West v. Cochran

Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

58 U.S. 403

West  v.  Cochran

THIS case was brought up, by writ of error, from the circuit court of the United States for the district of Missouri.

It was an action of ejectment, brought by West, a citizen of the State of Illinois, against Cochran, a citizen of Missouri, for all that tract or parcel of land situated in the city and county of St. Louis, in said district, and which tract or parcel of land is described as follows: Lot number one hundred and three, (103,) in block number three hundred and twenty-one, as the said lot is laid down and numbered on the map of the said city, and is bounded on the east by Second-street, beginning at the southwest corner of Chambers and Second-street; thence along the west side of Second-street, eighty feet, more or less, from Chambers-street; thence westwardly on a line parallel with Chambersstreet, one hundred and fifty feet to an alley; thence northwardly eighty feet to Chambers-street; thence eastwardly along the south side of Chambers-street one hundred and fifty feet, to the place of beginning.

West claimed under the reservation made by Brazeau in his deed to Labeaume, and under the confirmation of Brazeau's title by the board of commissioners on the 22d of September, 1810.

Cochran claimed under a similar confirmation of the same date to La Beaume. The patent for Brazeau's claim did not include the land in dispute, whilst the patent for Labeaume's claim did include it; and the question was, whether West, claiming under Brazeau's title, could show that the patent had been erroneously located, and could claim under the confirmation.

The circuit court decided against West, and he brought the case up to this court by a writ of error. The case is particularly stated in the opinion of the court.

It was argued by Mr. Blair and Mr. Ewing, for the plaintiff in error, and by Mr. Hill and Mr. Cushing, (attorney-general,) for the defendant in error.

The following notice of the point upon which the decision of the court turned, is taken from the brief of Mr. Ewing, one of the counsel for the plaintiff in error:--

The court, on the trial of this cause below, instructed the jury that these surveys and patents were conclusive as to both the parties; that neither of them was at liberty to reject and set up a claim against them, or otherwise than under them. To this the plaintiff excepted.

We claim that the court erred in this instruction, and on this arises the first and most important question in the case.

Brazeau claims under a confirmation by the United States commissioners, pursuant to the act of March 3, 1807. Now, if that confirmation passes the legal title, or if it creates an equity or inchoate legal title to the land confirmed, the instruction of the court was wrong, and the judgment must be reversed; and we contend -

1. That the confirmation passes the absolute legal title; and though a patent may issue, it is merely evidence of a title already complete under the law. 2 Stats. at Large, 441, § 4.

The operative words of the statute are: 'Which decision of the commissioners, when in favor of the claimant, shall be final against the United States, any act of congress to the contrary notwithstanding.' Here the claimant had an imperfect title. The United States confirms it by her commissioners, and declares that this award of confirmation shall be final against her.

It seems to have been the intent, that the confirmation by the commissioners in this case should stand in the place of a confirmation by congress, under the act of 1805, ch. 26, (2 Stats. at Large, 324.)

The act of 1805 provides, (section 5,) that such 'decisions shall be laid before congress in the manner hereinafter directed, and be subject to their determination thereon.'

The act of 1807 does not submit the case to the action of congress, but declares that the decision of the commissioners, when in favor of the claimant, 'shall be final against the United States.'

The confirmation is complete, in the one case, with the action of congress on each particular claim; in the other, by the action of the commissioners without the action of congress. In both cases a patent is to issue; but in one of these cases the legal title passes without the patent. Doe v. Eslava, 9 How. 446, 447; Stoddard v. Chambers, 2 Ib. 307.

Why does it not pass in the other? The confirmation is complete, the act of the commissioners final. Why does not the legal title pass?

There can be no reason of policy or convenience against it, which does not apply equally to confirmations by congress; there is no technical difficulty, for the United States can as well pass titles by the act of commissioners as by the act of the President; by an entry in the books of commissioners, returned to and recorded in the general land-office, as by a patent so recorded.

The reasons of policy are, indeed, against a distinction between the two classes of cases, that the legal title should pass at once to the individual in the one case, and remain in the United States in the other.

It is exceedingly inconvenient in practice to treat titles derived from the sovereign as equities. There is no ordinary process by which a perfect title can be compelled, and the claimant is made a suitor to a ministerial or executive officer, and in cases of contest such officer may greatly influence, if he cannot control, the judicial determination of the rights of parties litigant.

It is entirely within the competence of congress to pass title by other modes than by patent, and by other officers than those of the general land-office. In this case, confusion is guarded against by the required report of the commissioners. On that, the general land-office must issue a patent, if required, precisely as they must in cases confirmed by direct act of congress, and for the same purpose. No more discretion is left it in the one case than in the other.

There is a dictum in Burgess v. Gray, 16 How. 63, opposed to our view on this point, which we respectfully ask the court to reconsider. The point to which the dictum applies, does not necessarily arise in the case. But if we are wrong as to the effect of the confirmation, and if the actual legal title have not passed to us, we may, under the statutes of Missouri, adopted in practice by the circuit court, maintain our action of ejectment under the confirmation.

