The effect of riparian rights, attached to land conveyed by
patent of the United States, depends upon the local law.
As a general rule, meanders are not to be treated as boundaries,
and when the United States conveys a tract of land by patent
referring to an official survey which shows the same bordering on a
navigable river, the purchaser takes title up to the waterline.
Where the facts and circumstances, however, affirmatively
disclose n intention to limit the grant to actual traverse lines,
these must be treated as definite boundaries, and a patent to a
fractional section does not necessarily confer riparian rights
because of the presence of meanders.
Where, as in this case, the survey of improved lands was made at
the express request of the occupant to whom they were subsequently
patented, and the grant specified the number of acres, and other
circumstances also indicated that only the lands conveyed were
those within the traverse lines, the patent of the United States
conferred no riparian rights, but simply conveyed the specified
number of acres.
In a controversy between individuals as to the extent of the
land conveyed by a patent of the United States, and to which the
United States is not a party, nothing in the opinion or judgment
should be taken to prejudice or impair any of the rights of the
United States in the lands affected.
61 So. 754 affirmed. ,
The facts, which involve the title to property conveyed by a
United States patent and the construction of such patent and the
amount of land conveyed thereby, are stated in the opinion.
Page 238 U. S. 329
MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS delivered the opinion of the Court.
Plaintiff in error, the Oil Company, instituted this action July
1, 1910, in the District Court, Caddo Parish, Louisiana, for the
purpose of establishing its right to possession of part of Lot No.
1, § 4, Township 20, North, Range 16, West, suddenly become very
valuable through discovery of gas and oil. The petition alleges
that the United States, in 1874, sold to one Pitts Lots 1 and 2,
Section 4, forming a projection known as "Wilson's Point,"
surrounded on three sides by waters of James Bayou, a navigable
stream; that he immediately entered, and, together with his
successors, remained in peaceful, complete possession until April
2, 1910, when defendants in error, without knowledge of Noel, then
owner, wrongfully entered upon part of lot No. 1, built a wire
fence, and placed a keeper thereon; that April 15, 1910, by
notarial act duly recorded, the Oil Company purchased both lots
from Noel and became subrogated to his rights, and when it came to
subject the whole property to actual possession, a portion was
found occupied as above indicated.
A writ of sequestration, issued contemporaneously with filing of
petition, was subsequently dissolved upon motion, a proper bond
having been given conditioned not to commit waste and to make
faithful restitution of fruits if so required.
Answering, defendants in error denied they were occupying any
part of Lot No. 1, § 4, but said they were and had been since April
2, 1910, in possession of 87.9 acres situated in §§ 3 and 4,
Township 20, described by metes
Page 238 U. S. 330
"which said property your respondents located under the laws of
the United States relative to the location of mining lands and upon
which they have made a discovery of oil and gas, and are therefore
entitled to the full use and enjoyment and to a patent from the
They also denied the Oil Company or any of
"its ancestors in title ever had or claimed possession of any
part of the property so located by your respondents, but that, on
the contrary, your respondents aver that the said land was never in
the possession of any person until the location by them."
Further answering, they averred that
"Thomas H. Pitts purchased from the United States, among other
property, Lot 1 of § 4, Township 20 North of Range 16 West,
containing 12.84 acres, and that he paid for the same with military
land warrants, as containing that acreage; that the said Lot 1 of
Section 4 is figured and described on the surveys of the United
States by certain metes and bounds, shown on the said plat, the
eastern boundary of said Lot, as well as the other boundaries
thereof, being shown on the said map; that the east line of said
lot, which is the boundary between the land of respondents and that
of plaintiff, did not and does not denote the banks of any body of
water, but that, on the contrary, the said line was run through the
hills as the line of boundary of the said lot; that the land of
which your respondents are in possession, and which they located
under their mineral filing aforesaid, is high land, not subject to
overflow at any time, and which never constituted any part of any
lake or bayou, and was left out of the surveys of the United
States, and which remained the property of the government until
said location had been made thereon by your respondents."
