Statutes of limitation with regard to land affect the right even
if in terms only directed against the remedy. The Act of March 3,
1891, c. 561, § 8, 26 Stat. 1099, providing that suit to vacate and
annul patents theretofore issued shall only be brought within five
years after the passage of the act, applies to a void patent, and
where suit has not been brought within the prescribed period, a
patent of public land, whether reserved or not, must be held good,
and to have the same effect a though valid in the first place.
On the admission of Michigan to the Union, the bed of the Sault
Ste. Marie, whether strait or river, passed to the state, and small
unsurveyed island therein became subject to the law of the
By the law of Michigan, a grant of land bounded by a stream
whether navigable in fact or not, carries with it the bed of the
stream to the center of the thread thereof, and under this rule,
the patentee of government
Page 209 U. S. 448
land bordering on the Sault Ste. Marie takes to the center line,
including small unsurveyed islands between the mainland and the
center line; nor are the rights of riparian owners to the center
affected by the fact that the stream is a boundary.
152 F. 25 affirmed.
The facts are stated in the opinion.
Page 209 U. S. 449
MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.
This is a bill in equity brought by the United States to remove
a cloud from its alleged title to two islands, numbered 1 and 2, in
the Sault Ste. Marie, between Lake Huron and Lake Superior. The
islands are in the rapids of the river or strait, on the American
side of the Canada boundary line, and near to a strip of shore
lying between the rapids and the United States ship canal referred
to in United States v. Michigan, 190 U.
. The defendant claims this strip and the islands
under a patent from the United States, dated December 15, 1883,
describing that land as bounded by the River St. Mary on the east,
north, and west. The United States says that the patent was void
because the land had been reserved for public purposes, and that,
even if it was valid, the islands did not pass. The defendant
replies that the land was not reserved, and also sets up the
statute of limitations. Act of March 3, 1891, c. 561, § 8. 26 Stat.
1099. The circuit court dismissed the bill, and its decree was
affirmed by the circuit court of appeals. 152 F. 25.
There is force in the contention of the United States that the
land was reserved and that it had not been surveyed, but we find it
unnecessary to state or pass upon the arguments, because we are of
opinion that now the patent must be assumed
Page 209 U. S. 450
to be good. The statute just referred to provides that "suits by
the United States to vacate and annul any patent heretofore issued
shall only be brought within five years from the passage of this
act" -- that is to say, from March 3, 1891. This land, whether
reserved or not, was public land of the United States, and in kind
open to sale and conveyance through the Land Department. United
States v. Winona & St. Peter R. Co., 165 U.
, 165 U. S. 476
The patent had been issued in 1883 by the President in due form and
in the regular way. Whether or not he had authority to make it, the
United States had power to make it or to validate it when made,
since the interest of the United States was the only one concerned.
We can see no reason for doubting that the statute, which is the
voice of the United States, had that effect. It is said that the
instrument was void, and hence was no patent. But the statute
presupposes an instrument that might be declared void. When it
refers to "any patent heretofore issued," it describes the purport
and source of the document, not its legal effect. If the act were
confined to valid patents, it would be almost or quite without use.
2 Black 599.
In form, the statute only bars suits to annul the patent. But
statutes of limitation, with regard to land at least, which cannot
escape from the jurisdiction, generally are held to affect the
right, even if in terms only directed against the remedy.
2 Black 599, 67 U. S. 605
Sharon v. Tucker, 144 U. S. 533
Davis v. Mills, 194 U. S. 451
194 U. S. 457
This statute must be taken to mean that the patent is to be held
good, and is to have the same effect against the United States that
it would have had if it had been valid in the first place. See
United States v. Winona & St. Peter R. Co., 165 U.
, 165 U. S.
We waste no time upon suggestions of bad faith on the one side
or the other, as there is no sufficient warrant for them, and as
they were touched, rather than pressed, at the argument. The only
other question is whether the United States has title to the
islands, notwithstanding its patent and notwithstanding
Page 209 U. S. 451
the incorporation of Michigan as a state. The bill admits and
alleges that the bed of the river, or strait, surrounding the
islands passed to Michigan when Michigan became a state,
3 How. 212; Shively v. Bowlby,
152 U. S. 1
to the same public trusts and limitations as lands under tidewaters
on the borders of the sea. Illinois Central R. Co. v.
