MR. JUSTICE FIELD delivered the opinion of the court.
This is a suit in equity, brought by the plaintiff to charge the heirs-at-law of David Ballantine, as trustees of certain real property within the Hot Springs Reservation in the State of Arkansas, and compel them to convey it to him. The question for determination is whether under the act of Congress of March 3d, 1877, providing for the sale of part of the reservation, they were entitled to purchase the property in preference to him.
From the protracted litigation to which it has given rise, the Hot Springs Reservation is famous in the history of land titles of the country. Early in the present century the medicinal qualities of those springs were discovered, and from that fact the adjacent lands had an exceptional value. They were claimed by different individuals, some portions under a New Madrid certificate, and some portions under pre-emption settlements. The plaintiff entered upon the parcels in controversy as early as 1839, under an attempted location of a New Madrid
The act made it the duty of the Secretary of the Interior, within thirty days after the commissioners had filed their report and map, to instruct the land officers of Little Rock land district to allow the lands to be entered, and to cause a patent to be issued therefor.
Within the required time, the plaintiff filed his claim before the commissioners, and presented proof showing his long continued occupation of the land in controversy, and the improvements he had made thereon. Whilst it was in his occupation, on the 21st of February, 1873, he, through his son, who held the property as trustee to pay certain debts, leased it to the defendants Gibbon and Kirkpatrick, for the purpose of a hotel, bath-house and out-houses, at an annual rent of $500, and
Soon after the lease was executed the trust was discharged by the payment of the debts, and the property and possession reverted to the plaintiff. Before the lease he had made improvements of the value of at least $1,000 in excavations, grading, and building a wall to protect the land from the action of the water of the Hot Springs Creek, and had erected valuable buildings. After the lease a hotel was built on the premises, and before the end of the term the parties agreed that the lease should be continued until some time in the future, when it might be terminated by written notice as provided in the instrument.
In the year 1877 the lessees sold and transferred all their interest
The bill of complaint sets forth the material facts which we have stated, and a demurrer to it was sustained, the court holding
It is very clear that the heirs of Ballantine are not parties for whose benefit the act of 1877 was passed. He only acquired his claim to the property during that year by transfer from the original lessees of their leasehold interest. He could not assert any independent claim acquired after April 24th, 1876. The act in terms declares that no claim to purchase any portion of the reservation accruing after that date, shall be considered by the commissioners. As already mentioned, it followed our decision that certain persons, claimants and occupants of portions of the reservation, were not entitled to the land, and was designed to confer upon them and others in like position a title to such portions as they had occupied or improved, after first setting aside and reserving from sale a tract sufficiently large to include the Hot Springs and land immediately adjacent. Those parties were not trespassers, in the offensive meaning of that term, nor intentional invaders of the rights of the United States. They entered upon the land in the confident belief that they were authorized to do so. The plaintiff relied upon a New Madrid certificate which was located upon the lands in controversy as far back as 1820, and his failure to secure the title arose, as already stated, from the omission of the public surveyor to return the survey and a plat of them to the recorder of land titles before the act of 1832 took effect and withdrew the lands from appropriation. The government did not treat him and the other claimants as wanton intruders on the public domain, for then it might have ejected them by force. Instead of that it authorized proceedings for a judicial ascertainment of the merits of their respective claims. The act of 1877 embraces, therefore, under the designation of claimants and occupants, those who had made improvements, or claimed possession under an assertion of title or a right of pre-emption by reason of their location or settlement. It was for their benefit that the act was passed, in order that
This rule extends to every person who enters under lessees with knowledge of the terms of the lease, whether by operation of law or by purchase and assignment. The lessees in this case, and those deriving their interest under them, could, therefore, claim nothing against the plaintiff by virtue either of their possession, for it was in law his possession, or of their improvements, for they were in law his improvements, and entitled him to all the benefits they conferred, whether by pre-emption or otherwise. Whatever the lessees and those under them did by way of improvement on the leased premise inured to his benefit as absolutely and effectually as though done by himself.
