Winters v. United States,
207 U.S. 564 (1908)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Winters v. United States, 207 U.S. 564 (1908)

Winters v. United States

No. 158

Argued October 24, 1907

Decided January 6, 1908

207 U.S. 564


The rule that all the parties must join in an appeal or writ of error unless properly detached from the right so to do applies only to joint judgments and decrees. This Court has jurisdiction of an appeal taken or writ of error sued out by one of several defendants if his interest is separate from that of the other defendants.

In a suit against several defendants as trespassers in which some of them defaulted and others answered, held, that each defendant was a separate trespasser and that, while those who defaulted were precluded from questioning the correctness of the decree entered against them, the answering defendants had nothing in common with the other, and could maintain an appeal without them.

In a conflict of implications, the instruments must be construed according to the implication having the greater force, and, in the interpretation of agreements and treaties with Indians, ambiguities should be resolved from the standpoint of the Indians.

In view of all the circumstances of the transaction, this Court holds that there was an implied reservation in the agreement of May 1, 1888, 25 Stat. 124, with the Gros Ventre and other Indians establishing the Fort Belknap Reservation, of a sufficient amount of water from the Milk River for irrigation purposes, which was not affected by the subsequent Act of February 22, 1889, 25 Stat. 676, admitting Montana to the Union, and that the water of that river cannot be diverted, so as to prejudice this right of the Indians, by settlers on the public lands or those claiming riparian rights on that river.

The government of the United States has the power to reserve waters of a river flowing through a territory and exempt them from appropriation under the laws of the state which that territory afterwards becomes,

148 F. 684 affirmed.

This suit was brought by the United States to restrain appellants and others from constructing or maintaining dams or reservoirs on the Milk River in the State of Montana, or in any manner preventing the water of the river or its tributaries from flowing to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

An interlocutory order was granted enjoining the defendants in the suit from interfering in any manner with the use by the reservation of 5,000 inches of the water of the river. The order was affirmed by the circuit court of appeals. 143 F. 740. Upon the return of the case to the circuit court, an order was taken pro confesso against five of the defendants. The appellants filed a joint and several answer, upon which and the bill a decree was entered making the preliminary injunction permanent. The decree was affirmed by the circuit court of appeals. 148 F. 684.

The allegations of the bill, so far as necessary to state them, are as follows: on the first day of May 1888, a tract of land, the property of the United States, was reserved and set apart

"as an Indian reservation as and for a permanent home and abiding place of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine bands or tribes of Indians in the State (then Territory) of Montana, designated and known as the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation."

The tract has ever since been used as an Indian reservation and as the home and abiding place of the Indians. Its boundaries were fixed and defined as follows:

"Beginning at a point in the middle of the main channel of Milk River, opposite the mouth of Snake Creek; thence due south to a point due west of the western extremity of the Little Rocky Mountains; thence due east to the crest of said mountains at their western extremity, and thence following the southern crest of said mountains to the eastern extremity thereof; thence in a northerly direction in a direct line to a point in the middle of the main channel of Milk River opposite the mouth of People's Creek; thence up Milk River, in the middle of the main channel thereof, to the place of beginning."

Milk River, designated as the northern boundary of the

Page 207 U. S. 566

reservation, is a nonnavigable stream. Large portions of the lands embraced within the reservation are well fitted and adapted for pasturage and the feeding and grazing of stock, and since the establishment of the reservation, the United States and the Indians have had and have large herds of cattle and large numbers of horses grazing upon the land within the reservation, "being and situate along and bordering upon said Milk River." Other portions of the reservation are

"adapted for and susceptible of farming and cultivation and the pursuit of agriculture, and productive in the raising thereon of grass, grain, and vegetables,"

but such portions are of dry and arid character, and, in order to make them productive, require large quantities of water for the purpose of irrigating them. In 1889, the United States constructed houses and buildings upon the reservation for the occupancy and residence of the officers in charge of it, and such officers depend entirely for their domestic, culinary, and irrigation purposes upon the water of the river. In the year 1889, and long prior to the acts of the defendants complained of, the United States, through its officers and agents at the reservation, appropriated and took from the river a flow of 1,000 miners' inches, and conducted it to the buildings and premises, used the same for domestic purposes and also for the irrigation of land adjacent to the buildings and premises, and by the use thereof raised crops of grain, grass, and vegetables. Afterwards, but long prior to the acts of the defendants complained of, to-wit, on the fifth of July, 1898, the Indians residing on the reservation diverted from the river for the purpose of irrigation a flow of 10,000 miners' inches of water to and upon divers and extensive tracts of land, aggregating in amount about 30,000 acres, and raised upon said lands crops of grain, grass, and vegetables. And ever since 1889 and July, 1898, the United States and the Indians have diverted and used the waters of the river in the manner and for the purposes mentioned, and the United States

"has been enabled by means thereof to train, encourage, and accustom large numbers of Indians residing upon the said reservation

Page 207 U. S. 567

to habits of industry and to promote their civilization and improvement."

It is alleged with detail that all of the waters of the river are necessary for all those purposes and the purposes for which the reservation was created, and that, in furthering and advancing the civilization and improvement of the Indians, and to encourage habits of industry and thrift among them, it is essential and necessary that all of the waters of the river flow down the channel uninterruptedly and undiminished in quantity and undeteriorated in quality.

It is alleged that, "notwithstanding the riparian and other rights" of the United States and the Indians to the uninterrupted flow of the waters of the river, the defendants, in the year 1900, wrongfully entered upon the river and its tributaries above the points of the diversion of the waters of the river by the United States and the Indians, built large and substantial dams and reservoirs, and, by means of canals and ditches and waterways, have diverted the waters of the river from its channel, and have deprived the United States and the Indians of the use thereof. And this diversion of the water, it is alleged, has continued until the present time, to the irreparable injury of the United States, for which there is no adequate remedy at law.

