Eldred v. Sexton,
Annotate this Case
86 U.S. 189 (1873)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Eldred v. Sexton, 86 U.S. 19 Wall. 189 189 (1873)
Eldred v. Sexton
86 U.S. (19 Wall.) 189
The fundamental principle established by the Act of Congress of April 24, 1820, and since governing the matter of sales of the public lands, that private entries are not permitted until after the lands have been exposed to public auction at the price for which they are afterwards sold, held to be applicable to a case -- that of the grant by Congress, June 3, 1856, of alternate sections designated by odd numbers, to the State of Wisconsin for the aid of the Chicago & Northwestern Railway.
There, after the line of the railroad was located and the price of sections within six miles designated by even numbers, doubled -- that is to say fixed at $2.50 per acre -- and after these were offered at public sale at that price and remained unsold, so that thenceforth they became open to private entry at $2.50, but not at less, the line of the road was changed by joint resolution of Congress, leaving outside of the six mile limits certain of these even sections; the joint resolution providing that the even sections of public lands
"reserved to the United States by the Act of June 3, 1856 (the original grant), along the originally located route of railroad, and along which no railroad has been constructed, shall hereafter be sold at $1.25 per acre. "
Held, notwithstanding this provision that the "fundamental principle" above spoken of, was of so pervading a character, that although these sections, while within the six miles limit, had been offered at public sale at $2.50 and refused, they were not open to private entry now that by the change of location they were without that limit, until they had been offered for public sale at $1.25 per acre, and had been left unsold.
An Act of Congress approved April 24, 1820, [Footnote 1] laid down the following general law about the public lands:
"The price at which the public lands shall be offered for sale shall be $1.25 an acre, and at every public sale the highest bidder who shall make payment as aforesaid shall be the purchaser; but no land shall be sold either at public or private sale for a less price than $1.25 an acre; and all the public lands which shall have been offered at public sale before the first day of July next, and which shall then remain unsold, as well as the lands that shall thereafter be offered at public sale according to law and remain unsold at the close of such public sales shall be subject to be sold at private sale by entry at the land office at $1.25 an acre, to be paid at the time of making such entry as aforesaid,"
This statute being in force as the general regulation about public lands, Congress, by an Act of June 3d, 1856, [Footnote 2] in order to aid the construction of a line of railroad from Fond du Lac, at the south end of Lake Winnebago, in the State of Wisconsin, northerly to the north line of the said state, granted to the said State of Wisconsin every alternate section of land designated by odd numbers for six sections in width on each side of the road. In pursuance of a well settled policy of the government on the subject, the price of the even-numbered sections remaining to the United States was doubled, and the act declared,
"Nor shall any of said lands become subject to private entry until the same shall have first been offered at public sale at the increased price. "
This land grant, by the Legislature of Wisconsin, became vested in the Chicago & Northwestern Railway Company, which had, before the 3d of May, 1859, located the line of its road so that certain lands, the subject of the controversy in this case, were within the prescribed limits. Up to that day, they had never been brought into market, but upon that day, by proclamation of the President, they were offered for sale at $2.50 per acre. Not being sold, they remained subject to private entry at that sum. A change in the route of the road being desirable, Congress was asked to authorize it, and this was done by the joint resolution of April 25, 1862. [Footnote 3]
The first section of the resolution authorized a change of the location of the line of the railroad.
The third and fourth sections of the resolution were thus:
"SECTION 3. The Secretary of the Interior is hereby authorized to cause all even sections or parts of even sections of public land that may be brought within six miles of the new line of railroad, to be sold at the same price and in the same manner as those have been upon the originally located route. And all purchasers, or their heirs or assigns, within the six-mile limits of the said originally located route who shall be more than six miles from the new line and who have paid the sum of $2.50 an acre, shall have the right either to exchange their locations upon the line as first established to the new line, upon the same terms, in like quantities, and in the same manner as on the line first established, or, at their option, to enter, without further payment, anywhere within the Menasha Land District in the State of Wisconsin, an additional quantity of public lands subject to private entry, at $1.25 an acre, equal to the quantity entered by them at $2.50 an acre, so that the lands originally entered by them shall thus be reduced to the rate of $1.25 an acre."
"SECTION 4. The even sections of public lands, reserved to the United States by the aforesaid Act of June 3, 1856, along the originally located route of railroad north of the said Town of Appleton, and along which no railroad has been constructed, shall hereafter be sold at $1.25 an acre. "
A change in the route of the road was made which left the lands now in question outside of the new limits. After this, but before any public offer of the lands for sale at the reduced price, one Eldred applied to the register and receiver of the local land office, and in 1865 and 1866 was allowed to enter them at the price of $1.25 per acre. The entries, however, were subsequently cancelled by the Commissioner of the General Land Office on the ground that when they were made the lands were not subject to private entry at such minimum price, and this decision, on appeal, was affirmed by the Secretary of the Interior. On the cancellation of the entries, the lands were offered at public sale at the minimum price of $1.25 an acre, and not being sold, were subsequently purchased at private entry at that price by one Sexton, to whom patents were issued in 1870.
Hereupon, Eldred filed a bill in one of the state courts of Wisconsin to have Sexton declared a trustee for him, and to have a surrender of the patents, and conveyance of all Sexton's rights to him.
The court decreed against the complainant, and that decree being affirmed in the supreme court of the state, the case was brought here by him for review.
The sole question was whether the action, as above stated, of the Commissioner of the General Land Office and of the Secretary of the Interior was correct. If correct, it was conceded that the defendant's title, obtained subsequently, could not be impeached. If incorrect, the defendant was to be treated as a trustee holding the legal title for the plaintiff.
The solution of the question depended, of course, upon the effect to be given to the land grant legislation, already quoted, for the benefit of Wisconsin