Whenever Congress has relieved parties from the consequences of defects in their title, its aim has been to protect those who, in good faith, settled upon public land and made improvements thereon; and not those who by violence or fraud or breaches of contract intruded upon the possessions of original settlers and endeavored to appropriate the benefit of their labors. There has been in this respect in the whole legislation of the country a consistent observance of the rules of natural right and justice. There was a time, in the early periods of the country, when a party who settled in advance of the public surveys was regarded as a trespasser, to be summarily and roughly ejected. But all this has been changed within the last half century. With the acquisition of new territory, new fields
With absolute confidence these pioneers have relied upon the justice of their government, and they have never been disappointed. The most striking illustrations of this confidence, and of the just action of the government, are found in the settlement of Oregon and California. Before any laws of the United States had been extended to Oregon, enterprising men crossed the plains and took possession of its fertile fields. They organized a provisional government embracing guaranties of all private rights. They passed laws under which persons and property were protected and justice administered with as much care and wisdom as in old communities. They prescribed regulations for the possession and occupation of land among themselves, and when the laws of the United States were extended over the country those regulations were respected, and the rights acquired under them recognized and enforced.
On this subject Mr. Justice Miller, speaking for the court in Lamb v. Davenport, said of the settlement upon the land which now embraces the town of Portland: "It is sufficient here to say that several years before that [the donation] act was passed, and before any act of Congress existed by which title to the land could be acquired, settlement on and cultivation of a large tract of land, which includes the lots in controversy, had been made, and a town laid off into lots, and lots sold, and that these are a part of the present city of Portland. Of course no legal title vested in any one by these proceedings, for that remained in the United States; all of which was well known and undisputed. But it was equally well known that those possessory rights and improvements placed on the soil were, by the policy of the government, generally protected, so far at least as to give priority of the right to purchase whenever the land was offered for sale, and when no special reason existed to the contrary. And though these
So in California the discovery of the precious metals was followed, as is well known, by a large immigration to the State which increased her population in a few years to several hundred thousand. The majority of the immigrants at first found their way into the mineral regions and became seekers of gold. But still a very large number settled upon the farming lands, erected houses thereon, planted vineyards and orchards, and subjected portions to cultivation. Much of this was in advance of the public surveys, and even before the passage of an act of Congress opening the agricultural lands to settlement, and providing for the sale of the mineral lands. Yet the progress of the country was not thereby stayed. The first appropriator of mineral lands within certain limits, or the first settler on agricultural lands to the extent prescribed by the pre-emption laws in force in other States, was recognized everywhere as having a better right than others to the claim appropriated, or to the land settled upon. In all controversies, except as against the government, he was regarded as the original owner from whom title was to be traced. And when the government extended its surveys over the agricultural lands it gave the privilege of purchasing — the pre-emption right — to the first settler, requiring only that his possession should be continued, accompanied with improvement. And when it allowed the mineral lands
In the dealing of the government with occupants of lots in towns built upon the public lands, we have a further illustration of the good faith which is exacted from parties seeking the title of the United States. The Town Site Act of Congress of May 23d, 1844, provides that whenever any portion of the surveyed public lands has been settled upon and occupied as a town site, it shall be lawful, if the town be incorporated, for the corporate authorities, and if not incorporated, for the judge of the County Court, to enter at the proper land office, and at the minimum price, such land "in trust for the several use and benefit of the occupants thereof, according to their respective interests; the execution of which trust as to the disposal of the lots in such town, and the proceeds of the sale thereof, to be conducted under such rules and regulations as may be prescribed by the legislative authority of the State or Territory in which the same is situated." 5 Stat. 657. The act of Congress of March 3d, 1853, extended the provisions of this act, and, with certain exceptions, made the whole of the public lands, not being mineral, occupied as towns or villages, subject to like entry, whether settled upon before or after they were surveyed.
In Ricks v. Reed, decided in 1862, the proper construction
The provision of the act that the commissioners "shall finally determine the right of each claimant or occupant" to purchase the land or a portion of it, does not necessarily withdraw that determination from the consideration of the court. It is final so far as the land department is concerned. By the general law all proceedings for the alienation of the public lands, from the incipient steps to a patent, are placed under the supervision of that department. The provision in question takes the action of the board, in the particulars mentioned, from that supervision. In effect it substitutes the board in the place of the ordinary land officers, with only a modification of duties and powers adapted to the peculiar circumstances of the case. It does not withdraw its decisions fom the correcting power of the court when the board has miscontrued the statute, and thus defeated its manifest purpose, and made its benefits inure to those who were never in the contemplation of Congress,
The powers of the commissioners under the act of 1877 are not essentially different from those of the receiver and register of the land office in cases of conflicting claims to pre-emption. The latter officers must hear the evidence of parties, and decide as to which has the better right to the patent certificate. The judicial character of their investigation and determination is as great and important as that of the commissioners under the act of 1877. The acts done in both cases relate merely to the sale of public lands; and it is difficult to perceive any reason why, when private rights are invaded, the door should be closed against relief in the courts of the country in the one case more than in the other.
