or any subsequent holder.

Gibson brought ejectment in the St. Louis Land court against Chouteau to recover sixty-four acres of land in the County of St. Louis, Missouri. By consent of parties, the case was tried by the court without a jury. On the trial, the plaintiff claimed title to the demanded premises under a patent of the United States issued to his immediate grantor, which he produced. The facts which led to the issue of the patent were these:

As early as September, 1803, as appeared from the record, one James Y. O'Carroll obtained permission from the Spanish authorities to settle on vacant lands in the District of New Madrid, in the Territory of Louisiana. In pursuance of this permission, he occupied and cultivated, previously to December 20 of that year portions of a tract embracing one thousand arpents of land in that part of the country which afterwards constituted the County of New Madrid in the Territory of Missouri. After the cession of Louisiana

Page 80 U. S. 94

to the United States, he claimed the land by virtue of his settlement, and this claim was subsequently confirmed to him and his legal representatives, under different acts of Congress, to the extent of six hundred and forty acres.

In 1812, a large part of the land in the County of New Madrid was injured by earthquakes, and in 1815 Congress passed an act for the relief of parties who had thus suffered. [Footnote 1] By this act, persons whose lands had been materially injured were authorized to locate a like quantity of land on any of the public lands in the Territory of Missouri, the sale of which was authorized by law. And it was made the duty of the recorder of land titles in the territory, when it appeared to him from the oath or affirmation of a competent witness or witnesses that any person was entitled to a tract of land under the provisions of the act, to issue to him a certificate to that effect. On this certificate, upon the application of the claimant, a location was to be made by the principal deputy surveyor of the territory, who was required to cause the location to be surveyed and a plat of the same to be returned to the recorder with a notice designating the tract located and the name of the claimant.

The act further provided for a report to be forwarded by the recorder to the Commissioner of the General Land Office of the claims allowed and locations made, and for the delivery to each claimant of a certificate of his claim and location which should entitle him, on its being transmitted to the commissioner, "to a patent to be issued in like manner as is provided by law for other public lands of the United States." The act also declared that in all cases where the location was made under its provisions, the title of the claimant to the injured land should revert to and vest in the United States.

The land claimed by O'Carroll in New Madrid County, afterwards confirmed to him, as already stated, to the extent of six hundred and forty acres, was injured by earthquakes, and in November, 1815, the recorder of land titles in St.

Page 80 U. S. 95

Louis, upon proper proof of the fact, gave a certificate to that effect and stating that under the act of Congress, O'Carroll or his legal representatives were entitled to locate a like quantity on any of the public lands of the Territory of Missouri, the sale of which was authorized by law.

In June, 1818, a location of the land was made on behalf of one Christian Wilt, who had become by mesne conveyances the owner of the interest of O'Carroll. The land thus located had been previously surveyed by the deputy surveyor of the territory, but from some unexplained cause the survey and plat thereof were not returned to the recorder until August, 1841. The recorder then issued a patent certificate to "James Y. O'Carroll or his legal representatives." A report of the location was also made by him, as required by the act of Congress, to the Commissioner of the General Land Office, but it appeared that the survey of the location did not meet the approval of that officer, as it did not show its interferences with conflicting claims. Accordingly, in a communication dated in March, 1847, the commissioner required the Surveyor General of Missouri to examine into the interferences and ascertain the residue of the O'Carroll claim, and stated that on the return to the land office "of a proper plat and patent certificate for said residue, a patent" would issue. Under these instructions, a new survey and plat were made showing the interferences of the survey with other claims, and on the 26th of March, 1862, were filed with the recorder, and a new patent certificate was issued. Upon the corrected survey and plat and new certificate, the patent of the United States was, in June, 1862, issued to Mary McRee, who had acquired by various mesne conveyances the interest of Wilt in the land. In August following, she conveyed to the plaintiff.

On the trial, the defendants endeavored to show that they had become, through certain legal proceedings, the owners of the interest originally possessed by Wilt, and consequently had acquired the equitable title to the land upon which they could defend against the patent, under the practice which prevails in Missouri. But in this endeavor they failed, the

Page 80 U. S. 96

supreme court of the state holding that the conveyances under which they claimed were inoperative and void.

The defendants also relied upon a deed of Samuel McRee and wife, [Footnote 2] executed in 1838, contending that by operation of the deed under the statutes of Missouri, the equitable title which these grantors had subsequently acquired to the land and also the legal title conveyed by the patent to Mrs. McRee enured to the benefit of the defendants; but the supreme court held that the deed only had the effect of a quitclaim of an existing interest, and did not affect any subsequently acquired title.

