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United States Supreme Court

88 U.S. 521

Langdeau  v.  Hanes

ERROR to the Circuit Court for the Southern District of Illinois; the case being thus:

Langdeau brought ejectment, August, 1872, against Hanes for a piece of ground, which before our Revolution was part of the French and Canadian settlement of St. Vincents (now Vincennes), and, as such, part of the Northwestern Territory conveyed in 1783, by authority of the State of Virginia, who then claimed it, to the United States, under an express stipulation—

'That the French and Canadian inhabitants and other settlers of . . . St. Vincents, and the neighboring villages, who have professed themselves citizens of Virginia, shall have their possessions and titles confirmed to them, and be protected in the enjoyment of their rights and liberties.'

This stipulation was embodied in the deed of cession, and the deed, in the form in which it was subsequently executed, was incorporated into the resolutions of Congress of 1784, declaring their readiness to accept the deed. [1]

By act of March 26th, 1804, [2] Congress appointed commissioners to hear and determine all claims for land held by settlers under the French; and under this act the claim of the heirs of one Jean Baptiste Tongas, under a grant to their ancestor for two hundred and four acres, came up and was confirmed. [3] The commissioners made report of the titles which they had confirmed, and Congress, on the 3d of March, 1807, by 'An act confirming claims to land in the District of Vincennes,' [4] enacted:

'SECTION 1. That all the decisions made by the commissioners appointed for the purpose of examining claims of persons claiming lands in the District of Vincennes, in favor of such claimants . . . be, and the same are, hereby confirmed.

'SECTION 5. That every person or the legal representative of every person, whose claim to a tract of land is confirmed by this act, and who had not previously obtained a patent for the same . . . shall, whenever his claim shall have been located and surveyed, be entitled to receive from the register of the land office at Vincennes, a certificate stating that the claimant is entitled to receive a patent for such tract of land by virtue of this act, . . . which certificate shall entitle the party to a patent for the said tract, which shall issue in like manner as provided by law for the other lands of the United States.'

A survey of the tract was made in 1820, but no patent issued until 1872, when one issued reciting the confirmation by the act of 1807 of the report of the commissioners appointed under the act of 1804. The patent purports to 'give and grant' to the heirs of Tongas, in fee, the tract in question. The plaintiff claimed under these heirs.

The defendant claimed as tenant under one Law, who for more than thirty years had been in the actual possession of the premises, under claim and color of title made in good faith, having purchased the same at a sale under a decree of foreclosure made by the Circuit Court of Illinois for Lawrence County, and received the deed of the commissioners appointed by the court to make the sale, and had paid all the taxes thereon during that time.

By the law of Illinois such a possession constitutes a bar to any adverse claim.

The court held, as matter of law, under the foregoing facts:

'1st. That the fact of confirmation of 1807 was a present grant, becoming so far operative and complete, to convey the legal title when the land was located and surveyed by the United States in 1820, as that an action of ejectment could be maintained on the same.

'2d. That the patent was not of itself the grant of the land by the United States, but only the evidence that a grant had been made to the heirs of Jean Baptiste Tongas.

'3d. That as Law went into the possession of the land under claim and color of title made in good faith, and had held possession for more than seven successive years, and during that time had paid all the taxes legally assessed upon the land before the commencement of this suit, it was a bar to a recovery by the plaintiff.'

To each of these propositions of law the plaintiff excepted, and judgment having been given against him, he brought the case here.

Messrs. John Hallum and W. B. Thompson, for the plaintiff in error:

The question is, did the confirmatory act of 1807 pass the equitable title to the confirmee, or did it pass a legal title to the fee? The court below held that it passed the latter. Now we assert that the legal title remained in the United States until the patent issued for the land. If this is so the statute of limitations prescribed by Illinois is no bar.

The cases of Bagnell v. Broderick, [5] Fenn v. Holme, [6] Gibson v. Chouteau, [7] control the case. The last is in point. This court there held that the power of Congress in the disposal of the public domain cannot be interfered with or its exercise embarrassed by any State legislation; that such hostile legislation cannot deprive the grantees of the United States of the possession and enjoyment of the property by reason of any delay in the transfer of the title after the initiation of proceedings for its acquisition from the United States.

That the patent is the instrument which under the laws of Congress passes the title of the United States; that in the action of ejectment in the Federal courts for lands derived from the United States, the patent, when regular on its face, is conclusive evidence of title in the patentee.

That in actions of ejectment in the State courts, when the question presented is, whether the plaintiff or defendant has the superior title from the United States, the patent is conclusive.

That the occupation of lands derived from the United States before the issue of their patent, for the period prescribed by the statute of limitations of a State for the commencement of actions for the recovery of real property, is not a bar to an action of ejectment for the recovery of such lands founded on the legal title subsequently conveyed by the patent.

That such occupation does not constitute a sufficient equity in favor of the occupant to control the legal title thus subsequently conveyed, whether asserted in a separate suit in a Federal court, or set up as an equitable defence to an action of ejectment in a State court.

Mr. W. E. Niblack, contra:

Chouteau v. Gibson is not parallel to this case, and does not apply. There the land in dispute was a tract selected by certain parties in lieu of land damaged by earthquakes at New Madrid in the year 1812, in which way the lands held by early inhabitants of New Madrid were in that year materially injured. Congress, in 1815, by way of relief, allowed them or their assigns to locate an equal quantity of land to that injured, on the domain of the United States, and it was such a relocation or new location of land near St. Louis, which was in controversy in that case. Of course the title or legal estate to the land thus located in place of that injured was solely in the United States, and from them alone could any title be derived, and until the conditions under which the relocation was to be made were complied with, the United States retained the title. It was accordingly held that as against the title conveyed by their subsequent patent, the statute of limitations of Missouri could only begin to run after the patent was issued,-not previously, that is, whilst the United States held it, which would seem to be obvious enough.

In the present case neither Virginia nor the United States ever owned the land in controversy, or pretended to own it. The act of cession and all the acts of Congress are acts of confirmation of a previously existing claim and right. Besides, if this were otherwise, and the claim of the heirs of Tongas were a mere equitable title, the legislative confirmation by the act of 1807 operated as a grant or quit-claim of the government, perfecting the claimant's title; and the statute of Illinois would begin to run against them after the title was thus perfected. Had there been a legislative confirmation of the claim under the New Madrid location, in Gibson v. Chouteau, there would have been no occasion for the patent of the United States to perfect the claimant's title. The statute of limitations would have commenced running, in that event, from the date of the confirmation.

Mr. Justice FIELD delivered the opinion of the court.


^1  See Journals of Congress, vol. i, pp. 66-72.

^2  2 Stat. at Large, 277.

^3  American State Papers, 573; Supplement to Document D.

^4  2 Stat. at Large, 446.

^5  13 Peters, 436.

^6  21 Howard, 481.

^7  13 Wallace, 92.

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).