Illinois, 146 U. S. 387
it sets up that the islands remained the property of the United
States, and it argues that, in such circumstances, the islands did
not pass by the patent of the neighboring land.
The act offering Michigan admission to the Union provided that
no right was conferred upon the state "to interfere with the sale
by the United States, and under their authority, of the vacant and
unsold lands within the limits of the said state." Act of June 15,
1836, c. 99, § 4. 5 Stat. 49, 50. And again, by a condition that
the state should "never interfere with the primary disposal of the
soil within the same by the United States." Act of June 23, 1836,
c. 121. Fifth.
5 Stat. 59, 60. The islands are little more
than rocks, rising very slightly above the level of the water and
contain respectively a small fraction of an acre and a little more
than an acre. They were unsurveyed and of no apparent value. We
cannot think that these provisions excepted such islands from the
admitted transfer to the state of the bed of the streams
surrounding them. If they did not, then, whether the title remains
in the state or passed to the defendant with the land conveyed by
the patent, the bill must fail.
The bed of the river could not be conveyed by the patent of the
United States alone, but, if such is the law of the state, the bed
will pass to the patentee by the help of that law unless there is
some special reason to the contrary to be found in cases like
Illinois Central R. Co. v. Illinois, 146 U.
. This view is well established. Grand Rapids
& Indiana R. Co. v. Butler, 159 U. S.
, 159 U. S. 93
Hardin v. Shedd, 190 U. S. 508
190 U. S. 519
The right of the state to grant lands covered by tidewaters or
navigable lakes, and the qualifications, as
Page 209 U. S. 452
stated in Shively v. Bowlby, 152 U. S.
, 152 U. S. 47
that the state may use or dispose of any portion of the same
"when that can be done without substantial impairment of the
interest of the public in such waters, and subject to the paramount
right of Congress to control their navigation so far as may be
necessary for the regulation of commerce."
But it cannot be pretended that private ownership of the bed of
the stream or of the islands, subject to the public rights, will
impair the interest of the public in the waters of the Sault Ste.
Marie. See Kaukauna Water Power Co. v. Green Bay &
Mississippi Canal Co., 142 U. S. 254
142 U. S.
-272. Therefore, if, by the law of Michigan, the bed
of the river or strait would pass to a grantee of the upland, we
may assume that it passed to the defendant, and we may assume
further that the islands also passed. If, as we think, they
belonged to the state, they passed along with the bed of the river.
If they had belonged to the United States, probably they would have
passed as unsurveyed islands and neglected fragments pass.
Whitaker v. McBride, 197 U. S. 510
Grand Rapids & Indiana R. Co. v. Butler, 159 U. S.
, 159 U. S. 91
Of course, other nice questions are suggested and might be asked --
for instance, how it would be if the title to the bed of the stream
was in the state and did not pass with the upland, and the islands
remained to the United States. It still would be a reasonable
proposition that the islands followed the upland. But, in the view
that we have taken, that may be left in doubt.
The question, then, is narrowed to whether the bed of the strait
is held to pass by the laws of Michigan. We are content to assume
that the waters are public waters. The
Genesee Chief v. Fitzhugh,
12 How. 443,
53 U. S. 457
But, whatever may be the law as to lands under the great lakes,
People v. Silberwood,
110 Mich. 103, we believe that the
law still is as it was declared to be in Grand Rapids &
Indiana R. Co. v. Butler, 159 U. S. 87
159 U. S. 94
that "a grant of land bounded by a stream, whether navigable in
fact or not, carries with it the bed of the stream to the center of
the thread thereof," and that this
Page 209 U. S. 453
applies to the Sault Ste. Marie, whatever it be called. The fact
that it is a boundary has not been held to make a difference. The
riparian proprietors upon it own to the center. Ryan v.
18 Mich. 196; Scranton v. Wheeler,
565, 567; Demp v. Stradley,
134 Mich. 676. See also
Scranton v. Wheeler,
57 F. 803, 812; Lorman v.
8 Mich. 18; Water Commissioners v. Detroit,
117 Mich. 458, 462. We see no plausible ground for the claim of the
MR. JUSTICE HARLAN dissents.