Stark v. Starr,
94 U.S. 477 (1876)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Stark v. Starr, 94 U.S. 477 (1876)

Stark v. Starr

94 U.S. 477


1. The complainant, Starr, and his brother, being in possession of certain lots in the City of Portland, Oregon, filed a bill in equity in the state court to quiet their title and compel the defendant, who claimed an adverse interest under his patent from the United States, to execute a release to them. Their bill set forth two distinct and independent causes of action, or grounds for relief -- one founded upon an agreement made by the defendant with the parties through whom the complainants claimed, to ratify and confirm the title of such parties, and the other founded upon a patent of the United States, issued to the City of Portland for land within its limits, in trust for the several use and benefit of the occupants thereof. This patent embraced the premises in controversy, and the complainants claimed as beneficiaries under it. On motion of the defendant, the court held that the two grounds for equitable relief were inconsistent, and compelled the complainants to elect upon which ground they would proceed. They objected to the order, but, under its compulsion, elected to proceed under the city patent, and accordingly amended their bill so as to present their claim for relief solely as beneficiaries under that instrument. The state court held that the patent to Stark was void as against the complainants, and decreed in their favor. On appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, the decree was reversed, that court holding that the patent to the city was void, and the bill was subsequently dismissed. The defendant having afterwards commenced an action of ejectment for the possession of the premises and recovered judgment, the complainant, who had in the meantime acquired the interest of his brother, filed the present bill, setting up substantially the same matter respecting the agreement of Stark with the parties through whom he claimed which was originally averred in the first suit, and also that the defendant was estopped by his acts from asserting title to the premises. Held that the proceedings and decree in the first suit did not conclude the complainant in the present suit upon the agreement.

2. The principle that a party seeking to enforce a claim, legal or equitable, must present to the court, either by the pleadings or the proofs or both, all the grounds upon which he expects a judgment in his favor, and is not at liberty to split up his demand and prosecute it by piecemeal or present only a portion of the grounds upon which special relief is sought, and leave the rest to be presented in a second suit if the first fail, does not require distinct causes of action -- that is to say, distinct matters, each of which would authorize by itself independent relief, to be presented in a single suit, though they exist at the same time, and might be considered together.

3. Before the laws of the United States were extended over the Territory of Oregon, the settlers in that country had formed for themselves a provisional government under which they adopted regulations for the possession and occupation of land in the territory among themselves, although the title to the land was in the United States. Under the regulations, land was occupied, cultivated, and improved, and bought and sold, as if the parties had possessed the fee. The claimants did not, in their dealings with the land, deny the proprietorship

Page 94 U. S. 478

of the United States, but they acted upon the expectation that their possessions and improvements would be respected by the government and that ultimately they should acquire the title, and it was the general understanding of the people that whenever the legal title was obtained, it should inure to the benefit of the grantees of the claimant who secured the patent of the United States. This understanding affected all transactions in land until the passage of the Donation Act of Sept. 27, 1850. Held that a purchaser under these circumstances from the claimant, or a person whose purchase from another had been confirmed by the claimant, acquired as against him an equitable right to the land which a court of equity will enforce when he had obtained the patent of the United States, and this equitable right passes to subsequent grantees of the first purchaser or confirmee.

4. Where a ratification by an attorney of a deed of settlement is insufficient in form because of the manner in which he expressed his agency in appending his signature to the instrument declaring the ratification, a court of equity will look beyond the form of the execution and, having ascertained his intention in signing the instrument, will, if possible, give it the effect intended if such ratification has been acted upon by others and has not been objected to by the principal when called to his attention.

5. The subsequent action of the principal in asserting a right in severalty to property, which he could only do upon his approval of such ratification by his attorney, will estop him from denying the ratification.

This was a suit in equity to restrain the defendant from enforcing a judgment recovered by him against the tenants of the complainant for the possession of certain premises situated in the City of Portland, Oregon, and to compel the defendant to execute a release of his interest to the complainant.

It appears from the record, that on the 22d of March, 1848, and for some time previous, one Francis W. Pettygrove held a claim to six hundred and forty acres of land in Oregon, which was taken up by him under the law of the provisional government, established by the settlers there in 1845, before the laws of the United States were extended over the country. On the land covered by this claim a large part of the City of Portland is built. On the day mentioned, Pettygrove conveyed his claim, with the exception of certain designated lots, to one Daniel H. Lownsdale, of Portland. By the conveyance, the grantor, for the consideration of $5,000, and divers other good causes and considerations, bargained, remised, and released to the grantee named all his "right, title, interest, claim, and

Page 94 U. S. 479

demand at law and in equity, present and in expectancy," in and to the land claim the boundaries of which were given.

On the 30th of March, 1849, Lownsdale, for the consideration of $6,000, bargained, quitclaimed, and released his interest in the claim, with the exception of certain lots, to Stephen Coffin, designating the interest conveyed, and describing the claim in similar language. With the execution of this conveyance, Lownsdale and Coffin entered into a contract by which Coffin agreed to make every exertion to obtain the title of the United States to the claim, divide the proceeds of any sales of lots or other property or privileges on the land claimed, to bear half the expenses of any improvements they might jointly conclude to make, to further the interest of the town site, to divide the profits and the losses, and that Coffin should execute to Lownsdale a good title to one-half of the claim upon the termination of the contract, which was dissolvable by mutual consent.

On the 13th of December, 1849, Lownsdale and Coffin, for the consideration of $26,666, payable by installments, conveyed one undivided third part of the claim to William W. Chapman, of Portland. From that time, the three parties owned the claim jointly, designating themselves as partners.

During this time, the defendant Stark asserted ownership to one undivided half of the claim, by purchase from one Lovejoy, who, he contended, had held the claim in connection with Pettygrove.