There were introduced in evidence patents from the government,
field notes and attending documents, official plat, sundry
conveyances, contour maps, one prepared by Williams for plaintiff
company, another by Barnes for
Page 238 U. S. 331
defendants, Barbour's survey of §§ 9, 10, 15, and 16, and
photographs showing landscape and vegetation. Witnesses were
examined in behalf of both sides, chiefly in explanation of lines,
maps, water levels, character of land and growth thereon. A draft
of the official plat (5/6 original size)238
exa|> is in the margin; on the following
exb|> is a copy of the combination map (much
reduced) showing the Bristol, Williams, Barnes, and Barbour surveys
especially referred to by Louisiana Supreme Court. At the trial,
the following stipulation was made part of the record:
"It is admitted by both parties that J. S. Noel was in
possession, as owner, from the date of his purchase in 1880 ,
to the sale to the plaintiffs of the property known as the Wilson's
Point place, his corporeal possession being limited on the East and
North by the Bristol meander line, and said Noel never exercised
any acts of corporeal possession, or was ever in occupancy of any
land in Section Four, East of or outside of the said meander line,
or of any of the land in controversy. This is not intended to apply
to any other land West of the land in controversy. That Noel's
possession was vested by act of purchase and continued by occupancy
in the plaintiffs."
"It is further admitted that defendants on the second day of
April, 1910, took actual possession of, and posted and filed
notices of location under the placer mining laws of the United
States of the tract of land on which they are now in possession,
and concerning which this suit is brought, which tract of land is
described by metes and bounds in defendants' answer."
"It is further admitted that, when defendants took possession of
said land, they located the western boundary line of their
location, as the Bristol meander line, as properly located, and the
defendant does not claim the ownership or possession of any land
west of the true location of said Bristol meander line."
"It is admitted that, since the institution of this suit,
Page 238 U. S. 333
the defendants have actually discovered oil and gas, and are now
producing oil from said property."
"It is admitted by both parties that the land in controversy is
high land, and was high land at the date that Bristol made his
survey in 1871. "
Page 238 U. S. 334
"There being a dispute between the plaintiffs and defendants as
to the true location of the Bristol meander line referred to above,
it is agreed that the said issue as to the true and exact location
of said line is not to be passed upon in this case, said issue
being relegated to a subsequent proceeding herein, should the court
sustain the defendants' position that said line is the true
boundary between the property, and the question of costs and
damages are likewise relegated to further proceedings."
Prior to 1858, Alfred Wilson squatted on the point since known
by his name, and, during that year, sold to Ann Pitts improvements
upon "160 acres, more or less," lying thereon. In April, 1871,
Thomas H. Pitts applied to the United States for a survey of the
land -- long improved and then occupied -- and, shortly thereafter
(July, 1871), this was made by Byron Bradley Bristol, duly
certified and reported as "Field Notes of the Survey of Wilson's
Point." From these notes, referring, among other things, to
enclosure, corn field, fence, dwelling, and road, the official plat
or diagram was made in office of the Surveyor General of Louisiana
with actual traverse lines marked out. This plat shows fractional
Sectional 4, immediately north of Section 9, divided into two lots,
No. 1 on the east, 12.84 acres, and No. 2 west, 11.44 acres, on a
point upon the left bank and surrounded on three sides by waters of
James Bayou. It is very small, and does not indicate with certainty
whether traverse lines or the stream constitute north and east
boundaries. In respect of this fractional Section 4, the surveyor's
field notes in part recite:
"July 27th, 1871. Meanders of the left Bank of James Bayou begin
at the corner between fractional sections 9 and 4 [southeast corner
of Lot No. 1, Section 4], a gum tree at 24.50 West of the corner of
sections 3, 4, 9, and 10; run thence downstream in fractional sec.
4; N. 2 degrees E. 6.00; N. 15 degrees W. 3.00; N. 47 1/2 degrees
E. 2.50; N. 16 degrees W. 2.50; S. 86 1/2 degrees W. 2.50, spur
Page 238 U. S. 335
extends out North;
S. 57 degrees W. 4.50; S. 33 1/4
degrees W. 4.50; S. 63 degrees W. 4.50; N. 81 degrees W. 2.80 at
1.10, enter Pitts' enclosure; N. 39 1/2 degrees W. 3.00, enter corn
thence according to seven designated calls bearing westerly and
southerly around Lot No. 2 "to the corner to fractional sect. 4 and
9, thence in sect. 9," etc. Under "General Description," this note
"The front land on James' Bayou is above the common average. The
back land is thin and poor, post oak, flat. James' Bayou is
navigable in ordinary seasons for large boats. The slough or water
course near the original traverse in front of Sec. 10, is now dry,
and can only be traced by the rotten driftwood."
