Open main menu

Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

19 U.S. 550

Kerr  v.  Watts

APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Ohio.

Ferdinando O'Neal was owner of a Virginia military warrant for 4,000 acres of land, dated the 17th of July, 1783, and employed Nathaniel Massie, a deputy surveyor, to locate it, and to survey and return the plats.

John Watts purchased the right of O'Neal, and on the 7th of January, 1801, paid Massie 50 pounds in full satisfaction for locating and surveying the warrant.

On the 3d of August, 1787, Massie made an entry on part of O'Neal's warrant for 1,000 acres. On the same day an entry had been made for 1,000 acres for Robert Powell, which was purchased by Massie.

On the 27th of January, 1795, Massie made an entry in his own name for 2,366 acres, and the bill, filed in the Court below by the respondent, Watts, against the appellants, Kerr and others, charges, that on the 26th of April, 1796, Massie fraudulently made a survey for O'Neal, for 530 acres, purporting to be made upon his said entry of 1,000 acres; but, in fact, on different land, having fraudulently appropriated to himself the land covered by O'Neal's entry, by surveys made on Powell's and his own entries, having purchased Powell's warrant and entry before the surveys were made.

The bill further states, that Massie had obtained grants upon his survey.

Watts commenced a suit in Chancery against Massie in the State Court of Kentucky, claiming a conveyance of the legal title, and proceeded to a final hearing upon the merits, in the Circuit Court of Kentucky, to which it had been removed; which last Court, in the November term, 1807, made an interlocutory decree, in favour of Watts, and directed the proper surveyor to lay off the several entries in the manner pointed out in that decree, and to report to the Court in order to a final decree in the premises.

The cause was finally decided by a decree directing Massie to convey the 1,000 acres to Watts according to certain metes and bounds reported, and to deliver possession, &c.; and upon performance of the decree by Massie, Watts was directed to transfer to him 1,000 acres of O'Neal's warrant.

Massie appealed to this Court, where the decree of the Circuit Court was affirmed, at February term, 1810.a

Massie refused to convey or deliver possession when demanded; and in the mean time part of the property recovered had been laid out into lots of the town of Chilicothe, and the bill charges the appellants, and others, who were made defendants in the present suit, with having in possession, respectively, part of the complainant's property, and claiming to hold the same by titles derived under Massie.

The record of the proceedings in Kentucky, and in the Supreme Court, were referred to, and made part of the bill in this case.

The entries before mentioned are as follows:

'No. 503: Captain Robert Powell enters 1,000 acres of land, &c. Beginning at the upper corner on the Scioto of Major Thomas Massie's entry, No. 480, running up the river 520 poles, when reduced to a straight line, thence from the beginning with Massie's line, so far that a line parallel to the general course of the river shall include the quantity.'

'No. 509: Captain Ferdinand O'Neal enters 1,000 acres, &c. Beginning at the upper corner on the Scioto of Robert Powell's entry, 503, running up the river 500 poles, when reduced to a straight line, and from the beginning with Powell's line, so far that a line parallel with the general course of the river will include the quantity."No. 2462: Nathaniel Massie enters 2,366 acres, &c. on the bank of Scioto, corner to Robert Powell's survey, No. 503, thence with his line south 43 east 293 poles; south 80 east to the upper back corner of Thomas Massie's survey, No. 480, thence with his line south 10 west, to Paint Creek, thence up the creek to the corner of Thomas Lawes' survey, thence with his line, and from the beginning up the Scioto to the lower corner of Daniel Stull's survey, thence with his line so far that a line south 10 west, will include the quantity.'

But these entries depended on one which preceded them on the entry book, made by Thomas Massie, as follows:

'No. 480: 1787, August 3d. Thomas Massie enters 1,400 acres, &c. Beginning at the junction of Paint Creek with the Scioto, running up the Scioto 520 poles when reduced to a straight line, thence off at right angles, with the general course of the river so far that a line parallel thereto will include the quantity.'

This Court, in the case referred to, decided, that Thomas Massie's survey ought to commence at the mouth of Paint Creek; and that the upper corner on the river should be placed at the termination of a right line at the distance of 520 poles, and the survey extended out at right angles with the general course of a right line supposed from the beginning to the upper corner: and that, from the upper corner of Thomas Massie's survey, a point on the river, at the distance of 520 poles on a right line should be ascertained for the upper corner of Powell's, and that the real course of a right line from Thomas Massie's corner to Powell's upper corner, should be considered as a base from which Powell's survey should be extended by lines at right angles therewith, except only so far as the lower line might interfere with Thomas Massie's property.

