Hughes v. United States,
71 U.S. 232 (1866)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Hughes v. United States, 71 U.S. 4 Wall. 232 232 (1866)

Hughes v. United States

71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 232


1. The equity of a preemption claimant of land under the laws of the United States who has complied with the conditions imposed by those laws, obtained his certificate by the payment of the purchase money, and retained uninterrupted possession of the property, cannot be defeated by one whose entry was subsequent, although he has fortified his title with a patent; such person having notice sufficient to put him on inquiry as to the interests, legal or equitable, of the preemption claimant.

2. A decree dismissing a bill for matters not involving merits is no bar to a subsequent suit.

3. A court of equity will set aside a patent of the United States obtained by mistake or inadvertence of the officers of the land office, on a bill filed for that purpose by the government when the patent prima facie passes the title.

4. Open, notorious, and exclusive possession of real property by parties claiming it is sufficient to put other persons upon inquiry as to the interests, legal or equitable, held by such parties, and if such other persons neglect to make the inquiry, they are not entitled to any greater consideration than if they had made it and had ascertained the actual facts of the case.

Page 71 U. S. 233

The United States in 1848 filed an information in the nature of a bill in equity in the court just named against one Hughes for the repeal and surrender of their patent for a tract of land issued to him in 1841, tendering back to him the purchase money. The case was thus:

By the Act of Congress of April 12, 1814, every person who had inhabited and cultivated a tract of land lying in that portion of the State of Louisiana which had composed the Territory of Orleans, or in the Territory of Missouri, in cases where the land was not rightfully claimed by any other person, and who had not removed from the state or territory, was entitled to the right of preemption in the purchase of the land, under conditions and regulations prescribed by a previous act, passed with reference to certain settlers in Illinois. The same right was extended by the act to the legal representatives of the original occupant. Under this act, one Goodbee, in 1822, applied to the register and receiver of the land office of the district to become a purchaser of a tract supposed to contain about one hundred and sixty acres, which had been occupied and cultivated by one Beedle, in 1813, under whose settlement he claimed. His right to preempt the tract was recognized by the officers, and, the required price being paid, the usual certificate was issued to him. The land at this time was designated as lot number one, under a special system of surveys authorized by the Act of March 3, 1811. It was some years later before the general system of surveys into ranges, townships, and sections, was extended over the country, and when this took place, the legal subdivision embraced about fifteen acres in excess over the one hundred and sixty. To this excess, as part of the original lot, Goodbee's right of preemption under the regulations of the General Land Office also attached.

At the time he made his entry, Goodbee was in the open and exclusive possession of the premises, and either he or his grantees subsequently continued in such possession and cultivated the land and erected valuable and permanent improvements thereon.

In 1823, the President, by proclamation, ordered the sale

Page 71 U. S. 234

of the public lands of the district. The proclamation was general in its terms, embracing all the lands, without excepting such as had been previously preempted or reserved, but the parcels preempted or reserved were designated by proper entries in the register of the land office. The tract occupied by Goodbee was thus designated, and was not offered at the public sale which took place.

In 1836, Hughes entered this tract at private sale, designating it by section, township, and range -- the proper description under the completed public surveys. The officers of the land office, overlooking, from the difference in its description, the fact that the tract had been previously sold to Goodbee, gave him the usual certificate of purchase and payment, upon which, in April, 1841, a patent was issued by the United States.

To the bill or information filed below, Hughes demurred. The court gave judgment sustaining the demurrer. This judgment having come on appeal here, at December Term 1850, [Footnote 1] was reversed, the demurrer overruled, and the patent to Hughes decreed null and void, and ordered to be surrendered. This decree was afterwards, by consent, set aside, and the cause remanded to the circuit court with leave to the defendant to answer, and for further proceedings according to equity. He accordingly did answer, the grounds of defense now set forth being that he had obtained, in the state courts of Louisiana, two several judgments in two distinct suits.

The first was, ejectment brought by him against one Sewall, tenant in possession and claimant of the title under Goodbee, which suit had gone in his favor.

The second one was brought against him by this same Sewall and one Hudson (both claimants under Goodbee), who sought to set aside the patent to Hughes, on the same allegations of fraud, as it was alleged, and the same exhibition of documents, that at their instance were now set forth by the United States, in the bill or information filed in the circuit court of the United States.

Page 71 U. S. 235

This second suit was dismissed for want of jurisdiction and absence of proper parties -- so far as the petition related to the relief sought by the bill in the present suit -- and it was dismissed generally, because it was defective, uncertain, and insufficient in the statement of the cause of action.

In the suit of Hughes v. Sewall, judgment was given in favor of Hughes, on the ground that the court could not, in that action, look behind the patent to inquire into the equities of the parties. The Supreme Court of Louisiana affirmed this judgment on appeal, but granted a stay of execution until the validity of the patent could be judicially ascertained.

The circuit court of the United States below was of opinion that no sufficient defense was shown by the judgments set up, as above stated, and that the United States were entitled to the relief prayed for, and it decreed accordingly.

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