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United States Supreme Court

73 U.S. 83

Wilson  v.  Wall

ERROR to the Supreme Court of Alabama.

By the fourteenth article of a treaty made in 1830, between the Choctaw Indians and the United States, by which the Choctaws ceded their territories to the United States, it was thus stipulated:

'Each Choctaw head of a family being desirous to remain and become a citizen of the States, shall be permitted to do so by signifying his intention to the agents, &c., and thereupon be entitled to a reservation of one section of six hundred and forty acres of land, to be bounded by sectional lines, and in like manner, shall be entitled to one-half that quantity for each unmarried child, which is living with him, over ten years of age; and a quarter section to such child as may be under ten years of age, to adjoin the location of the parent.'

Hall was such a head of a family, and at the date of the treaty had living with him seven children, of whom three were over and four under ten years of age. This gave one section as respected himself, and two and a half sections as respected his children. Having reported to the agent of the United States in making his claim, the number and ages of his children, but not their names, he secured a reservation of three and a half sections, including the section on which he lived. In 1841, a patent issued to him directly for the whole three and a half sections; the instrument reciting that these had been 'located in favor of the said William Hall as his reserve.' The words of grant in the patent 'were to him and to his heirs,' with a habendum, 'to his or their heirs and assigns forever.'

In 1836, anticipating the issue of the patent, he sold the whole three and a half sections for $750, which was paid him, to one Wilson, who took possession and made valuable improvements on the land.

In April, 1849, Hall himself being dead, his children, now grown up, filed a bill in the Chancery Court of Alabama, against Wilson, to recover the two and a half sections, which were granted as respected them. Wilson admitted in his answer, knowledge that Hall was a Choctaw head of a family entitled to a reservation, but denied knowledge of what article of the treaty he claimed under.

It was conceded that in ascertaining to whom the patents should issue for the lands under the treaty in question, it was not customary to take down or return to the government the names of children of heads of families, but that in executing the treaty, the agent returned the names of heads of families, with the number and ages of their children; and that in issuing the grants in fee simple, it had been customary to issue them in the form of the patent to Hall, until the year 1842. In that year an act was passed by Congress, [1] directing that as to lands located for Choctaw children, the patent should issue to such 'Indian child if living,' and if not living, to his heirs and representatives. A statute had previously passed, [2] referring to article fourteenth of the treaty, and appointing commissioners with full power to examine and ascertain the names of persons who had fulfilled the conditions of settlement so as to entitle them to patents, and to ascertain the quantity for each child 'according to the limitations contained in said article.'

It also seemed that from the date of the treaty down to the act of 1842, the construction of the Executive Department had been, that no provision was made for children as independent beneficiaries, but that they were named as measuring the quantity of land that should be assigned to the head of the family. At least, referring to these provisions, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs had said to the Attorney-General in 1842:

'These words were construed by Mr. Secretary Cass, to give to the parent the title to the halves and quarters of a section stipulated for, in right of the children. This construction has been the uniform one of the department in executing the treaty, and patents have issued accordingly, of the correctness of which no doubt has been entertained heretofore. The register of those that applied to the agent under the article, contained the names of the heads of families only, which would seem to show that the children were not entitled in the opinion of the Indians themselves who furnished the materials for the register.'On this case the questions were,

1. Whether, on a true construction of this fourteenth article of the treaty, Hall himself had held the two and a half sections adjoining the one on which he lived in trust for his children?

2. Whether, if he had himself held the sections in trust, Wilson, a bona fide purchaser for value, was affected with notice of that trust, the same not having been set forth on the face of the patent to Hall?

The Supreme Court of Alabama, where the suit finally went in that State, was of the affirmative opinion on both points. [3]

On the first question, that court's view was,-although a grant to one person for another, ordinarily created a trust,-that here the expression 'for each unmarried child' might be admitted, if by itself, to be equivocal. But the words immediately following 'and a quarter section to such child as may be under ten'-the court thought shed light on the previous obscure expression, and sufficiently indicated the sense in which it was used. This was made more plain, the court considered, by the direction that the lands given in respect of the children should 'adjoin the location of the parent.' What was meant by the location of the parent? Obviously the section on which the parent's 'improvement' was situated, where he lived, and which was reserved to him in absolute right. Lands which adjoined a parent's could hardly be deemed lands of the parent himself. The construction given to the article by the Executive Department of the government, and the form in which the patents were issued could not, the court conceived, change the meaning of the words of the treaty, nor control any court in interpreting them. There was therefore a trust for the children.

On the second question, the Supreme Court of Alabama thought that as Wilson knew when he made his purchase that Hall was 'the Choctaw head of a family' and that his right arose under the treaty, he ought, as a prudent man, to have inquired further. Lord Mansfield's language in Keech v. Hall, [4] was that 'whoever wants to be secure should inquire after and examine the title deeds.' Had Wilson made an examination of the treaty it would have informed him,-so the court considered, that the right of Hall was confined to the single section on which his improvement was situated, and that all the rest of the land was for his children. He had failed to make an inquiry which it was his duty to make; and a court of equity would accordingly treat him as if he had actual notice.

Judgment having gone therefore in favor of the children, the case was now for review, here, where it was fully argued by Mr. P. Phillips for the appellants, in opposition to the view enforced by the State court of Alabama in its opinion as above presented. No opposite counsel appeared.

Mr. Justice GRIER delivered the opinion of the court.


^1  5 Stat. at Large, 515.

^2  Id. 180.

^3  See 34 Alabama, 288.

^4  Douglas, 22

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).