In January, 1850, Lownsdale went to San Francisco, leaving with Chapman a power of attorney to transact and superintend his business in the territory during his absence; to do anything pertaining to his interests in Oregon which he, in his judgment, might think advisable, "particularly in signing deeds to Portland lots."

At San Francisco, Lownsdale met Stark, and they made a settlement of their respective claims by which the claim was divided by a line running through what is now called Stark Street, Stark taking the part north of the line, and Lownsdale the part south of it. This settlement was embodied in a deed of release and quitclaim, executed by them on the 1st of March, 1850. By the deed, Stark ratified and confirmed the

Page 94 U. S. 480

conveyances of certain designated lots north of that line, made by Lownsdale or his attorney, previous to the first day of January, 1850, and also all grants and conveyances made subsequently to the first day of March, with a proviso that Stark should receive the proceeds of the subsequent conveyances.

During the absence of Lownsdale, Chapman and Coffin agreed to partition off three blocks among the three owners, assigning one to each owner in severalty, at an agreed valuation. In this way, block 78 was assigned to Lownsdale, block 79 to Coffin, and block 81 to Chapman. This partition, making assignment, was made by the following instrument:

"This indenture, made and entered into this twentieth day of March, A.D. 1850, between Stephen Coffin, D. H. Lownsdale, and W. W. Chapman, proprietors of Portland, of the first part, and W. W. Chapman, of Portland, Washington County, Oregon, of the second part, witnesseth, that the party of the first part, for and in consideration of the sum of $2,000, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged, doth release, confirm, and quitclaim unto the said Chapman the following-described property in the said town of Portland, to-wit, lots numbers one (1), two (2), three (3), four (4), in fractional block number eighty-one (81), being the warehouse fraction, and situate east of Water Street, to the water north of Oak Street and south of Pine Street, according to the plat of said town."

"In testimony whereof, the parties have hereunto set their hands and seals day and year aforesaid."




"By his Attorney-in-fact, W. W. Chapman"


Chapman and Coffin first heard, early in April, 1850, of the settlement between Stark and Lownsdale. They at once refused to ratify it unless the agreement or deed of settlement was modified so as to cover the disposition of property made by them during Lownsdale's absence up to the time they were informed of the settlement.

Stark had left Portland in September of the previous year. Before he left, he executed the following power of attorney, and delivered it to John H. Couch:

Page 94 U. S. 481

"Know all men by these presents, that I, Benjamin Stark, merchant, resident of Portland, in the Territory of Oregon, do hereby make, constitute, and appoint John H. Couch, of Portland aforesaid (merchant, and my mercantile partner), my true and lawful attorney, for me, and in my stead, to do any and all acts, during my temporary absence from this territory which I might myself lawfully do were I personally present, hereby ratifying and confirming all and every act which my said attorney shall so perform, and by these presents recalling and annulling all authority conflicting with this letter of attorney which I have previously given to any person or persons whatsoever."

"Witness my hand and seal at Portland this twenty-sixth day of September, A.D. 1849."


"Witness: WM. SETON OGDEN"

With this power, Stark sent the following letter to his attorney:

"JOHN H. COUCH, Esq.:"

"SIR -- With this you have from me a power of attorney of the fullest character, under which, during my absence from the territory, you can look out for all my interests, particularly with reference to my interest in the Portland town claim."

"As regards the claim, I wish you to notify Mr. Coffin as soon as he returns of the true position of things, and, if possible, have the difficulty concerning my undivided half settled. I have spoken to James W. Nesmith, Esq., and to Mr. Pritchard, Secretary of State, and they will both hold themselves in readiness to act as my counsel."

"Should you find after the return of Mr. Coffin that the matter can be brought no nearer to a settlement upon just and equitable principles, I wish you to submit to them (Nesmith and Pritchard) all my papers, a part of which you have herewith, and others which you can have from A. L. Lovejoy, Esq., upon application to him, and direct them to pursue such measures as they deem most judicious."

"Mr. Lovejoy can give some valuable hints to my counsel, as he was formerly my agent. It will be necessary for you to advise the public of your appointment as my attorney during my absence. The proper kind of notice to publish, Nesmith or Pritchard can prepare."

"Wishing you may have but little trouble with my affairs, yet

Page 94 U. S. 482

trusting that you will battle to the utmost for my rights if necessary, I am yours, affectionately,"


"PORTLAND, 26th September, 1849"

Assuming to act under the authority of this power and letter, Couch undertook to obtain from Chapman and Coffin a ratification of the agreement of settlement between Stark and Lownsdale. For that purpose, he consented to the modification demanded by them. Accordingly the agreement was ratified by Chapman and Coffin by the following instrument signed by them endorsed upon the agreement:

"We, Stephen Coffin and W. W. Chapman, partners with Daniel H. Lownsdale, in the Town of Portland, hereby ratify and confirm a certain agreement between Benjamin Stark and D. H. Lownsdale, bearing date the first day of March, A.D. 1850, respecting an adjustment of title, hereby placing the disposition of property up to notice of said adjustment upon the same footing with the disposition of property before the first day of January last."

"In testimony whereof we have hereunto set our hands and seals this the thirteenth day of April, A.D. 1850."

"S. COFFIN [L.S.]"

"W. W. CHAPMAN [L.S.]"

Under this instrument the following ratification by the attorney of Stark was executed:

"PORTLAND, O.T., April 15, 1850"

"I ratify the above agreement as far as my interest is concerned in said property."



All other material facts are sufficiently stated in the opinion of the Court.

The complainant obtained a decree for the release prayed, and the defendant appealed to this Court.

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