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Lytle v. Arkansas (50 U.S. 314)/Opinion of the Court

< Lytle v. Arkansas (50 U.S. 314)

Mr. Justice McLEAN delivered the opinion of the court.

This writ of error brings before us a decree of the Supreme Court of the State of Arkansas.

The complainants filed their bill in the Pulaski Circuit Court of that State, charging that Nathan Cloyes, their ancestor, during his life, claimed a right of preëmption under the act of Congress of the 29th of May, 1830, to the northwest fractional quarter of section numbered two in township one north of range twelve west. That he was in possession of the land claimed when the above act was passed, and had occupied it in 1829. That he was entitled to enter, by legal subdivisions, any number of acres, not more than one hundred and sixty, or a quarter-section, to include his improvement, upon paying the minimum price for said land. That Cloyes, in his lifetime, by his own affidavit, and the affidavits of others, made proof of his settlement on, and improvement of, the above fractional quarter, according to the provisions of the above act, to the satisfaction of the register and receiver of said land district, agreeably to the rules prescribed by the Commissioner of the General Land Office; and on the 20th of May, 1831, Hartwell Boswell, the register, and John Redman, the receiver, decided that the said Cloyes was entitled to the preëmption right claimed.

That on the same day he applied to the register to enter the northwest fractional quarter of section two, containing thirty acres and eighty-eight hundredths of an acre; also the north- [p329] east fractional quarter of the same section, containing forty-two acres and thirty-two hundredths of an acre; and also the northwest and northeast fractional quarters of section numbered one, in the same township and range, containing thirty-five acres and forty-one hundredths of an acre, the said fractional quarter-sections containing one hundred and eight acres and sixty-one hundredths of an acre; and offered to pay the United States, and tendered to the receiver, the sum of one hundred and thirty-five dollars seventy-six and a fourth cents, the government price for the land. But the register refused to permit the said Cloyes to enter the land, the receiver refused to receive payment for the same, on the ground that he could only enter the quarter-section on which his improvement was made. That the other quarter-sections were contiguous to the one he occupied.

That under the act of the 29th of June, 1832, entitled, "An act establishing land districts in the Territory of Arkansas," the above fractional sections of land were transferred to the Arkansas land district, and the land office was located at Little Rock, to which the papers in relation to this claim of preëmption were transmitted.

The bill further states, that under an act of Congress of the 15th of June, 1832, granting to the Territory of Arkansas one thousand acres of land for the erection of a court-house and jail at Little Rock, and under "An act to authorize the Governor of the Territory to sell the land granted for a court-house and jail, and for other purposes," dated 2d March, 1833, John Pope, then Governor of said Territory, among other lands, selected, illegally and by mistake, for the benefit of the Territory, the said northwest fractional quarter of section numbered two, for which a patent was issued to the Governor of the Territory and his successors in office, for the purposes stated.

That the said John Pope, as Governor, under an act granting a quantity of land to the Territory of Arkansas, for the erection of a public building at the seat of government of said Territory, dated 2d March, 1831, and an act to authorize the Governor of the Territory to select ten sections to build a legislative house for the Territory, approved 4th July, 1832, selected the northeast fractional quarter of section two, and the northwest fractional quarter and northeast fractional quarter of section one, as unappropriated lands, and, having assigned the same to William Russell, a patent to him was issued therefor, on or about the 21st of May, 1834, both of which, the complainants allege, were issued in mistake and in violation of law, and in fraud of the legal and vested right of their ancestor, Cloyes.

