MR. JUSTICE FIELD, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court, as follows: —
As seen by the statement of the case, the plaintiff relies for a reversal of the judgment upon three grounds: 1st, Error in
We are of opinion that these several grounds are well taken, and that in each particular mentioned the court below erred.
The patent of the United States is the conveyance by which the nation passes its title to portions of the public domain. For the transfer of that title the law has made numerous provisions, designating the persons who may acquire it and the terms of its acquisition. That the provisions may be properly carried out, a land department, as part of the administrative and executive branch of the government, has been created to supervise all the various proceedings taken to obtain the title, from their commencement to their close. In the course of their duty the officers of that department are constantly called upon to hear testimony as to matters presented for their consideration, and to pass upon its competency, credibility, and weight. In that respect they exercise a judicial function, and, therefore, it has been held in various instances by this court that their judgment as to matters of fact, properly determinable by them, is conclusive when brought to notice in a collateral proceeding. Their judgment in such cases is, like that of other special tribunals upon matters within their exclusive jurisdiction, unassailable except by a direct proceeding for its correction or annulment. The execution and record of the patent are the final acts of the officers of the government for the transfer of its title, and, as they can be lawfully performed only after certain steps have been taken, that instrument, duly signed, countersigned, and sealed, not merely operates to pass the title, but is in the nature of an official declaration by that branch of the government to which the alienation of the public
Of course, when we speak of the conclusive presumptions attending a patent for lands, we assume that it was issued in a case where the department had jurisdiction to act and execute it; that is to say, in a case where the lands belonged to the United States, and provision had been made by law for their sale. If they never were public property, or had previously been disposed of, or if Congress had made no provision for their sale, or had reserved them, the department would have no jurisdiction to transfer them, and its attempted conveyance of them would be inoperative and void, no matter with what seeming regularity the forms of law may have been observed. The action of the department would in that event be like that of any other special tribunal not having jurisdiction of a case which it had assumed to decide. Matters of this kind, disclosing a want of jurisdiction, may be considered by a court of law. In such cases the objection to the patent reaches beyond the action of the special tribunal, and goes to the existence of a subject upon which it was competent to act.
In Patterson v. Winn, reported in 11th Wheaton, this case is cited, and, after stating what it decided, the court said: "We may, therefore, assume as the settled doctrine of this court, that if a patent is absolutely void upon its face, or the issuing thereof was without authority, or was prohibited by statute, or the State had no title, it could be impeached collaterally in a court of law in an action of ejectment, but in general other objections and defects complained of must be put in issue in a regular course of pleading in a direct proceeding to avoid the patent."
The doctrine declared in these cases as to the presumptions attending a patent has been uniformly followed by this court. The exceptions mentioned have also been regarded as sound, although from the general lauguage used some of them may require explanation to understand fully their import. If the patent, according to the doctrine, be absolutely void on its face, it may be collaterally impeached in a court of law. It is seldom, however, that the recitals of a patent will nullify its granting clause, as, for instance, that the land which it purports to convey is reserved from sale. Of course, should such inconsistency appear, the grant would fail. Something more, however, than an apparent contradiction in its terms is meant when we speak of a patent being void on its face. It is meant that the patent is seen to be invalid, either when read in the light of existing law, or by reason of what the court must take judicial notice of; as, for instance, that the land is reserved by statute from sale, or otherwise appropriated, or that the patent is for an unauthorized amount, or is executed by officers who are not intrusted by law with the power to issue grants of portions of the public domain.
With these explanations of the exceptions, the doctrine of the cases cited may be taken as expressing the law accepted by this court since they were decided. Hoofnagle v. Anderson, 7 Wheat. 212; Boardman v. Lessee of Reed, 6 Pet. 328; Bagnell v. Broderick, 13 id. 436; Johnson v. Towsley, 13 Wall. 72; Moore v. Robbins, 96 U.S. 530.
