Carondelet v. Saint Louis

Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

66 U.S. 179

Carondelet  v.  Saint Louis

Writ of error to the Supreme Court of Missouri.

This proceeding was commenced by the city of Carondelet against the city of Saint Louis in the Saint Louis Land Court by a petition, in which the plaintiff (Carondelet) set forth that it was a Spanish town for more than thirty years prior to December 20, 1803, (the date when that country was ceded to the United States,) and the inhabitants of the town for several years before and after 1803 used and possessed a certain tract of land adjoining the town as commons; that between the years 1796 and 1800 the northern line of the Carondelet common was surveyed and marked by Don Antonio Soulard, the Spanish surveyor for the province of Upper Louisiana, pursuant to an order of the Governor, which was published at the church door of Saint Louis; that this line commenced on the bluff bank of the Mississippi at the Sugar Loaf Mound, four miles south of St. Louis, and two miles north of Carondelet, and running thence westwardly; that the line was distinctly marked; that the land south of it continued to be used as commons by the inhabitants of Carondelet until December 20, 1803, and was claimed by them as such until June 13, 1812, on which day it was confirmed to them as their absolute property by an act of Congress. The petition complains that Saint Louis, in fraud of the rights of Carondelet, procured in 1831 a survey to be made of the common lands of the former city, whose southern line is nearly a mile south of the Sugar Loaf Mound, whereas it should have followed the line established by the survey of Soulard, and the respective possessions of the parties in Spanish times. The petition further avers that Saint Louis is in the actual possession of the land covered by the two surveys, and prays judgment that the survey of 1831, so far as it interferes with the claim of Carondelet, be set aside, and the plaintiff be put in possession.

A verdict and judgment were rendered in the Land Court in favor of the defendant, and the cause was removed by writ of error to the Supreme Court of Missouri, where it was reversed and the record remitted, with an order for a venire facias de novo. On the second trial the verdict and judgment were again in favor of the defendant, and another writ of error was taken to the Supreme Court of the State, where the judgment was affirmed. A very full report of the case as it stood in the State court will be found in 29 Missouri Rep., 527.

The act of Congress of June 13, 1812, confirmed to the inhabitants of certain towns and villages (among others Saint Louis and Carondelet) 'the rights, titles, and claims to town or village lots, out-lots, common-field lots, and commons in, adjoining or belonging' to them, which were 'inhabited, cultivated, or possessed' prior to December 20, 1803, 'according to their several right or rights in common thereto.' The same act made it the duty of an officer to run an out-boundary line so as to include the commons of each village. In 1816 Congress provided for a survey of all claims confirmed by previous acts. Another act, similar in its tenor and object, is dated in 1824, and in 1831 the United States relinquished all their interest in these common lands to the inhabitants of the respective towns and villages, to be held by them in full property and for their own use, according to the laws of Missouri.

Saint Louis was incorporated in 1809, and Carondelet in 1832, both by the County Court. The limits of Saint Louis were described as extending southward to Sugar Loaf Mound. The bounds given to Carondelet extended 2,640 yards on the Mississippi, and west to Fourth street, but did not include the north common, or the fields, or the south commons.

In 1816, or 1817, a survey was made by Elias Rector, a deputy surveyor, under instructions from his superior, apparently in pursuance of the law passed in 1816. In 1834 Joseph C. Brown, another deputy, under similar instructions, retraced and marked the survey of Rector. Brown's work was approved by the Surveyor General. His survey ascertained and marked all the lines of the common land appurtenant to Carondelet, and found its contents to be 9,905 acres, or about 11,642 arpents. The authorities of Carondelet were present at the making of this survey by agents specially appointed for that purpose. They procured a copy of it and directed it to be framed for the benefit of the town. In 1839 they ordered all the commons north of the River des Peres to be leased. The lots on the extreme north were made fractional by Brown's line, and they were leased as fractions. A plot of these subdivisions, filed by themselves in the recorder's office, calls for the Saint Louis common on the north. In several suits between the town and other parties, Carondelet gave Brown's survey in evidence as the basis of her title. When an attempt was made in the War Department of the United States to annul the survey, Carondelet protested and petitioned Congress to confirm their right according to the survey. The city of Saint Louis in the mean time (1836) proceeded to subdivide her common lands into lots down to the line of Brown's survey and sold them, but not without a formal notice from a committee appointed by Carondelet that the lands were claimed by the latter corporation. This suit was brought in 1855.