That after the refusal of the receiver to receive payment for [p330] the land claimed, an act was approved, 14th July, 1832, continuing in force the act of the 29th of May, 1830, and which specially provided, that those who had not been enabled to enter the land, the preëmption right of which they claimed, within the time limited, in consequence of the public surveys not having been made and returned, should have the right to enter said lands on the same conditions, in every respect, as prescribed in said act, within one year after the surveys should be made and returned, and the occupants upon fractions in like manner to enter the same, so as not to exceed in quantity one quarter-section. And that the act was in full force before Governor Pope selected said lands, as aforesaid. That the public surveys of the above fractional quarter-sections were made and perfected on or about the 1st of December, 1833, and returned to the land office the beginning of the year 1834. On the 5th of March, 1834, the complainants paid into the land office the sum of one hundred and thirty-five dollars and seventy-six and one forth cents, in full for the above-named fractional quarter-sections. That a certificate was granted for the same, on which the receiver indorsed, that the northwest fractional quarter of section two was a part of the location made by Governor Pope in selecting one thousand acres adjoining the town of Little Rock, granted by Congress to raise a fund for building a court-house and jail for the territory; and that that indorsement was made by direction of the Commissioner of the General Land Office.

That the register of the land office would not permit the said fractional quarter-sections to be entered.

That the patentees in both of said patents, at the time of their application to enter the lands, had both constructive and actual notice of the right of Cloyes. And that the present owners of any part of these lands had also notice of the rights of the complainants.

The answer of the Real Estate Bank and trustees admits the proof of the preëmption claim of Cloyes, but they say, "From beginning to end it is a tissue of fraud, falsehood, and perjury, not only on the part of Cloyes, but also on the part of those persons by whose oaths the alleged preëmption was established. And they allege, that the lots four, five, and six, in block eight, in fractional quarter-section two, claimed by the bank, were purchased of Ambrose H. Sevier in the most perfect good faith, and without any notice or knowledge whatever, either constructive or otherwise, of any adverse claim thereto." That they have made improvements on the same, which have cost twenty-five thousand dollars, without ever having it intimated [p331] to them that there was any adverse claim, until all of said improvements had been completed.

James S. Conway, in his answer, denies the validity of the preëmption right set up in the bill, and alleges that it was falsely and fraudulently proved. And he says, that when he purchased, "he did not know that there was any bonâ fide adverse claim or right to said lots, or any of them; and he avers, that he is an innocent purchaser for a valuable consideration, and without actual or implied notice, except as hereinafter stated." And he admits that he occasionally heard the claim of Cloyes spoken of, but always with the qualification that it was fraudulent and void, and had been rejected by the government.

Samuel A. Hempstead, in his answer, denies that, at the time of the purchase of said lots, or the recording of said deed, he had notice, either in fact or law, of the complainants' claim.

The other defendants filed special demurrers to the bill. The Circuit Court, as it appears, sustained the demurrers, and in effect dismissed the bill. The cause was taken to the Supreme Court of Arkansas by a writ of error, which affirmed the decree of the Circuit Court.

The demurrers admit the truth of the allegations of the bill, and, consequently, rest on the invalidity of the right asserted by the complainants. The answers also deny that Cloyes was entitled to a preëmptive right, and a part, if not all of them, allege that they were innocent purchasers, for a valuable consideration, without notice of the complainants' claim.

The first section of the act of 29th May, 1830, gave to every occupant of the public lands prior to the date of the act, and who had cultivated any part thereof in the year 1829, a right to enter at the minimum price, by legal subdivisions, any number of acres not exceeding one hundred and sixty or a quarter-section, to include his improvement; provided the land shall not have been reserved for the use of the United States, or either of the several States.

In the third section of the act it is provided, that, before any entries being made under the act, proof of settlement or improvement shall be made to the satisfaction of the register and receiver of the land district in which the lands may lie, agreeably to the rules prescribed by the Commissioner of the General Land Office for that purpose.

On the 10th of June, 1830, the commissioner issued his instructions to the receivers and registers under the above act, in which he said, that the fact of cultivation and possession required "must be established by the affidavit of the occupant, supported by such corroborative testimony as may be entirely [p332] satisfactory to both; the evidence must be taken by a justice of the peace in the presence of the register and receiver." And the commissioner directed, that, where the improvement was wholly on a quarter-section, the occupant was limited to such quarter; but where the improvement is situated in different quarter-sections adjacent, he may enter a half quarter in each to embrace his entire improvement.