March 1, 1878, Thomas H. Pitts received from the United States a
conveyance of "Northwest quarter of the Northeast quarter of
Section Nine, . . . containing Forty Acres, according to the
official plat." By patent dated February 18, 1892, which recites a
soldier's warrant for 120 acres had been deposited, the United
States conveyed to Thomas H. Pitts
"Lots numbered one, two, three and four of Section Nine and the
Lots numbered one and two of Section Four in Township Twenty North,
of Range Sixteen West, of Louisiana, Meridian, in the District of
Lands subject to sale at Natchitoches, Louisiana, containing One
Hundred and Twenty-three acres and eighty-eight hundredths of an
acre, according to the Official Plat of the Survey of said Lands
returned to the General Land Office by the Surveyor-General."
Pitts' title to 163.88 acres "with all buildings and
improvements," described substantially as in his two patents -- one
for forty acres, the other 123.88 acres -- was conveyed November
23, 1880, to Walsch for $250; February 15, 1884, Walsch conveyed to
Noel for $300, and on April 15, 1910, Noel conveyed the 163.88
acres "more or less" to plaintiff company for recited consideration
Page 238 U. S. 336
It appears that north and northeast from the northernmost
traverse line of Lot No. 1, designated in field notes "S. 86 1/2
degrees W. 2.50, spur of marsh extends out North," and between it
and James Bayou, there is and was at time of Bristol survey a
narrow ridge of high land 1,636.8 feet long and contiguous fast
ground, amounting altogether to about forty acres (87 according to
defendants' estimate), upon which is much large growing timber,
including cypress, hickory, gum, and oak -- one oak 400 feet beyond
the traverse lines being 14 feet in circumference. This is the land
in dispute. To the south of the Bristol survey and outside its
traverse lines lie 300 acres of fast land surveyed and platted by
Barbour in 1896.
The Oil Company claimed traverse lines around Lot No. 1 must be
treated as true meanders; that, being owner and in actual
possession of the lot, it had constructive possession of land lying
beyond such lines east and north to the bayou -- forty acres or
more -- and that this was being trespassed upon. Defendants in
error maintained the traverse lines were not intended as true
meanders; that the grant was limited by courses and distances
specified, and lands north and east of these were left unsurveyed,
with title remaining in the government.
The trial court sustained the Oil Company's contention and
adjudged it entitled to be maintained in possession of Lot No.
"and that the tongue of land on which defendants and their
lessee have drilled an oil well, projecting north, and bounded
north, east, and west by Jeems Bayou, is a constituent and
component part of Lot No. 1, the boundary of said Lot No. 1 being
the waterline of Jeems Bayou, it being the purpose of this judgment
to fix Jeems Bayou as the boundary of said lot without regard to
any arbitrary lines of survey."
Upon appeal, the Supreme Court of Louisiana (132 La. 691),
reversed the judgment of the trial court. It declared:
"Plaintiff claims possession
Page 238 U. S. 337
of the land in this suit as owner, and it produces a title from
the United States government, showing it to be the owner of Lot No.
1, containing 12.84 acres, and it claims the additional 40 or 87
acres, as the case may be, as a part of Lot No. 1, lying between
the Bristol meander line and Jeems Bayou, treating said meander
line as a regular meander line, and not a boundary line. But we
cannot so consider it, particularly in view of the admission of
plaintiff that 'it is admitted by both parties that the land in
controversy is high land, and was high land at the date that
Bristol made his survey in 1871.' . . . As plaintiff and its
authors held no title to the land referred to, it has had neither
actual nor constructive possession of the same, and cannot
therefore be heard to complain of the acts of these defendants. Its
demand for possession must be denied. The meander line established
by Bristol on the east and northeast of Lot No. 1 does not meet any
of the requirements set forth by the Supreme Court of the United
States in defining a meander line in Railroad Co. v.
7 Wall. 272, 74 U. S.
. . . . Tested by this definition, which is sustained
by all authorities, the so-called meander line of Bristol fails in
all respects. Niles v. Cedar Point Club, 175 U. S.
. A glance at the annexed map, taken from the
Williams and Barnes maps in the record (Bristol made no map or
plat, and the one made by the draftsman in the land office is very
small, and apparently without reference to a scale) shows that the
Bristol meander line does not purport to define the sinuosities of
a stream; it is not represented as the border line of a stream, and
it shows, to a demonstration, that the meander line, as actually
run on the land on the east and northeast of Lot No. 1, is the
boundary, and that a water course is not the boundary. . . . The
evidence in the record in this case, aside from the admissions of
record, shows that there was and is a large quantity of swamp or
marsh land on the east and north of the Bristol
Page 238 U. S. 338
meander line. . . . If the eastern and northern boundaries of
Lot No. 1 were taken out and other boundaries substituted, so as to
reach Jeems Bayou, plaintiff would get three- to seven-fold more
land than was actually mentioned and described in the patent
conveying this lot, or than its ancestor in title supposed he was
purchasing, or than he actually paid for."
