Open main menu

United States Supreme Court

86 U.S. 646

Warren  v.  Van Brunt

3. Finally. The very least that Warren is entitled to is the part of what now turns out to be the quarter of a quarter-section; that would fall to him by giving effect to the dividing-line agreed on by the parties before the government survey. That is what he asks for, as an alternative.

Messrs. J. M. Carlisle and J. D. McPherson, contra.

The CHIEF JUSTICE, having stated the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

When Warren and Van Brunt made their settlement upon the lands, in 1853, they acquired no right of pre-emption, as the act of Congress then in force only gave that right to settlers upon lands in the then Territory of Minnesota which had been surveyed. [3] On the 4th of August, A.D. 1854, the provisions of the Pre-emption Act were extended to unsurveyed lands in that Territory; but it was further provided that if, when the lands were surveyed, it should appear that two or more persons had settled upon the same quarter-section, each should be permitted to enter his improvements as near as might be by legal subdivisions. [4]

There is no legal subdivision of the public lands less than a quarter of a quarter-section, or forty acres, except in the case of fractional sections. The lands in controversy, therefore, could not have been subdivided for the purposes of entry and purchase. The forty acres must be taken as a whole or not at all.

Warren and Van Brunt each claimed the right to purchase the whole. There could be no entry by either until the questions arising between them had been settled. To meet such a case, the act of Congress under which they each made claim, provided that the register and receiver of the land district in which the land was situated should make such settlement, subject to an appeal to, and revision by, the Secretary of the Interior. [5] The Commissioner of the General Land Office exercised a supervision over this action of the register and receiver under his general powers in respect to private land claims and the issuing of patents. [6] The issue of the patent upon the award of these officers was final and conclusive as between the United States and the several claimants. It passed the legal title to the patentee. The remedy of the defeated party, if any thereafter, was by a proceeding in the courts against the patentee or those claiming under him.

It is claimed on the part of the defendants in error that the decision of the government officers in this case is conclusive as between the claimants themselves, inasmuch as there was an actual submission of the controversy by both, and the court has found that there was no fraud, unfairness, or misconduct in the hearing or in the production of the testimony, either on the part of Van Brunt or his heirs, or the several officers who were called upon to act.

This question has recently been fully considered by this court, in the case of Johnson v. Towsley, [7] and it was there held [8] that 'when those officers decide controverted questions of fact, in the absence of fraud or impositions, or mistake, their decision on those questions will be final,' but [9] that 'it was the right of the proper courts to inquire, after the title had passed from the government and the question became one of private right, whether, according to the established rules of equity and the acts of Congress concerning the public lands, the party holding that title should hold absolutely as his own or as trustee for another.' We are satisfied with this ruling, and this leads us to inquire whether, upon the facts as found by the court, the officers of the government did err in awarding the patent to Van Brunt. The record does not disclose the facts found by the officers.

It is first contended by Warren that the patent should have been issued to him, because his settlement upon the disputed premises was both in fact and by the declaratory statements of the respective parties anterior to that of Van Brunt, and because by the act of Congress the first settlement gives the better right. It is not important for us to know what the claims of the parties have been. We must look to the facts as they actually existed, and from these it appears that neither of the parties had an advantage over the other by reason of a prior settlement. They both went upon the premises at the same time and, for awhile, their occupancy was joint. After the partition, Van Brunt remained in the house alone. He was there in no respect as the tenant of Warren, but by reason of his right as part owner. His short absence after his eviction upon his lands adjoining, cannot be considered an abandonment of his possession, for he must have been all the time at work upon his new house, which was finished and ready for occupation in from two to four weeks. Warren was absent at Mankato, after the partition, from July until October, and he did not actually reside himself on the disputed forty acres many months. He had, therefore, no claim superior to that of Van Brunt on account of his possession.

It is next insisted that a joint entry of the forty acres by the two should have been permitted. No such demand was made upon the government by Warren. He claimed the right to enter the whole, and upon that claim the parties went to a hearing. He might have asked to make his entry jointly with Van Brunt, but he did not. He is concluded by his election made at the time. Having been defeated upon his claim as made, he cannot, in the absence of fraud or surprise, come into court and ask relief upon another, which he might have urged then. Besides, he asks no such relief in his bill, which is the foundation of the present proceeding. He there claims a superior right of pre-emption to the whole, and not an equitable right to a joint ownership.

It is again insisted that a decree should have been entered in favor of Warren, charging the heirs of Van Brunt as his trustees for all that part of the premises situated on the east side of the partition-line. This claim was not made in the bill, but the contract of partition having been set out in the answers for the purpose of explaining the character of the occupancy of Van Brunt, Warren asked in his replication to be allowed the benefit of it in case he failed to maintain his right to the whole. He was willing to repudiate the contract if by so doing he could get an advantage, but if he failed in that, insisted upon its enforcement. But such a contract cannot be enforced to any extent. The pre-emption laws provided, at the time of this entry and purchase, that before any person should be allowed to enter lands upon a claim for pre-emption he must make oath that he had not directly or indirectly made any agreement or contract in any way or manner with any person, by which the title he might acquire by his purchase should enure in whole or in part to the benefit of any person except himself. Forfeiture of title to the land purchased, and of the money paid for it, was made the penalty of false swearing in this particular. An entry could not have been made, therefore, by Van Brunt in trust for Warren; and if it could not have been made, a court of equity will not decree that it was. All contracts in violation of this important provision of the act are void and are never enforced. It has been so decided many times by the Supreme Court of Minnesota. [10] We are satisfied with these decisions.

In our opinion, there was no error in the decision of the government officers, or in the decree of the Supreme Court of Minnesota.



^3  5 Stat. at Large, 455, § 10.

^4  10 Id. 576.

^5  5 Id. § 11; 9 Id. 395, § 3.

^6  5 Id. 107, § 1; Barnard's Heirs v. Ashley's Heirs, 18 Howard, 44.

^7  13 Wallace, 72.

^8  Page 86.

^9  Page 87.

^10  St. Peter Co. v. Bunker, 5 Minnesota, 199; Evans v. Folsom, Ib. 422; Bruggerman v. Hoerr, 7 Id. 343; McCue v. Smith, 9 Id. 259.

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).