In Johnson v. Towsley the court had occasion to consider under what circumstances the action of the Land Department in issuing patents was final, and after observing that it had found no support for the proposition offered in that case by counsel upon certain provisions of a statute, said, speaking by Mr. Justice Miller, that the argument for the finality of such action was "much stronger when founded on the general doctrine that when the law has confided to a special tribunal the authority to hear and determine certain matters arising in the course of its duties, the decision of that tribunal, within the scope of its authority, is conclusive upon all others." "That the action of the land-office," the court added, "in issuing a patent for any of the public land, subject to sale by pre-emption or otherwise, is conclusive of the legal title, must be admitted on the principle above stated, and in all courts and in all forms of judicial proceedings where this title must control, either by reason of the limited powers of the court or the essential character of the proceeding, no inquiry can be permitted under the circumstances under which it was obtained;" and then observed, that there exists in the courts of equity the power to correct mistakes and relieve against frauds and impositions; and that in cases where it was clear that the officers of the Land Department had by a mistake of the law given to
The general doctrine declared may be stated in a different form, thus: A patent, in a court of law, is conclusive as to all matters properly determinable by the Land Department, when its action is within the scope of its authority, that is, when it has jurisdiction under the law to convey the land. In that court the patent is unassailable for mere errors of judgment. Indeed, the doctrine as to the regularity and validity of its acts, where it has jurisdiction, goes so far that if in any circumstances under existing law a patent would be held valid, it will be presumed that such circumstances existed. Thus, in Minter v. Crommelin, reported in 18th Howard, where it appeared that an act of Congress of 1815 had provided that no land reserved to a Creek warrior should be offered for sale by an officer of the Land Department unless specifically directed by the Secretary of the Treasury, and declared that if the Indian abandoned the reserved land it should become forfeited to the United States, a patent was issued for the land, which did not show that the Secretary had ordered it to be sold, and the court said: "The rule being that the patent is evidence that all previous steps had been regularly taken to justify making of the patent; and one of the necessary steps here being an order from the Secretary to the register to offer the land for sale because the warrior had abandoned it, we are bound to presume that the order was given. That such is the effect, as evidence, of the patent produced by the plaintiffs was adjudged in the case of Bagnell v. Broderick (13 Pet. 436), and is not open to controversy anywhere, and the State court was mistaken in holding otherwise."
On the other hand, a patent may be collaterally impeached in any action, and its operation as a conveyance defeated, by showing that the department had no jurisdiction to dispose of the lands; that is, that the law did not provide for selling them, or that they had been reserved from sale or dedicated to special purposes, or had been previously transferred to others. In establishing any of these particulars the judgment of the department upon matters properly before it is not assailed, nor is
According to the doctrine thus expressed and the cases cited in its support, — and there are none in conflict with it, — there can be no doubt that the court below erred in admitting the record of the proceedings upon which the patent was issued, in order to impeach its validity. The judgment of the department upon their sufficiency was not, as already stated, open to contestation. If in issuing a patent its officers took mistaken views of the law, or drew erroneous conclusions from the evidence, or acted from imperfect views of their duty, or even from corrupt motives, a court of law can afford no remedy to a party alleging that he is thereby aggrieved. He must resort to a court of equity for relief, and even there his complaint cannot be heard unless he connect himself with the original source of title, so as to be able to aver that his rights are injuriously affected by the existence of the patent; and he must possess such equities as will control the legal title in the patentee's hands. Boggs v. Merced Mining Co., 14 Cal. 279, 363. It does not lie in the mouth of a stranger to the title to complain of the act of the government with respect to it. If the government is dissatisfied, it can, on its own account, authorize proceedings to vacate the patent or limit its operation.
This doctrine as to the conclusiveness of a patent is not inconsistent with the right of the patentee, often recognized by this court, to show the date of the original proceeding for the acquisition of the title, where it is not stated in the instrument, as the patent is deemed to take effect by relation as of that date, so far as it is necessary to cut off intervening adverse claims. Thus, in a contest between two patentees for the same land, it may be shown that a junior patent was founded upon an earlier entry than an older patent, and therefore passes the title. Such evidence in no way trenches upon the ruling of the department upon matters pending before it. Nor is the doctrine of the conclusiveness of the patent inconsistent with the right of a party resisting it to show, if an entry is not stated in the instrument, that no entry of the land was made as an initiatory proceeding, where a statute, as was the case in
The case at bar, then, is reduced to the question whether the patent to Starr is void on its face; that is, whether, read in the light of existing law, it is seen to be invalid. It does not come within any of the exceptions mentioned in the cases cited. The lands it purports to convey are mineral, and were a part of the public domain. The law of Congress had provided for their sale. The proper officers of the Land Department supervised the proceedings. It bears the signature of the President, or rather of the officer authorized by law to place the President's signature to it, which is the same thing; it is properly countersigned, and the seal of the General Land-Office is attached to it. It is regular on its face, unless some limitation in the law, as to the extent of a mining claim which can be patented, has been disregarded. The case of the defendants rests on the correctness of their assertion that a patent cannot issue for a mining claim which embraces over one hundred and sixty acres. Assuming that the words "more or less," accompanying the statement of the acres contained in the claim, are to be disregarded, and that the patent is construed as for one hundred and sixty-four acres and a fraction of an acre, there is nothing in the acts of Congress which prohibits the issue of a patent for that amount. They are silent as to the extent of a mining claim. They speak of locations and limit the extent of mining ground which an individual or an association of individuals may embrace in one of them. There is nothing in the reason of the thing, or in the language of the acts, which prevents an individual from acquiring by purchase the ground located by others and adding it to his own. The difficulty with the court below, as seen in its charge, evidently arose from confounding "location" and "mining claim," as though the two terms always represent the same thing, whereas they
Previously to the act of July 9, 1870, Congress imposed no limitation to the area which might be included in the location of a placer claim. This, as well as every other thing relating to the acquisition and continued possession of a mining claim, was determined by rules and regulations established by miners themselves. Soon after the discovery of gold in California, as is well known, there was an immense immigration of gold-seekers into that Territory. They spread over the mineral regions and probed the earth in all directions in pursuit of the precious metals. Wherever they went they framed rules prescribing the conditions upon which mining ground might be taken up, in other words, mining claims be located and their continued possession secured. Those rules were so framed as to give to all immigrants absolute equality of right and privilege.
