Wagner v. Baird,
48 U.S. 234 (1849)

Annotate this Case
  • Syllabus  | 
  • Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Wagner v. Baird, 48 U.S. 7 How. 234 234 (1849)

Wagner v. Baird

48 U.S. (7 How.) 234


There is a defense peculiar to courts of equity founded on lapse of time and the staleness of the claim, where no statute of limitations directly governs the case. In such cases, the court often acts upon its own inherent doctrine of discouraging, for the peace of society, antiquated demands by refusing to interfere where there has been gross laches in prosecuting rights or long acquiescence in the assertion of adverse rights.

The rule upon this subject, originally laid down by Lord Camden in Smith v. Clay, 3 Brown's Chancery Reports 640, note, and adopted by this Court in 42 U. S. 1 How. 189, again asserted.

Long acquiescence and laches by parties out of possession are productive of much hardship and injustice to others, and cannot be excused but by showing some actual hindrance or impediment caused by the fraud or concealment of the party in possession which will appeal to the conscience of the chancellor.

The party guilty of such laches cannot screen his title from the just imputation of staleness merely by the allegation of an imaginary impediment or technical disability.

The facts in this case bring it within the operation of the above principles, and the bill must therefore be dismissed.

Page 48 U. S. 235

The case as set forth by the complainants is contained in the following extract from the brief of Mr. Ewing, one of their solicitors.

"The bill, which was filed on 18 November, 1840, charges that on or about 21 November, 1783, Brigadier-General Robert Lawson obtained of the State of Virginia a military land warrant, No. 1,921, for 10,000 acres of land due him for military services in the Revolutionary war in the Virginia line on Continental establishment."

"That prior to 12 January, 1788, said warrant was lodged in the office of Richard C. Anderson, then Principal Surveyor of the Virginia Military Lands, and that prior to 4f June, 1794, divers entries had been made on said warrant, to-wit, entries Nos. 1,704, 1,705, 1,706, 1,707, 1,714, 1,715, 1,716, 1,717, 1,718, and 1,719, of 1,000 acres each; and that Nos. 1,704, 1,705, and 1,706 had been withdrawn and reentered, so as to leave Nos. 1,707 and 1,714 the first subsisting entries made for the said Robert Lawson on the surveyor's books."

"That on 4 June, 1794, the said Robert Lawson, by deed of indenture of three parts, between him, the said Robert Lawson, of the first part, his wife Sarah Lawson, of the second part, and James Speed, George Thompson, Joseph Crocket, and George Nicholas, of the third part, for the consideration therein expressed, conveyed to the said Thompson, Crocket, and Nicholas, for the uses and purposes therein specified, 2,000 acres of land, described as situate on White Oak Creek, on the northwest side of the Ohio River, being the land mentioned in the first entry made for said Robert on the surveyor's books, which said 2,000 acres of land is averred to be the land embraced not in a single entry, but in entries Nos. 1,707 and 1,714, made January 12 and February 11, 1788."

"That the said Robert Lawson, by the same deed, conveyed to the said trustees five other tracts of land of 1,000 acres each, described as being the last entries made on said warrant in the name of said Robert Lawson, which, it is averred, embrace the land contained in entries Nos. 1,718 and 1,719, made 11 February, 1788; entry No. 1,704, made February 11, 1793; and entries Nos. 1,705 and 1,706, made 21 January, 1793."

"Complainants file a certified copy of said deed, aver that the same was duly recorded in Fayette County, Kentucky, and on 26 February, 1798, a certified copy, from the records in Fayette County, Kentucky, was recorded in the Recorder's Office of Hamilton County, in the Northwestern Territory, in which county the lands in controversy lay. The original deed of trust is lost; due search has been made for it, and the complainants

Page 48 U. S. 236

verily believe that the original was consumed by fire in the recorder's office in Kentucky."

"That on 16 August, 1796, John O'Bannon procured of Lawson an assignment of 3,333 1/3 acres of said warrant. That Lawson, at the time he made this assignment, was habitually intemperate and mentally incapable of transacting business. O'Bannon well knew this -- knew of the deed of trust -- and procured the assignment by fraud, and on the false pretenses that he was the locator of the whole tract of 10,000 acres."

"That afterwards, on 25 August, 1796, O'Bannon, knowing that entry No. 1,707 had been conveyed to the trustees aforesaid, fraudulently withdrew so much of said warrant 1,921 as was entered in said No. 1,707, and caused the same to be entered on the lands in controversy; and, on 29 August, 1796, surveyed the same, and returned the plat to the surveyor general's office."

"That prior to 12 February, 1799, O'Bannon applied for a patent in his own name for said survey, and that on said day the trustees, in the deed of trust aforesaid, by Joshua Lewis, their agent, filed a caveat against the issuing of patents to the assignees on said warrant 1,921, and with it a copy of the deed of trust."