The cause is here by writ of error, and the Oil Company
maintains that it was obligatory upon the supreme court to accept
the government survey, plat, and patent as correct, to treat
traverses about Lot No. 1 as true meanders of the Bayou, and to
hold, in consequence, that boundaries of the grant extended to the
stream, and include the locus in quo.
federal question presented -- the only one for our determination --
is whether, properly construed, the original patent conveyed to
Pitts land lying between platted traverse lines and waters of the
navigable stream. Waters-Pierce Oil Co. v. Texas (No. 1),
212 U. S. 86
212 U. S. 97
The effect of riparian rights, if established, would depend upon
the local law. Hardin v. Shedd, 190 U.
, 190 U. S. 519
Whitaker v. McBride, 197 U. S. 510
197 U. S.
Many causes decided by this Court involved construction of
patents conveying public lands by reference to official surveys and
plats indicating streams or other waters. Railroad
Co. v. Schurmeir,
7 Wall. 272, 74 U. S. 286
Cragin v. Powell, 128 U. S. 691
128 U. S. 696
Hardin v. Jordan, 140 U. S. 371
140 U. S. 380
Mitchell v. Smale, 140 U. S. 406
140 U. S. 412
Horne v. Smith, 159 U. S. 40
159 U. S. 42
Grand Rapids &c. R. Co. v. Butler, 159 U. S.
, 159 U. S. 92
Ainsa v. United States, 161 U. S. 208
161 U. S. 229
Niles v. Cedar Point Club, 175 U.
, 175 U. S. 306
French-Glenn Live Stock Co. v. Springer, 185 U. S.
, 185 U. S. 51
Kirwan v. Murphy, 189 U. S. 35
Hardin v. Shedd, supra; Security Land & Exploration Co. v.
Burns, 193 U. S. 167
Whitaker v. McBride, supra; Graham v. Gill, 223 U.
, 223 U. S. 645
Scott v. Lattig, 227 U. S. 229
227 U. S.
Page 238 U. S. 339
Chapman v. St. Francis, 232 U.
, 232 U. S. 196
Gauthier v. Morrison, 232 U. S. 452
232 U. S. 459
Forsyth v. Smale,
7 Biss. 201. A review and analysis of
these cases would be tedious and unprofitable; thorough
acquaintance with the varying and controlling facts is essential to
a fair understanding of them. They unquestionably support the
familiar rule relied on by counsel for the Oil Company that, in
general, meanders are not to be treated as boundaries, and when the
United States conveys a tract of land by patent referring to an
official plat which shows the same bordering on a navigable river,
the purchaser takes title up to the waterline. But they no less
certainly establish the principle that facts and circumstances may
be examined, and if they affirmatively disclose an intention to
limit the grant to actual traverse lines, these must be treated as
definite boundaries. It does not necessarily follow from the
presence of meanders that a fractional section borders a body of
water, and that a patent thereto confers riparian rights.
In the instant case, we find a survey of improved lands made at
the express request of the occupant to whom they were subsequently
patented, a grant from the United States specifying the exact
number of acres conveyed, a positive declaration in field notes
that land to the north lies outside the traverse lines, admission
that excluded area contains not less than 40 acres of high ground,
and evidence of large timber growing there, official plat
delineating the surveyor's courses and specifying acreage of the
several subdivisions, which cannot be said to indicate a water
boundary beyond possible question. Outside the southern traverses
of this plat, in space designated "Open Lake," lie 300 acres of
fast land surveyed by Barbour in 1896. Although Noel, the Oil
Company's immediate vendor, as owner, was in possession of property
known as Wilson's Point place for some thirty years, and until
after alleged unlawful entry by
Page 238 U. S. 340
defendants in error, his corporeal possession (as expressly
stipulated) was limited east and north by the Bristol traverse
lines, and he never occupied or exercised any act of corporeal
possession over the above-indicated forty acres or more without the
Considering all disclosures of the record, we are unable to
conclude the court below erred in holding original patent from the
United States to Pitts conveyed no title to lands in controversy,
and its judgment must be affirmed.
It seems proper to add that nothing in this opinion or the
judgment to be entered thereon shall be taken to prejudice or
impair any right which the United States may have in respect to the
lands in controversy.