The rules and regulations originally established in California have in their general features been adopted throughout all the mining regions of the United States. They were so wisely framed and were so just and fair in their operation that they have not to any great extent been interfered with by legislation, either state or national. In the first mining statute, passed July 9, 1866, they received the recognition and sanction of Congress, as they had previously the legislative and judicial approval of the States and Territories in which mines of gold and silver were found. That act declared, and the declaration was repeated in a subsequent statute, that the mineral lands of the public domain were free and open to occupation and exploration by all citizens of the United States, and by those who had declared their intention to become such, subject to such regulations as might be prescribed by law, and subject, also, "to the local customs or rules of miners of the several mining districts," so far as the same were not in conflict with the laws of the United States. It authorized the issue of patents for claims on veins or lodes of quartz or other "rock in place" bearing gold, silver, cinnabar, or copper. Placer claims first became the subject of regulation by the mining act of July 9, 1870, c. 235 (16 Stat. 217), which provided that patents for them might be issued under like circumstances
In addition to all this, it is difficult to perceive what object would be gained, what policy subserved, by a prohibition to embrace in one patent contiguous mining ground taken up by
The decision of this court upon one point in the case of Polk's Lessees v. Wendell, already cited, is directly applicable here. The patent to the defendants in that case was for twenty-five thousand acres of land, and one of the objections taken was that it was void because the statute of North Carolina limited an entry of one person to five thousand acres. But the statute declared that where two or more persons had entered, or should afterwards enter, lands jointly, or where two or more persons agreed to have their entries surveyed jointly in one or more surveys, the surveyor should survey the same accordingly in one entire survey. It was contended that as the statute provided for entries made by two or more persons it could not be extended to the case of distinct entries belonging to the same person. To this the court replied as follows: "For this distinction it is impossible to conceive a reason. No motive can be imagined for allowing two or more persons to unite their entries in one survey which does not apply with at least as much force for allowing a single person to unite his entries, adjoining each other, in one survey. It appears to the court that the case comes completely within the spirit, and is not opposed by the letter, of the law. The case provided for is `where two or more persons agree to have their entries surveyed jointly,' &c. Now this does not prevent the subsequent assignment of the entries to one of the parties; and the assignment is itself the agreement of the assignor that the assignee may survey the entries jointly or severally, at his election. The court is of opinion that, under a sound construction of this law, entries, which might be joined in one survey, if remaining the property of two or more persons, may be joined, though they become the property of a single person." The objection
By a provision of the mining act of 1870, still in force, two or more persons, or association of persons, having contiguous claims of any size, are allowed to make a joint entry thereof. Rev. Stat., sect. 2330. If one individual should acquire all such contiguous claims by purchase, no sound reason can be suggested why he should not be equally entitled to enter them all by one entry as when they were held by the original parties. To quote the language of the case cited, "No motive can be imagined for allowing two or more persons to unite their entries in one survey which does not apply with at least as much force for allowing a single person to unite his entries adjoining each other in one survey."
