Whether particular lands patented by the United States to a
state have passed from the latter to one or the other of two
persons claiming adversely through the state is a question of local
law, but whether the patent from the United States embraced the
lands is a federal question.
Where public lands are patented "according to the official plat
of the survey returned to the General Land Office by the Surveyor
General," the notes, lines, landmarks, and other particulars
appearing upon the plat become as much a part of the patent, and
are as much
Page 232 U. S. 187
to be considered in determining what it is intended to include,
as if they were set forth in it.
The specification in a patent of the acreage of the land
conveyed is an element of the description, and, while of less
influence than other elements, is yet an aid in ascertaining what
land was intended.
A patent for "the whole" of a township "according to the
official plat of the survey" is here construed, in view of what
appeared upon the plat and of the acreage specified in the patent,
as embracing the whole of the surveyed lands in the township, but
not an unsurveyed area, approximating 8,000 acre, which was
represented upon the plat as a meandered body of water.
The Swamp Land Act of 1850, in itself, passed to the state only
an inchoate title, and not until the lands were listed and patented
under the act could the title become perfect.
The compromise and settlement negotiated in 1895 between the
United States and the State of Arkansas whereby the latter
relinquished it inchoate title to all swamp lands not theretofore
patented, approved, or confined to it is binding on the St. Francis
Levee District as a subordinate agency of the state. Little v.
Williams, 231 U. S. 335
100 Ark. 94 reversed.
The facts, which involve the construction of a patent for swamp
lands to a state and the extent of the lands conveyed thereby, are
stated in the opinion.
Page 232 U. S. 194
MR. JUSTICE VAN DEVANTER delivered the opinion of the Court.
The chief controversy in this case is over the title to about
1,500 acres of unsurveyed lands in Poinsett County, Arkansas, which
were part of the public domain at the date of the Swamp Land Act of
September 28, 1850, 9 Stat. 519, c. 84, and the federal question to
be considered is whether, under the operation and administration of
that act, these lands have passed from the United States, or are
still its property.
Although within the exterior lines of a township surveyed in
1840 and 1841, they, with other lands, were excluded from the
survey, were meandered as if they were a lake, and were designated
upon the official plat as a meandered body of water called "Sunk
Lands," a name frequently applied in that region to areas which
subsided during the New Madrid earthquake a little more than a
century ago, and subsequently became submerged. Other unsurveyed
areas, designated as meandered bodies of water, were also shown
upon the plat. The township was approximately six miles square, and
the plat bore an inscription to the effect that the total of the
surveyed areas was 14,329.97 acres, so the unsurveyed areas
represented as water must have amounted to 8,000 acres or more.
After the enactment of the Swamp Land Act, the state requested
that the township be listed as swamp lands and patented to it under
that act, both of which were done, the former in 1853 and the
latter in 1858. In requesting the listing, the state described the
township as containing 14,329.97 acres, the total of the surveyed
areas as inscribed upon the plat, and, in making the list, the
Secretary of the Interior took the same total and deducted 514.30
acres in fractional section 16 which already had passed to the
state under the school land grant,
Page 232 U. S. 195
thereby making the listed area 13,815.67 acres. The patent
embraced lands in several townships, the portion of the description
material here being:
"Township 12 North of Range 7 East. The whole of the township
(except Section 16) containing thirteen thousand, eight hundred and
fifteen acres and sixty-seven hundredths of an acre . . . according
to the official plats of survey of said lands returned to the
General Land Office by the Surveyor General."
In the state courts, the levee district, the plaintiff, claimed
title to the lands in controversy under the Swamp Land Act and an
act of the state legislature in 1893 (Laws Ark. 1893, p. 172),
granting to the levee district "all the lands of this state" lying
within the boundaries of the district, and the defendants opposed
this claim upon two grounds: one, that, if these lands had passed
to the state, the defendants had succeeded to the title by riparian
right in virtue of their ownership, under conveyances from the
state in 1871, of the fractional sections and subdivisions abutting
on the meandered area called "Sunk Lands," and the other, that the
lands in controversy had not passed to the state, but were still
the property of the United States. The trial court sustained the
plaintiff's claim and entered a decree accordingly, which was
affirmed by the supreme court of the state, the chief justice
dissenting. 100 Ark. 94.
Both courts found as matter of fact from the evidence produced
at the trial that at the time of the survey and at the date of the
Swamp Land Act the unsurveyed area designated upon the plat as
"Sunk Lands" was not a lake or permanent body of water, but only
temporarily overflowed, and was not distinctly lower or materially
different from the adjoining lands, and, with this as a premise, it
was held that the lands in controversy did not pass to the state or
to the defendants with the adjoining lands as an incident of
riparian ownership, but were conveyed
Page 232 U. S. 196
to the state by the patent issued in 1858, and thence to the
levee district by the state Act of 1893.