The Supreme Court of Missouri held that the evidence given in the Land Court proved the acceptance of Brown's survey by the authorities of Carondelet; that it could not be accepted in part and rejected in part, and that such acceptance estopped Carondelet from claiming any land outside of the survey.

Mr. Hill, of Missouri, for plaintiff in error. The case involves the construction of the act of Congress of 1812, under which Carondelet claims. This act gives the land specifically and unconditionally to the inhabitants of Carondelet. Their title was perfect without a survey, and therefore it could not be divested by the survey of 1834. Bird vs. Montgomery, (6 Mo., 511;) Chouteau vs. Eckhart, (2 How, 421;) Guitard vs. Stoddard, (16 How., 494;) West vs. Cochran, (17 How., 416;) Carondelet vs. McPherson, (20 Mo., 192;) Carondelet vs. St. Louis, (25 Mo., 448;) Milburn vs. Hortez, (23 Mo., 532;) Staniford vs. Taylor, (18 Howard.) The out-boundary survey directed by the act of 1812 has been held by the Supreme Court of Missouri not to be conclusive against the claimant of a common-field lot outside of such survey. Gurno vs. Janis, (6 Mo., 330;) Page vs. Scheibel, (11 Mo., 167;) Schultz vs. Lindell, (24 Mo., 567.)

Whether Brown's survey was a survey of all the land confirmed to the inhabitants of Carondelet was a question of fact, but the State court decided it as matter of law, and defeated the act of Congress by giving to the survey an effect which it was not entitled to have. Moreover, Brown's survey was illega and fraudulent, because it was not made under instructions from the Commissioner of the General Land Office, as the act of 1824 requires. Besides, the survey of 1821 did include the land in dispute; there was never any appeal from it; it was duly made, and is conclusively binding on the United States. Minard's Heirs vs. Massey, (8 How., 294,) which is relied on as sustaining the view of the State court as to the effect of the acceptance of the survey of 1834, has no application to this case.

The Spanish law was in force in Upper Louisiana when this right originated, and continued in force until 1816. By that law the commons could not be alienated without the consent of Congress. 5 Partidas Law, 5, tit. 5. And the same rule prevails under the common law. Cincinnati vs. White's Lessee, (6 Peters, 432.) The express authority, therefore, of the Missouri legislature was necessary to enable the trustees of the inhabitants of Carondelet to divest their title by accepting a survey.

Mr. Shepley and Mr. Gardenhire, of Missouri, for defendant in error. This court has no jurisdiction to revise the judgment of the State court in a case like the present. The validity of no treaty statute or authority, exercised under the United States, is drawn in question. Certainly there is no decision against the right asserted under the United States. The plaintiff claims title to certain lands by virtue of an act of Congress. The court says: 'True, the land was yours; your title under the law is not to be denied; but you are estopped to show that title against this party, because you have done acts which make its assertion inconsistent with equity and good conscience.' This is no more deciding against the right claimed under the statute than it would be to hold that the plaintiff's title was divested by a sale or barred by the statute of limitations. Montgomery vs. Herndez, (12 Wh., 129;) Matthew vs. Zane, (7 Wh., 164;) Harris vs. Denny, (3 Pet., 292;) Crowell vs. Randall, (10 Pet., 391;) Nelson vs. Lagow, (12 How., 98;) Moreland vs. Page, (20 How., 522.) These cases show that this court will not and ought not to revise the judgment of a State court on any but the questions of federal jurisdiction enumerated in the 25th section of the act of 1789.

The town of Carondelet had no title to the land in dispute by the act of 1812 without the survey, which the same act, as well as subsequent acts, authorized and required. Pasturing cattle or cutting wood were acts which the villagers might do upon lands not appurtenant to the town as commons. A survey was necessary, otherwise it must be supposed that Congress gave to the towns an absolute title to lands, the limits of which might be defined at any future time by parol evidence of the extent to which cattle grazed and men cut wood. Unless the right of Carondelet was defined by the survey, it is not defined at all, and the grant is void for uncertainty. The contradictory and uncertain testimony of the witnesses shows the value of this principle and the necessity of adhering to it.

But here was a survey not only unappealed from, but accepted by many acts of the party who now attempt to repudiate it. The binding effect of a survey of commons under the acts of 1812, 1824, and 1831, upon a party by whom it is accepted, has been established by many decisions of this court. Chouteau vs. Eckhart, (2 How., 344;) Le Bois vs. Brammell, (4 How., 456;) Minard vs. Massey, (8 How., 301;) Guitard vs. Stoddard, (16 How., 494;) Willet vs. Sandford, (19 How., 82;) and other cases. It is undoubtedly true, as decided in Guitard vs. Stoddard, that an individual may recover a common-field lot without a survey; but if he asks for a survey under the act of 1812, has it made by proper authority, assents to it, and accepts it, can he afterwards claim beyond it?