The last position of the court below, that the owner of contiguous locations who seeks a patent must present a separate application for each, and obtain a separate survey, and prove that upon each the required work has been performed, is as untenable as the rulings already considered. The object in allowing patents is to vest the fee in the miner, and thus encourage the construction of permanent works for the development of the mineral resources of the country. Requiring a separate application for each location, with a separate survey and notice, where several adjoining each other are held by the same individual, would confer no benefit beyond that accruing to the land-officers from an increase of their fees. The public would derive no advantage from it, and the owner would be subjected to onerous and often ruinous burdens. The services of an attorney are usually retained when a patent is sought, and the expenses attendant upon the proceeding are in many instances very great. To lessen these as much as possible the practice has been common for miners to consolidate, by conveyance to a single person or an association or company, many contiguous claims into one, for which only one application is made and of which only one survey is had. Long before patents were allowed — indeed, from the earliest period in which mining for gold and silver was pursued as a business — miners were in the habit of consolidating adjoining claims, whether they consisted of one or more original locations,
It was urged on the argument that a patent for each location was required to prevent a monopoly of mining ground, — to prevent, to use the language of counsel, the public domain from being "monopolized by speculators." The law limiting the extent of mining lands which an individual may locate has provided, so far as it was deemed wise, against an accumulation of them in one person's hands. It could not have prohibited the sale of the location of an individual without imposing a restriction injurious to his interests, and in many instances destructive of the whole value of his claim. Every one, at all familiar with our mineral regions, knows that the great majority of claims, whether on lodes or on placers, can be worked advantageously only by a combination among the miners, or by a consolidation of their claims through incorporated companies. Water is essential for the working of mines, and in many instances can be obtained only from great distances, by means of canals, flumes, and aqueducts, requiring for their construction enormous expenditures of money, entirely beyond the means of a single individual. Often, too, for the development of claims, streams must be turned from their beds, dams built, shafts sunk at great depth, and flumes constructed to carry away the débris of the mine. Indeed, successful mining, whether on lode claims or placer claims, can seldom be prosecuted without an amount of capital beyond the means of the individual miner.
There is no force in the suggestion that a separate patent for each location is necessary to insure the required expenditure of labor upon it. The statute of 1872 provides that on each claim subsequently located, until a patent is issued for it,
The statutes provide numerous guards against the evasion of their provisions by parties seeking a mining patent, and afford an opportunity to persons in the neighborhood of the claim to come forward and present any objections they may have to the granting of the patent desired. By sects. 6 and 7 of the act of 1872, which constitute sects. 2325 and 2326 of the Revised Statutes, the procedure which a party seeking a patent, whether an individual or an association or a corporation, must follow is prescribed: —
1st, The party must file an application in the proper land-office under oath, showing a compliance with the law, together with a plat and the field-notes of the claim, or "claims in common," made by or under the direction of the Surveyor-General
2d, Previously, however, to the filing of the application, the claimant must post a copy of the plat, with a notice of his intended application, in a conspicuous place on the land embraced in it, and file an affidavit of at least two persons that such notice has been duly posted with a copy of the notice in the land-office.
3d, When such application, plat, field-notes, notice, and affidavits have been filed, the register of the land-office is required to publish a notice of the application for the period of sixty days, in a newspaper, to be designated by him, nearest to the claim, and post such notice in his office for the same period.
4th, The claimant, at the time of filing his application, or at any time thereafter within sixty days, is required to file with the register a certificate of the United States Surveyor-General, that five hundred dollars' worth of labor has been expended, or improvements to that amount have been made upon the claim by himself or grantors; that the plat is correct, with such further description, by reference to natural objects or permanent monuments, as shall identify the claim, and furnish an accurate description to be incorporated in the patent.
5th, At the expiration of sixty days the claimant is required to file his affidavit showing that the plat and notice have been posted in a conspicuous place on the claim during the period of publication. If no adverse claim shall have been filed with the register and receiver of the proper land-office within the sixty days of publication, it is then to be assumed that the applicant is entitled to a patent upon the payment to the proper officer of five dollars per acre, and that no adverse claim exists.
6th, The statute then proceeds to declare that if an adverse claim is filed during the period of publication, it must be upon the oath of the party making it, and must show the nature, boundaries, and extent of such adverse claim; and all proceedings, except the publication of the notice and the making and filing of the affidavit, shall be thereupon stayed until the controversy shall have been settled by a decision of a court of competent jurisdiction, or the adverse claim waived. And it
It will thus be seen that if an adverse claim is made to the mining ground for which a patent is sought, its validity must be determined by a local court, unless it be waived, before a patent can be issued. There would seem, therefore, to be more cogent reasons, in cases where a patent for such ground is relied upon, to maintain the doctrine which we have declared, that it cannot be assailed in a collateral proceeding, than in the case of a patent for agricultural land.
But it is unnecessary to pursue the subject further. The judgment of the court below must be reversed and the cause remanded for a new trial; and it is
MR. JUSTICE MILLER and MR. JUSTICE HARLAN dissented.
NOTE. — Smelting Company v. Ray, error to the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Colorado, was argued at the same time as the preceding case, and by the same counsel for the plaintiff in error, and by Mr. Thomas M. Patterson for the defendants in error.
MR. JUSTICE FIELD remarked that, as it presented the same questions there determined, the judgment of the court below must be reversed and the cause remanded for a new trial.
MR. JUSTICE MILLER and MR. JUSTICE HARLAN dissented.