Wolcott v. Des Moines Company,
72 U.S. 681 (1866)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Wolcott v. Des Moines Company, 72 U.S. 5 Wall. 681 681 (1866)

Wolcott v. Des Moines Company

72 U.S. (5 Wall.) 681


The proviso in the Act of Congress of May 15, 1856, 11 Stat. at Large 9, making a grant of lands to the State of Iowa in alternate sections to aid in the construction of certain railroads in said state, by which proviso it was provided

"That any and all lands heretofore reserved to the United States, by any act of Congress or in any other manner by competent authority, for the purpose of aiding in any object of internal improvement or any other object whatsoever be, and the same are hereby reserved to the United States from the operation of this act,"

operated, in connection with certain subsequent legislation, to reserve for the purpose of aid in the improvement in the navigation of the Des Moines River, an equal moiety, in alternate sections, of the public lands on, and within five miles of, the said river, between the "Raccoon Fork," so called, and the northern boundary of the state.

In August, 1846, Congress granted to the then Territory and now State of Iowa:

"For the purpose of aiding said territory to improve the navigation of the Des Moines River from its mouth to the Raccoon Fork, so called, in said territory, one equal moiety, in alternate sections, of the public lands in a strip five miles in width on each side of said river."

The Des Moines River, to assist the improvement of whose navigation this grant was made, rises in the very north part of the state, somewhat to the west of the middle line of the northern boundary. Flowing to the southeast, it traverses the entire commonwealth of Iowa, and falls into the Mississippi in the southeast corner of the state. [See the sketch on p. <|72 U.S. 682|>682.]

Somewhere near the middle of the state, at Des Moines City, it receives, as a tributary, a stream called the Raccoon Fork. It thus happens that about one half the river is above the point where this Fork enters, and one half below. Each half traverses, of course, a region of great extent and value.

The phraseology of the above-quoted grant of Congress,

Page 72 U. S. 682

as the result proved, contained the germs of a controversy, the point in issue being whether Congress meant to grant to the state land on the Des Moines River above the point where the Raccoon Fork enters as well as the land below this point, or whether it meant to grant only land below. On the one hand, the grant was for the purpose of improving the navigation of the river "from its mouth TO the Raccoon Fork." On the other, the grant was of one equal moiety &c., "on each side of the said river."


In August, 1859, the Des Moines Navigation Company, to which the state had conveyed the land in May, 1858, conveyed to one Wolcott a half section of one of the alternate sections, within five miles of the river &c., above the Fork, and warranted the title.

Soon afterwards this Court decided in another case that on a true construction of the grant of the 8th of August, 1846, above mentioned, it did not include land above the point where the Raccoon Fork entered.

Page 72 U. S. 683

Wolcott now sued the Navigation Company for breach of covenant, alleging, in his declaration, that the title to the tract sold by the company to him had failed. This allegation the company denied, setting up that whatever might be the conclusion on a construction of the mere act of original grant (8 August, 1844), this case rested on another basis, to-wit, on the basis of a great variety of action by different departments of the government having authority in the matter, and on acts of Congress subsequent to that of the grant.

This great variety of action and the other acts of Congress will be found below in the preliminary part of the opinion of this Court.

The court below thought that the title had not failed, and whether it had or not was now the question here.

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