"That O'Bannon continued to urge the department to issue patents on his claims under said assignment, which was for a long time postponed, and, on 9 May, 1811, refused or suspended, because said assignment was in violation of the deed of trust aforesaid. That said deed of trust, among other things, directed the trustees aforesaid to convey the 2,000 acres of land first above mentioned to either of the sons of said Robert and Sarah Lawson that the said Sarah might direct, unless it should be necessary to dispose of the same for the use of the family; that the last-named 5,000 acres should be conveyed, 1,000 to America Lawson, 2,000 to John P. Lawson, and 2,000 to Columbus Lawson."

"That the said Sarah did not in her lifetime direct the conveyance of the said 2,000 acres, and the said trustees did not convey the same, nor any part of the 5,000 acres. That all the trustees are dead, and that the last survivor of them, George Thompson, died on 22 March, 1834, leaving the complainant George C. Thompson his only child and heir at law."

"That America Lawson intermarried with Joshua Lewis December 23, 1797. General Lawson died March 1, 1805, leaving three children, John Pierce Lawson, America Lewis, and Columbus Lawson, his heirs at law. That on 10

Page 48 U. S. 237

June, 1809, said Sarah Lawson died. That on 7 January, 1807, John Pierce Lawson conveyed to Joshua Lewis all his interest in said lands. That on 1 June, 1809, John P. Lawson died, leaving Mary P. Lawson, now Mary P. Bowman, his only child and heir at law, who intermarried with complainant John Bowman. That on 8 January, 1815, Columbus Lawson died unmarried and intestate, leaving said America Lewis and Mary P. Bowman his heirs at law."

"That about 1 January, 1813, John O'Bannon died, leaving Robert Alexander and George T. Cotton executors of his last will and testament. That Cotton, who qualified, applied to the General Land Office for a patent on survey No. 1,707, of 965 acres, as executor of said O'Bannon, but the patent was withheld, and the record thereof cancelled."

"That, about 21 December, 1816, the said Cotton deposited in the General Land Office a paper purporting to be a certificate of and signed by, Robert Lawson, dated 27 November, 1802, and purporting to be witnessed by J. Bootwright and C. McCallister. Said certificate was false and forged, but by means thereof the patent was procured to be issued."

"That Cotton died testate; complainants exhibit a copy of the will of O'Bannon, and of Cotton. The devisees of said John O'Bannon and George T. Cotton are not residents of the District of Ohio; prays process of subpoena against them or such of them as may be found in the said district and that they and such others as will voluntarily appear be made defendants."

"That on 1 October, 1830, America Lewis died; on 20 June, 1833, Joshua Lewis died and left complainants their only surviving children and heirs at law. Aver that the remaining 3,000 acres of land of warrant 1,921 not included in the deed of trust, vested in them as heirs of Robert Lawson through America Lewis."

"That America Lawson, afterwards Lewis, was under the disability of infancy or coverture during her whole natural life, and that at the time of issuing the patent to George T. Cotton, and from that time till her death, she was under the disability of coverture. That Columbus Lawson was an infant at the time of the death of his brother, John P. Lawson, and that he was killed at the battle of New Orleans on 8 January, 1815, and that neither of the trustees in the deed of trust nor either of the persons under whom complainants claim title was ever resident in the State of Ohio."

"That John Baird, James W. Campbell Thomas Jennings, Isaac E. Day Duncan Evans, William King, Victor King, Absalom King, William More, and Christian Snedecher, who are

Page 48 U. S. 238

made defendants, are in possession of, and claim to have derived title to, portions of said tract No. 1,707, of 965 acres, mediately or immediately from George T. Cotton, executor of John O'Bannon, deceased. C all upon defendants to exhibit their title. Aver that they had full notice of the title of complainants and the fraud of O'Bannon; pray subpoena &c."

"An affidavit of search for the deed of trust, and belief that it is lost or consumed, is attached to the amended bill."

"The defendants, terre-tenants, severally plead that they are bona fide purchasers, without notice of complainants' title. They answer jointly, putting in issue the material allegations of the bill; set forth specifically their own derivation of title; aver that the claim of complainants is stale, and that a part of the persons named as trustees have been in the State of Ohio since the execution of the deed of trust, and before the issuing of the patent. That the caveat was filed by Joshua Lewis without authority from the trustees, and that the patent was wrongfully suspended at the General Land Office. They refer to the certificate of Lawson, November 27, 1802; the affidavit of James Speed, November 20, 1803; and the certificate of James Morrisson, December 9, 1816."

"To these answers there is a replication."

The above statement of the case is taken, as was before remarked, from the brief of Mr. Ewing, and presents it in as strong a point of view, for the complainants and appellants, as can be given to it.

In the progress of the cause in the court below, a great mass of evidence was taken and many exhibits were filed which it is unnecessary to set forth.

In December, 1842, the circuit court dismissed the bill, with costs, an appeal from which decree brought it up to this Court.

Page 48 U. S. 255

Disclaimer: Official Supreme Court case law is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia case law 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.