The survey of O'Neal to depend upon the same principles in relation to the survey of Powell.

The object of the present suit was to carry into execution against the defendants, who have acquired Massie's title, the decree against him in Kentucky, affirmed in this Court.

The Court below, by their decree, gave relief against each, for the specific property claimed by the answer of each, construing the entries according to the principles of the former decision, except in varying the complainant's survey, by a decision that a piece of land called an Island in the river, was part of the main shore when the entries were made, and included as a part of the bank.

The defendants all submitted to the decree, except Kerr, Doolittle, Joseph Kirkpatrick, sen. Joseph Kirkpatrick, jun., and the heirs of James Johnston, who appealed to this Court.

     February 15th.

The Attorney-General and Mr. Scott, for the appellants, argued, (1.) that the survey made for Powell ought to be established, because made under the superintendance of officers to whom the State of Virginia had deputed the sovereign and exclusive authority to regulate such surveys, similar to the powers of commissioners to adjust pre-emption rights: and that their determination was conclusive, being an inseparable condition annexed to the grant from the State. 2 Vent. 365; 3 Ch. Cas. 135. The existence and power of these agents has been recognised by the Court. Wallace v. Anderson, 5 Wheat. 291. (2.) The appellant, Kerr, is an innocent purchaser without notice, who holds the legal estate with superior equity, and therefore cannot be disturbed by the alleged equity of Watts. The cause having been set down for hearing on the bill and answers, his answer is conclusive evidence as to every fact which it states (Wheat. Dig. tit. Chancery, pl. 142; Leeds v. Marine Ins. Co., 2 Wheat. 380), and it does state that at the filing of the bill he had the legal title; and that before either party purchased, the entries had been surveyed, and become matters of record. A survey returned and recorded is notice. 3 Binn. 118. He is not affected by the supposed fraud of Massie, in making Powell's survey. Massie was only one of several mesne purchasers of Powell's rights; and if Powell, the original holder, was innocent, a subsequent purchaser under him has a right to the shield of his innocence, even though such purchaser had notice. 2 Atk. 242; 11 Ves. 478; Sugd. on Vend. 438. Nor is the appellant a lite pendente purchaser, because the former suit was brought in Kentucky, out of the jurisdiction where the land lies. 2 P. Wms. 482. The rule is borrowed from the common law; and its analogies must, therefore, be pursued. A verdict and judgment at law, or a decree in equity, affecting the title to land, are local in their nature. The lis pendens must be on the question of title directly, and not incidentally. The principle is confined to those who attempt to originate a title pendente lite; and is never extended to those who had acquired a title previously, and who ought, therefore, to have been made parties to the lis pendens. Its policy is to prevent the parties from alienating, and thus evading the justice of the Court. Even if the appellant had no legal title, but had only the better right to call for it, he could not be affected in equity by the pendency of the former suit. 2 Vern. 599. Nor is he bound as privy to the former decree. No person can be bound as such, who ought to have been made a party: as to all who ought to have been parties, such a decree is considered as a fraud. 1 Binn. 217; 2 Ibid. 40, 455; 3 Ibid. 114. Those only are privies, who acquire this interest subsequent to the institution of the suit, by the decree in which they are sought to be affected. Besides, the question here is substantially different from that which arose in the former case. There it was as to the responsibility of an agent to his principal, for an alleged fraud. Here it is as to the dispossession of a bona fide purchaser.

Mr. Doddridge and Mr. Hardin, contra, stated that they should not examine the correctness of the decision in the former case, nor the question whether the appellants were bound by the decree against Massie, under whom they claim; since, whether they were bound by it as a res judicata or not, the Court would not change the application of the former adjudication, unless the appellants showed themselves to be purchasers for a valuable consideration without notice, or unless the respondent had been guilty of some gross negligence. The defence of being a purchaser without notice, can never be set up by or against one claiming under a different original title. It is admitted to be the general rule, that where the cause is set down for a hearing on the bill and answer, the answer of the defendant is conclusive: but where the answer proceeds upon the ground of making the defendant an innocent purchaser, and the records, &c. made part of the bill, show that he cannot be such, there the law charging him with notice from the registry, forms an exception to the rule. The title of the respondent is an imperfect legal title; and his claim being a matter of record, cannot be treated as a latent equity, for negligence in prosecuting which he shall lose his property. In the system of land laws which has been established in this country, land titles commence by a record, and the very first step confers an inchoate legal title.

     March 16th.

Mr. Justice JOHNSON delivered the opinion of the Court.


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).