The allegations of the answer, so far as material to the present controversy, are as follows: that the lands of the Fort Belknap Reservation were a part of a much larger area in the State of Montana which, by an Act of Congress approved April 15, 1874, 18 Stat. 28, c. 96, was set apart and reserved for the occupation of the Gros Ventre, Piegan, Blood, Blackfeet, and River Crow Indians, but that the right of the Indians therein "was the bare right of the use and occupation thereof at the will and sufferance of the government of the United States." That the United States, for the purpose of opening for settlement a large portion of such area, entered into an agreement with the Indians composing said tribes by which the Indians "ceded, sold, transferred, and conveyed" to the United States all of the lands embraced in said area, except Fort Belknap Indian Reservation,

Page 207 U. S. 568

described in the bill. This agreement was ratified by an Act of Congress of May 1, 1888, 25 Stat. 113, c. 213, and thereby the lands to which the Indians' title was thus extinguished became a part of the public domain of the United States and subject to disposal under the various land laws,

"and it was the purpose and intention of the government that the said land should be thus thrown open to settlement, to the end that the same might be settled upon, inhabited, reclaimed, and cultivated, and communities of civilized persons be established thereon."

That the individual defendants and the stockholders of the Matheson Ditch Company and Cook's Irrigation Company were qualified to become settlers upon the public land and to acquire title thereto under the homestead and desert land laws of the United States. And that said corporations were organized and exist under the laws of Montana for the purpose of supplying to their said stockholders the water of Milk River and its tributaries, to be used by them in the irrigation of their lands.

That the defendant the Empire Cattle Company is a corporation under the laws of Montana, was legally entitled to purchase, and did purchase, from those who were qualified to acquire them under the desert and homestead land laws of the United States, lands on the Milk River and its tributaries, and is now the owner and holder thereof.

That the defendants, prior to the fifth day of July, 1898, and before any appropriation, diversion, or use of the waters of the river or its tributaries was made by the United States or the Indians on the Fort Belknap Reservation, except a pumping plant of the capacity of about 250 miners' inches, without having notice of any claim made by the United States or the Indians that there was any reservation made of the waters of the river or its tributaries for use on said reservation, and believing that all the waters on the lands open for settlement as aforesaid were subject to appropriation under the laws of the United States and the laws, decisions, rulings, and customs

Page 207 U. S. 569

of the State of Montana, in like manner as water on other portions of the public domain, entered upon the public lands in the vicinity of the river, made entry thereof at the United States land office, and thereafter settled upon, improved, reclaimed, and cultivated the same and performed all things required to acquire a title under the homestead and desert land laws, made due proof thereof, and received patents conveying to them, respectively, the lands in fee simple.

That all of said lands are situated within the watershed of the river, are riparian upon the river and its tributaries, but are arid and must be irrigated by artificial means to make them inhabitable and capable of growing crops.

That, for the purpose of reclaiming the lands, and acting under the laws of the United States and the laws of Montana, the defendants, respectively, posted upon the river and its tributaries at the points of intended diversion, notices of appropriation, stating the means of diversion and place of use, and thereafter filed in the office of the clerk and recorder of the county wherein the lands were situated a copy of the notices, duly verified, and within forty days thereafter commenced the construction of ditches and other instrumentalities, and completed them with diligence, and diverted, appropriated, and applied to a beneficial use more than 5,000 miners' inches of the waters of the river and its tributaries, of 120 cubic feet per second, irrigating their lands and producing hay, grain, and other crops thereon. The defendants and the stockholders of the defendant corporations have expended many thousands of dollars in constructing dams, ditches, and reservoirs and in improving said lands, building fences and other structures, establishing schools, and constructing highways and other improvements usually had and enjoyed in a civilized community, and that the only supply of water to irrigate the lands is from Milk River. If defendants are deprived of the waters, their lands cannot be successfully cultivated, and they will become useless and homes cannot be maintained thereon.

That there are other lands within the watershed of the

Page 207 U. S. 570

Milk River and its tributaries and dependent upon its waters for irrigation, upon which large numbers of persons have settled under the land laws of the United States, and are irrigating and cultivating the same by means of said waters, and have assisted the defendants

"in establishing a civilized community in said country and in building and maintaining churches, schools, villages, and other elements and accompaniments of civilization; that said communities consist of thousands of people, and, if the claim of the United States and the Indians be maintained, the lands of the defendants and the other settlers will be rendered valueless, the said communities will be broken up, and the purpose and object of the government in opening said lands for settlement will be wholly defeated."

It is alleged that there are a large number of springs on the reservation and several streams from which water can be obtained for stock and irrigation purposes, and particularly these: People Creek, flowing about 1,000 inches of water; Big Horn Creek, flowing about 1,000 inches; Lodge Pole Creek, flowing about 600 inches of water; Clear Creek flowing about 300 inches. That all of the waters of these streams can be made available for use upon the reservation, and that it was not the intention of the government to reserve any of the waters of Milk River or its tributaries. That the respective claims of the defendants to the waters of the river and its tributaries are prior and paramount to the claims of the United States and the Indians, except as to 250 inches used in and around the agency buildings, and at all times there has been sufficient water flowing down the river to more than supply these 250 inches.

And it is again alleged that the waters of the river are indispensable to defendants, are of the value of more than $100,000 to them, and that, if they are deprived of the waters,

"their lands will be ruined, it will be necessary to abandon their homes, and they will be greatly and irreparably damaged, the extent and amount of which damage cannot now be estimated, but will greatly exceed $100,000,"

and that they will

Page 207 U. S. 571

be wholly without remedy if the claim of the United States and the Indians be sustained.

Page 207 U. S. 574

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