The rulings of the state court upon these grounds were not open to review in this Court, as they involved no questions of federal jurisdiction. But it also appeared in evidence that the defendants, previous to the issue of the patent, had been in the possession of the demanded premises more than ten years, the period prescribed by the statute of Missouri within which actions for the recovery of real property must be brought. By the statutes of the state, the action of ejectment will lie on certain equitable titles. It may be maintained on a New Madrid location against any person not having a better title. [Footnote 3] The defendants therefore contended that the statute of limitation, which had run against the equitable title, created by the location of the O'Carroll claim, was also a bar to the present action founded upon the legal title, acquired by the patent of the United States.

The Land court held that the effect of the patent issued by the United States to Mrs. McRee was to invest her with the legal title to the land in dispute, and that the title vested in the plaintiff through the deed to him from Mrs. McRee was superior to any title shown by the defendants to the land in question under the New Madrid certificate of location, and that the said patent having issued to Mrs. McRee within ten years next before the commencement of this suit, the possession of the defendants was not a bar to the

Page 80 U. S. 97

plaintiff's recovery, and gave verdict and judgment accordingly for the plaintiff. From the judgment the case was taken to the supreme court of the state, and was twice heard there. Upon the first hearing, the court affirmed the decision of the inferior court, holding that

"until the patent issued, the legal title remained in the United States, and the statute of limitations did not begin to run against the plaintiff before the date of that patent."

On the second hearing, the court adhered to all its previous rulings except that which related to the effect of the statute of limitations, and upon that it changed its previous ruling and held that the statute barred the right of action upon the patent. In its opinion given on the second decision, after referring to its previous conclusion, cited above, it said:

"This conclusion proceeded upon the ground that although the action given by the statute upon the equitable right only, which had passed out of the United States, might be barred, it did not follow that an action based upon the right of entry by virtue of the absolute legal title by patent would also be barred. The idea that the fiction of relation could be applied not only to carry the legal title to the owner of the inceptive right through the intermediate conveyances, but also for the purpose of bringing it within the operation of the statute of limitations from the date of the inceptive equity, had not been suggested and had not occurred to us."

Again the court, after recognizing the fact that the legal title remained in the United States till the patent issued, and that the location only gave an equitable right, upon which an action was sustainable in the state courts by virtue of the state statute, said:

"The two rights of entry therefore are distinct in themselves, and the causes of action have a different foundation. The possession of the land is claimed in both, but by different rights, and if there were nothing more, the one cause of action might be barred and not the other. But there is another principle upon which we think the statute may be made to operate here as a bar to the plaintiff's action, and that is the fiction of relation, whereby the legal title is to be considered as passing

Page 80 U. S. 98

out of the United States through the patent at its date, but as instantly dropping back in time to the date of the location as the first act or inception of the conveyance, to vest the title in the owner of the equity as of that date and make it pass from him to the patentee named through all the intermediate conveyances, and so that the two rights of entry and the two causes of action are thus merged in one, and the statute may be held to have operated on both at once. The legal title, on making this circuit, necessarily runs around the period of the statute bar, and the action founded on this new right is met by the statute on its way and cut off with that which existed before."

The supreme court accordingly reversed the decision of the Land court, and the case was brought here on writ of error under the 25th section of the Judiciary Act, and is reported in Gibson v. Chouteau, 8 Wall. 314. When presented, the record disclosed questions respecting the validity of Mrs. McRee's title, the transfer of her title to the plaintiff, and the trust asserted by which it was contended that the plaintiff's title enured to the benefit of the defendants, as well as the statute of limitations. This Court therefore, as the report already mentioned shows, dismissed the writ of error because the record did not show that the decision of the state court turned on the question of the statute of limitations or that the determination of this question against the plaintiff was essential to the second judgment rendered.

When the case went back to the supreme court of the state, that court set aside its judgment, stating that it had been rendered on the question of the statute of limitations, but that by a clerical error such fact was not stated therein. The case was then again submitted to that court, and the court then adjudged that the plaintiff was barred by the statute of limitations, all other questions being determined in his favor. It was this judgment which was now brought before this Court on writ of error.

Page 80 U. S. 99

Official Supreme Court caselaw is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia caselaw is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.