What is alleged to have been a survey of this common in 1821 was not a survey. But Rector's, in 1817, has all the marks of an authentic and approved survey that can be found on any survey of that time. Brown's, made in 1834, was regularly approved by the surveyor general; was adopted by the United States; was accepted by Carondelet, and the parties are mutually estopped to deny its legal validity.

The objection of the plaintiff in error that the court decided the facts connected with the survey as matters of law is not well founded. The jury found the facts, and the court applied the law by saying that the facts created an estoppel.

The survey having been made and accepted, it is a survey of the whole claim, conclusive and binding as a whole. The reasoning of the State court in this case and in that of Carondelet vs. McPherson, (20 Mo., 192,) exhausts the subject, and shows clearly how inequitable any other principle would be.

Mr. Ewing, of Ohio, in reply. The denial of jurisdiction in this court rests on no solid foundation. The whole case, in all its points, is made up of the construction of laws of the United States, and acts of Federal officers and of other parties having reference thereto. The Supreme Court of Missouri says in express terms that the case must be governed by the acts of Congress and the laws of Missouri. Both parties assert title under the same acts of Congress, and the actual title depends on the construction of those acts. This gives jurisdiction. Matthews vs. Lane, (4 Cr., 382;) Ross vs. Doe, (1 Pet., 664;) Buel vs. Van Ness, (8 Wh., 324;) Lytle vs. Arkansas, (22 How., 202.) In Mackay vs. Dillon, (2 How., 372,) this court reversed a judgment of the State court because it gave to a survey properly admitted an effect to which it was not entitled.

On the passage of the act of June 13, 1812, the title of Carondelet was perfect to all the land which she possessed prior to 1803 by well defined and undisputed boundaries, and that title was not defeasible by any subsequent survey of a Federal officer. Mackay vs. Dillon, (4 How., 446;) Guitard vs. Stoddard, (16 How., 508.)

But if a survey be necessary to make valid, or if it be effectual to destroy the title under the act of 1812, then the survey of Brown in 1821 is invoked in favor of Carondelet. Until that survey was set aside there could be none after it.

If titles resting on a survey are once defined thereby, such survey cannot, after a long time, be disregarded by the United States, and a new survey made, without considering it or setting it aside, and thus shake or destroy the titles which it had defined. If this process of demolition could be begun at the end of fourteen years, and consummated at the ene of thirty-five years, there is nothing to protect title thus acquired, and a cloud may hang over it forever; the process may be repeated without limit as to number or time.

But the court below held Carondelet estopped, under their construction of the laws of the United States, from asserting title to the land in controversy. This point assumes the title in Carondelet, and asserts that good faith or some rule of law forbids her to set it up. As between Carondelet and St. Louis the court below did not find an estoppel, except through the United States, by virtue of the survey of Brown in 1834, and the acts of Carondelet under it. Indeed, it was impossible that they should so find, for Carondelet resisted from first to last the seizure of her property as fully and efficiently as she was able to resist. And it is difficult to perceive a moment of time when the United States offered and Carondelet accepted the survey of 1834. It was not an approved survey until March, 1855-a month after this suit was brought. To say that Carondelet was estopped by the action of the Secretary of the Interior, on the matter then sub judice in our courts of law, is absurd. Carondelet, at the moment this action which is to estop her took place, was prosecuting her title before a court of justice, and she has not for a moment ceased or delayed its prosecution in consequence of the action of the Secretary of the Interior, but has continued, and still continues, to resist and repel it. If the United States has forever power over these titles, to enlarge, diminish, destroy, or transfer them, without the consent of the grantee, be it so. It is, in effect, so decided in this case by the court below; but let it not be called by a false name. It is the mere exercise of power, not estoppel; and such is the decision in deed, though not in name. It arises out of 'the statutes relating to this subject,' and not out of any principle of the common or civil law. The error of the court below is in making the survey of 1834 bar the title of Carondelet to lands within her well-defined boundaries, defined by lines and corner-stones, by fences, and by regular survey in 1821. Jourdan vs. Banalt, (4 How., 179.) No matter how the court held the title barred by the survey of 1834, whether by direct annulment or by the expedient of an estoppel, it is that survey which is to destroy the title, and it was irregular and illegal.

Mr. Justice CATRON.


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).