Shepley v. Cowan,
91 U.S. 330 (1875)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Shepley v. Cowan, 91 U.S. 330 (1875)

Shepley v. Cowan

91 U.S. 330


1. Whenever, in the disposition of the public lands, any action is required to be taken by an officer of the Land Department, all proceedings tending to defeat such action are impliedly inhibited. Accordingly, where an act of Congress of 1812 directed a survey to be made of the outboundary line of the Village of Carondelet in the State of Missouri so as to include the commons claimed by its inhabitants, and a survey made did not embrace all the lands thus claimed, the lands omitted were reserved from sale until the approval of the survey by the Land Department, and the validity of the claim to the omitted lands was thus determined.

2. Where a state seeks to select lands as a part of the grant to it by the eighth section of the Act of Congress of Sept. 4, 1841, and a settler seeks to acquire a right of preemption to the same lands, the party taking the first initiatory step, if the same is followed up to patent, acquires the better right to the premises. The patent relates back to the date of the initiatory act and cuts off all intervening claimants.

3. The eighth section of the Act of Sept. 4, 1841, in authorizing the state to make selections of land, does not interfere with the operation of the other provisions of that act regulating the system of settlement and preemption. The two modes of acquiring title to land from the United States are not in

Page 91 U. S. 331

conflict with each other. Both are to have full operation, that one controlling in a particular case under which the first initiatory step was had.

4. Whilst, according to previous decisions of this Court, no vested right in the public lands as against the United Stales is acquired until all the prerequisites for the acquisition of the title have been complied with, parties may, as against each other, acquire a right to be preferred in the purchase or other acquisition of the land, when the United States have determined to sell or donate the property. In all such cases, the first in time in the commencement of proceedings for the acquisition of the title, when the same are regularly followed up, is deemed to be the first in right.

5. Where a party has settled upon public land with a view to acquire a right of preemption, the land being open to settlement, his right thus initiated is not prejudiced by a refusal of the local land officers to receive his proofs of settlement upon an erroneous opinion that the land is reserved from sale.

6. The rulings of the Land Department on disputed questions of fact, made in a contested case as to the settlement and improvements of a preemption claimant, are not open to review by the courts when collaterally assailed.

7. The officers of the Land Department are specially designated by law to receive, consider, and pass upon proofs presented with respect to settlements upon the public lands, with a view to secure rights of preemption. If they err in the construction of the law applicable to any case, or if fraud is practiced upon them, or they themselves are chargeable with fraudulent practices, their rulings may be reviewed and annulled by the courts when a controversy arises between private parties founded upon their decisions. But for mere errors of judgment upon the weight of evidence in a contested case before them, the only remedy is by appeal from one officer to another of the department, and perhaps, under special circumstances, to the President.

The facts are stated in the opinion of the Court.

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