If the patent conveyed these lands to the state, we are not
concerned with their subsequent disposal, for that is a question of
local law. But did the patent include them? This, of course, is a
federal question. In answering it in the affirmative, the state
courts regarded the words "Sunk Lands," shown upon the plat, as
meaning that unsurveyed area to which they were applied was land,
and not water, and also regarded the words, "The whole of the
township (except Section sixteen)," as used in the patent, as
embracing all that was within the exterior lines of the township,
except Section 16, whether surveyed or unsurveyed, and even
although meandered and excluded from the survey. We are unable to
accede to this view of either the plat or the patent.
Had the plat shown that all the lands were surveyed, it
doubtless is true that the words "Sunk Lands" would not have
indicated the presence of a body of water, but would have been
taken in much the same way as would such words as "valley," "broken
hills," or "level plateau." But the plat showed, as did also the
field notes, that the area to which the words were applied was not
included in the survey, but was excluded therefrom, and meandered
as a body of water, and also that the adjoining sections and
subdivisions were surveyed as fractional, as is usual with lands
abutting on a lake or similar body of water. Thus, what appeared
upon the plat had the same meaning as if this area had been called
"Sunk Lands Lake." And that the officers of the state and of the
United States so understood is shown by the fact that, in the
proceedings preliminary to the issuance of the patent, as also in
the patent, this and similar areas were excluded in specifying the
amount of land in the township.
Of course, the words in the patent, "The whole of the township
(except Section sixteen)," are comprehensive,
Page 232 U. S. 197
but they are only one element in the description, and must be
read in the light of the others. The explanatory words "according
to the official plats of survey of said lands, returned to the
General Land Office by the Surveyor General" constitute another
element, and a very important one; for it is a familiar rule that,
where lands are patented according to such a plat, the notes,
lines, landmarks, and other particulars appearing thereon become as
much a part of the patent, and are as much to be considered in
determining what it is intended to include as if they were set
forth in the patent. Cragin v. Powell, 128 U.
, 128 U. S. 696
Jefferis v. East Omaha Land Co., 134 U.
, 134 U. S. 194
The specification of the acreage is still another element, and,
while of less influence than either of the others, it is yet an aid
in ascertaining what was intended; for a purpose to convey upwards
of 22,000 acres is hardly consistent with a specification of
13,815.67 acres. Ainsa v. United States, 161 U.
, 161 U. S. 229
Security Land Co. v. Burns, 193 U.
, 193 U. S. 180
3 Washburn on Real Property, 5th ed., 427. Giving to each of these
elements its appropriate influence, and bearing in mind that the
terms of description are all such as are usually employed in
designating surveyed lands, we are of opinion that the purpose was
to patent the whole of the lands surveyed, except fractional
section 16, and not the areas meandered and returned, as shown upon
the plat, as bodies of water. That it is now found, as shown by the
decisions below, that these areas ought not to have been so
meandered and returned, but should have been surveyed and returned
as land, does not detract from the effect which must be given to
the plat in determining what was intended to pass under the patent.
Niles v. Cedar Point Club, 175 U.
, 175 U. S. 306
Hardin v. Shedd, 190 U. S. 508
190 U. S.
As, then, the lands in controversy were not included in the
patent, and, under the findings below, did not pass to the state or
to the defendants by riparian right with the
Page 232 U. S. 198
adjoining fractional sections and subdivisions, it follows that
they remain the property of the United States. Niles v. Cedar
Point Club, supra; French-Glenn Live Stock Co. v. Springer,
185 U. S. 47
Security Land & Exploration Co. v. Burns, supra.
But it is said on behalf of the levee district that, even though
the lands were not included in the patent, they passed to the state
under the Swamp Land Act independently of any patent, and passed
thence to the district under the state Act of 1893. The contention
is not tenable. The lands were never listed as swamp lands, and
their listing does not appear to have been even requested,
doubtless because they were not surveyed. Assuming that in fact
they were swamp lands, the state's title under the Swamp Land Act
was, at most, inchoate, and never was perfected. Not only so, but
the state relinquished its inchoate title to the United States as
part of a compromise and settlement negotiated in 1895, and the
relinquishment is binding upon the levee district as a subordinate
agency of the state. Little v. Williams, 231 U.
. See Carson v. St. Francis Levee
59 Ark. 513, 533-535.
The levee district was therefore not entitled to prevail in
respect of the unsurveyed lands.