We sue at law, instead of using in equity, and have the same relief in the one forum as in the other; and this suit was brought when neither party had a patent; and even if Labeaume had obtained a patent, we suppose a patent issued to him of our lands, to which he had no color of right, would be void as against us.

Now, whether our title be perfect or inchoate, such as it is, it is 'final' against the United States. It is conclusive and absolute,-subject to no conditions or contingencies. The land confirmed to Brazeau belongs to him; the United States could not take it from him, nor transfer it, in title, to another. The only question is as to locality. That may be agreed upon between the officers of the government and the claimant, and the agreement attested by the issuing and acceptance of a patent. But in case of controversy, the question, as to existing title, is not for the executive department, but for the courts. This was practically denied by the instructions. The court charged the jury that the surveys and patents made by order of the secretary were conclusive, as well in the case in which the patent was refused as that in which it was accepted.

Mr. B. A. Hill made the following points upon the propositions considered by the court:--

1. The act of the 3d of March 1807, under which Brazeau's representative claims title, through a confirmation by the first board of commissioners, did not proprio vigore, vest the title in Brazeau; it was subject to the action of congress, and to the condition of survey. Section 5 of the act of March 2, 1805, § 3, of the act of February 28, 1806, and §§ 6 and 8 of the said act of 1807, require reports of the board of commissioners, to the secretary of the treasury, and he was required to report the same to congress. These reports were to contain a description of each tract confirmed. § 6 of 1807. Congress never confirmed the reports made by the said board; for the reason that no description of the land confirmed was contained in the reports. See State Papers, Public Lands, vol. 2, p. 560. The reports were therefore to be perfected into grants of the fee, in accordance with other provisions of the act of 1807; there being no words of present grant in the said act.

2. By section 6 of said act of 1807, the title would pass by a survey mad e by the United States and a patent; and section 7 authorized a patent to issue upon a recorded Spanish survey. These are the only means by which a title could pass under said act of 1807. The fee remained in the United States until the performance of the said conditions; and congress so construed the said acts of 1805, 1806, and 1807, by expressly excepting the confirmation by the first board of commissioners from the operation of the act of 13th of June, 1812, which passed an absolute title by words of present grant, to certain claims possessed in Spanish times.

3. Brazeau's confirmation never having been confirmed by congress, and his tract never having been surveyed by the Spanish government, was subject to the condition of survey by the United States; which was the necessary foundation for a patent; and until that survey was made and the patent issued, the title did not pass. This is the form of the grant. It was a grant to be located by the United States, and no land was granted to him until the location. The survey by the United States was, therefore, a necessary part of the grant. It was so under the Spanish law. The orders of O'Reilly and Morales, in force when Brazeau's Spanish grant was made, required a Spanish survey by the proper officer, as the condition upon which the grant was to be made. The analogy between the Spanish law and the act of 1807 is complete. The one provides for an approved survey to be annexed to and to form a part of the grant; the other for a patent certificate to be issued upon an approved survey, as the foundation for a patent.

4. The United States acted in the capacity of a sovereign in the granting of lands claimed before the board under the said act of 1807. The claimants had no standing in court. They were required to procure a grant from the United States to perfect the title. The only right or title that plaintiff can claim, must be derived under the act of 1807. If it operate as a grant, it can only so operate in pursuance of the conditions annexed to it.

5. The said act is peremptory. It provides that a survey shall be made by the United States, if a Spanish one is not already made and recorded; that a plat thereof, shall be made; that a patent certificate shall issue thereon, and a patent. The title was to pass in accordance with these forms. This construction is in accordance with the manifest intent of the statute. The United States had purchased a vast territory, portions of which, along the rivers and in the mineral regions, were covered by private claims and settlement rights, not perfected into grants under the Spanish government. The treaty with France, by which it was acquired, imposed the obligation upon us to protect the inhabitants of the territory in the enjoyment of their property. To do this it was necessary to ascertain the extent of that property. Where Spanish surveys were not made, official surveys by the United States were the means necessary to accomplish that object. The United States was in debt, and this newly-acquired domain was held in trust for the people, and the lands were to be used for sale and settlement. The public lands could not be subdivided and sold until the private claims were settled and located. The lawful power was vested in the United States to accomplish these objects, and the act of 1807 was designed to do so. The spirit and intent of the law is to separate the private claims from the public domain; but this has not been accomplished unless the United States reserved the power to survey the unsurveyed confirmations made by the old board, and fix their locality. It is for these reasons that this court has held that a confirmation by said board did not vest the legal title. Burgess v. Gray, 16 How. 63; 7 Pet. 85, 93; 2 How. 374; 16 Ib. 500, 1; 4 Pet. 342; 10 How. 373. If the legal title vested by the inherent force of the act, as it did under the act of 13th June, 1812, it could not be devested by a survey; but there was no title vested by the act of 1807 until a patent issued upon an approved survey. The United States survey for Brazeau is therefore conclusive, and the plaintiff cannot claim title to any land not embraced within it, and the land in controversy not being included within the survey of his confirmation, he cannot recover.

Mr. Justice CATRON 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).