The statute, in requiring the commissioners to "finally determine the right of each claimant or occupant to purchase" parts of the reservation, recognizes the existence of rights as between different claimants, though equally without title so far as the government is concerned. But in their decision they have ignored the universally acknowledged right as between landlord and tenants, giving to the latter what could by no possibility belong to them in the relation which they occupied. Had Congress intended to invest the commissioners with absolute discretion in awarding the privilege of pre-emption of the several parcels of land, its language would have been different; it would not have required an examination of witnesses, a regard for existing boundaries, and a determination of rights. Everything in the statute, from the beginning to the end, indicates an intent that, in awarding the right of pre-emption, the commissioners should be governed, not by an arbitrary discretion, but by the existence of claims by possession, and a consideration of the mutual rights of parties as between one another. They had no right to disregard the very principle on which their appointment was based.
On matters depending upon conflicting evidence as to the extent of occupation and the value of improvements, and many other matters, the action of the commissioners is undoubtedly final; but upon the construction of the law, and particularly
"That the action of the land office in issuing a patent for any of the public lands, subject to sale by pre-emption or otherwise, is conclusive of the legal title, must be admitted under 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 into the circumstances under which it was obtained. On the other
This case is a leading one in this branch of the law, and has been uniformly followed. The decision aptly expresses the settled doctrine of this court with reference to the action of officers of the land department, that when the legal title has passed from the United States to one party, when in equity, and in good conscience, and by the laws of Congress it ought to go to another, a court of equity will convert the holder into a trustee of the true owner, and compel him to convey the legal title. This doctrine extends to the action of all officers having charge of proceedings for the alienation of any portion of the public domain. The parties actually entitled under the law cannot, because of its misconstruction by those officers, be deprived of their rights. Townsend v. Greeley, 5 Wall. 326, 335; Carpentier v. Montgomery, 13 Id. 480, 496; Shepley v. Cowan, 91 U.S. 330; Moore v. Robbins, 96 U.S. 530; Quinby v. Conlan, 104 U.S. 420; Smelting Company v. Kemp, Id. 636.
It follows from the views expressed that
The decree of the court below must be reversed and the cause remanded with instructions to overrule the demurrer and to take further proceedings in accordance with this opinion, the plaintiff to have leave to amend his bill and the defendants to answer.
MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WAITE, with whom concurred HARLAN, WOODS, and BLATCHFORD, JJ., dissenting.
I am unable to agree to this judgment. In my opinion the act of March 3d, 1877, granted a new right to the occupants of the Hot Springs Reservation, and provided a special tribunal for the settlement of all controversies between conflicting claimants. The right and the remedy were created by the same statute, and, consequently, the remedy thus specially provided was exclusive of all others. No provision was made for a review of the decisions of the tribunal. Its determination, therefore, of all questions arising under the jurisdiction must necessarily be conclusive, and not open to attack collaterally. It seems to me there is a very broad distinction between this case and that of Johnson v. Towsley, 13 Wall. 72, and others of that class. Here a special tribunal has been created for a special purpose. It has been clothed with power to compel the attendance of witnesses "and to finally determine the right of each claimant or occupant to purchase" from the United States, under the provisions of the act of Congress, the ground he occupies or claims. The duties of the tribunal are judicial in their character, and their decisions evidently intended to be binding on the parties. The question now is not whether, if Rector had kept away from the tribunal and Gibbon had got a title under his occupancy, he could be charged as trustee for Rector on account of his tenancy, but whether, having appeared before the tribunal and been beaten in a contest with Gibbon,
I am authorized to say that Justices HARLAN, WOODS, and BLATCHFORD concur with me in this opinion.