Another circular, dated 7th February, 1831, was issued, instructing the land officers, where persons claiming preëmption rights had been prevented under the above circular from making an entry, "by reason of the township plats not having been furnished by the surveyor-general to the register of the land office, the parties entitled to the benefit of said act may be permitted to file the proof thereof, under the instructions heretofore given, identifying the tract of land as well as circumstances will admit, any time prior to the 30th of May next." And they were requested to "keep a proper abstract or list of such cases wherein the proof shall be of a character sufficient to establish to their entire satisfaction the right of the parties, respectively, to a preëmption," &c. "No payments, however, were to be received on account of preëmption rights duly established, in cases where the townships were known to be surveyed, but the plats whereof were not in their office, until they shall receive further instructions."

Under this instruction, on the 28th of May, 1831, the register and receiver held that Nathan Cloyes was entitled to the northwest fractional quarter, as stated in the bill, but rejected the privilege of entering the adjoining fractions.

Several objections are made to this procedure. It is contended that the land officers had no authority to act on the subject, until the surveys of the township were returned by the surveyor-general to the register's office; and, also, that in receiving the proof of the preëmption right of Cloyes, the land officers did not follow the directions of the commissioner.

The first instruction of the commissioner, dated 10th June, 1830, required the proof to be taken in presence of the register and receiver, and it appears that the proof was taken in the presence of the register only.

The law did not require the presence of the land officers when the proof was taken, but, in the exercise of his discretion, the commissioner required the proof to be so taken. Having the power to impose this regulation, the commissioner had the power to dispense with it, for reasons which might be satisfactory to him. And it does appear that the presence of the register only, in Cloyes's case, was held sufficient. The right was sanctioned by both the land officers, and by the commis- [p333] sioner also, so far as to receive the money on the land claimed, without objection as to the mode of taking the proof. And, as regards the authority for this procedure by the land officers, it appears to be covered by the above circular of the commissioner, dated 7th February, 1831. In the absence of the surveys, the parties entitled to the benefits of the act of 1830 were "permitted to file the proof thereof," &c., identifying the tract of land, as well as circumstances will admit, any time prior to the 30th of May, 1831.

The register and receiver were constituted, by the act, a tribunal to determine the rights of those who claimed preëmptions under it. From their decision no appeal was given. If, therefore, they acted within their powers, as sanctioned by the commissioner, and within the law, and the decision cannot be impeached on the ground of fraud or unfairness, it must be considered final. The proof of the preëmption right of Cloyes being "entirely satisfactory" to the land officers under the act of 1830, there was no necessity of opening the case, and receiving additional proof, under any of the subsequent laws. The act of 1830 having expired, all rights under it were saved by the subsequent acts. Under those acts, Cloyes was only required to do what was necessary to perfect his right. But those steps within the law, which had been taken, were not required to be again taken.

It is well-established principle, that where an individual in the prosecution of a right does every thing which the law requires him to do, and he fails to attain his right by the misconduct or neglect of a public officer, the law will protect him. In this case the preëmptive right of Cloyes having been proved, and an offer to pay the money for the land claimed by him, under the act of 1830, nothing more could be done by him, and nothing more could be required of him under that act. And subsequently, when he paid the money to the receiver, under subsequent acts, the surveys being returned, he could do nothing more than offer to enter the fractions, which the register would not permit him to do. This claim of preëmption stands before us in a light not less favorable than it would have stood if Cloyes or his representatives had been permitted by the land officers to do what, in this respect, was offered to be done.

The claim of a preëmption is not that shadowy right which by some it is considered to be. Until sanctioned by law, it has no existence as a substantive right. But when covered by the law, it becomes a legal right, subject to be defeated only by a failure to perform the conditions annexed to it. It is founded in an enlightened public policy, rendered necessary by the enterprise of our citizens. The adventurous pioneer, who is [p334] found in advance of our settlements, encounters many hardships, and not unfrequently dangers from savage incursions. He is generally poor, and it is fit that his enterprise should be rewarded by the privilege of purchasing the favorite spot selected by him, not to exceed one hundred and sixty acres. That this is the national feeling is shown by the course of legislation for many years.

It is insisted, that the preëmption right of Cloyes extended to the fractional quarter-sections named in the bill, the whole of them being less than one hundred and sixty acres. We think it is limited to the fractional quarter on which his improvement was made. This construction was given to the act by the commissioner in his circular of the 10th of June, 1830. He says, "The occupant must be confined to the entry of that particular quarter-section which embraces the improvement." The act gives to the occupant whose claim to a preëmption is established the right to enter, at the minimum price, by legal subdivisions, any number of acres not exceeding one hundred and sixty. But less than a legal subdivision of a section or fraction cannot be taken by the occupant. It is contended, however, that several fractional quarter-sections adjacent to the one on which the improvement was made may be taken under the premptive right, which shall not exceed in the whole one hundred and sixty acres. And the second section of the act of 14th July, 1832, which provides, "that the occupants upon fractions shall be permitted, in like manner, to enter the same so as not to exceed in quantity one quarter-section," it is urged, authorizes this view. But in the case of Brown's Lessee v. Clements et al., 3 How. 666, this court say, the act of 29th May, 1830, "gave to every settler on the public lands the right of preëmption of one hundred and sixty acres; yet, if a settler happened to be seated on a fractional section containing less than that quantity, there is no provision in the act by which he could make up the deficiency out of the adjacent lands, or any other lands."

Did the location of Governor Pope, under the act of Congress, affect the claim of Cloyes? On the 15th of June, 1832, one thousand acres of land were granted, adjoining the town of Little Rock, to the Territory of Arkansas, to be located by the Governor. This selection was not made until the 30th of January, 1833. Before the grant was made by Congress of this tract, the right of Cloyes to a preëmption had not only accrued, under the provisions of the act of 1830, but he had proved his right, under the law, to the satisfaction of the register and receiver of the land office. He had, in fact, done every thing he could do to perfect this right. No fault or negligence can [p335] be charged to him. In the case above cited from 3 Howard, the court say, – "The act of the 29th of May, 1830, appropriated the quarter-section of land in controversy, on which Etheridge was then settled, to his claim, under the act, for one year, subject, however, to be defeated by his failure to comply with its provisions. During that time, this quarter-section was not liable to any other claim," &c. And the supplement to this act, approved 14th July, 1832, extended its benefits. The instruction of the commissioner, dated September 14th, 1830, was in accordance with this view. He says, "It is, therefore, to be expressly understood, that every purchase of a tract of land at ordinary private sale, to which a preëmption claim shall be proved and filed according to law, at any time prior to the 30th of May, 1831, is to be either null and void, (the purchase-money thereof being refundable under instructions hereafter to be given,) or subject to any legislative provisions."

By the grant to Arkansas, Congress could not have intended to impair vested rights. The grants of the thousand acres and of the other tracts must be so construed as not to interfere with the preëmption of Cloyes.

The Supreme Court of the State, in sustaining the demurrers and dismissing the bill, decided against the preëmption right claimed by the representatives of Cloyes; and as we consider that a valid right, as to the fractional quarter on which his improvement was made, the judgment of the State court is reversed; and the cause is transmitted to that court for further proceedings before it, or as it shall direct, on the defence set up in the answers of the defendants, that they are bonâ fide purchasers of the whole or parts of the fractional section in controversy, without notice, and that that court give leave to amend the pleadings on both sides, if requested, that the merits of the case may be fully presented and proved, as equity shall require.

Mr. Justice CATRON, Mr. Justice NELSON, and Mr. Justice GRLER dissented. (See Appendix.)

Order.

This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record from the Supreme Court of the State of Arkansas; and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, it is now here ordered, adjudged, and decreed by this court, that the decree of the said Supreme Court in this cause be, and the same is hereby, reversed, with costs, and that this cause be, and the same is hereby, remanded to the said Supreme Court, for further proceedings to be had therein in conformity to the opinion of this court.