115 U.S. 392 (1885)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided November 16, 1885.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. G.C. Moody for appellant.

Mr. A.J. Plowman for appellee.

MR. JUSTICE FIELD delivered the opinion of the court. After stating the facts in the language above reported, he continued:

The principal question presented by the pleadings for our consideration, is whether, upon the public domain, title to mineral land can be acquired under the laws of Congress relating to town sites. The plaintiff asserts title to mineral land under a patent of the United States founded upon an entry by him under the laws of Congress for the sale of mineral lands. The defendant, not having the legal title, claims a better right to the premises by virtue of a previous occupation of them by his grantor as a lot on a portion of the public lands appropriated and used as a town site, that is, settled upon for purposes of trade and business, and not for agriculture, and laid out into streets, lots, blocks, and alleys for that purpose.

In several acts of Congress relating to the public lands of the United States, passed before July, 1866, lands which contained minerals were reserved from sale or other disposition. Thus, the pre-emption act of 1841, 5 Stat. 453, excepts from pre-emption and sale "lands on which are situated any known salines or mines," Ib. 455, ch. 16, § 10; and the act of 1862, extending to California the privilege of settlement on unsurveyed lands, previously authorized in certain States and Territories, contains a clause declaring that the provisions of the act "shall not be held to authorize pre-emption and settlement of mineral lands." 12 Stat. 409, 410, ch. 86, § 7. Similar exceptions were made in grants to different States, and in grants to aid in the construction of railroads. Thus, in the grant to California of ten sections of land, for the purpose of erecting the public buildings of that State, there is a proviso "that none of said selections shall be made of mineral lands." 10 Stat. 244, 248, ch. 145, § 13. And in the grants to the Union Pacific Railroad, and its associated companies, to aid in the building of the transcontinental railroad and branches, there is a proviso declaring that all mineral lands, other than of coal and iron, shall be excepted from them. 12 Stat. 489, ch. 120, § 3; 13 Stat. 356, 358, ch. 216, § 4. A similar exception is made in grants for universities and schools; and, in the law allowing homesteads to be selected, it is enacted that mineral lands shall not be liable to entry and settlement for that purpose.

By the act of July 26, 1866, this policy of reserving mineral lands from sale or grant was changed. That act declared that the mineral lands of the public domain were free and open to exploration and occupation by all citizens of the United States, and persons who had declared their intention to become citizens, subject to such regulations as might be prescribed by law, and to the local customs or rules of miners in mining districts, so far as they were not in conflict with the laws of the United States. 14 Stat. 251, ch. 262, § 1. It then provided for acquiring by patent the title to "veins or lodes of quartz, or other rock, in place, bearing gold, silver, cinnabar, or copper." On the 9th of July, 1870, this act was amended so as to make placer claims, including all forms of deposit, "excepting veins of quartz or other rock in place," subject to entry and patent, under like circumstances and conditions, and upon similar proceedings, as those provided for vein or lode claims. 16 Stat. 217, ch. 235, § 12. The act of May 10, 1872, to promote the development of the mining resources of the United States, repealed several sections of the act of 1866, and, among others, the first section, but enacted in place of it a provision declaring that "all valuable mineral deposits" in lands belonging to the United States, both surveyed and unsurveyed, were "free and open to exploration and purchase, and the lands in which they are found to occupation and purchase," subject to the conditions named in the original act. 17 Stat. 91, ch. 152, § 1. Other sections pointed out, with particularity, the procedure to obtain the title to veins, lodes, and placer claims, and defined the extent of each claim to which title might be thus acquired. By the act of February 18, 1873, mineral lands in the States of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota were excepted from the act of May 10, 1872, and those lands were declared to be free and open to exploration and purchase, according to legal subdivisions, in like manner as before. 17 Stat. 465, ch. 159. The provisions of the act of 1872, with the exceptions made by the act of 1873, were carried into the Revised Statutes, which declare the statute law of the United States upon the subjects to which they relate, as it existed on the 1st of December, 1873. Rev. Stat. § 2345. All other provisions contained in the acts, of which any portion is embraced in this revision, are in express language repealed. § 5596. No reference, therefore, can be had to the original statutes to control the construction of any section of the Revised Statutes, when its meaning is plain, although in the original statutes it may have had a larger or more limited application than that given to it in the revision. United States v. Bowen, 100 U.S. 508, 513.

Turning to that portion of these statutes treating of mineral lands and mining resources, which is contained in chapter six of title XXXII, we find that its first section declares that "in all cases lands valuable for minerals shall be reserved from sale, except as otherwise expressly directed by law." § 2318. Title, therefore, to lands known at the time to be valuable for their minerals, could only have been acquired after December 1, 1873, under provisions specially authorizing their sale, as found in these statutes, except in the States of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and after May 5, 1876, in the States of Missouri and Kansas. By the act of Congress of this latter date, "deposits of coal, iron, lead, or other mineral," in Missouri and Kansas were excluded from the operation of the act of May 10, 1872, that is, from such provisions of that act as were re-enacted in the Revised Statutes. 19 Stat. 52, ch. 91. In those portions of the Revised Statutes which relate to pre-emption and to homestead entries the clauses from the original acts excepting mineral lands are retained. §§ 2258, 2302.

If now we turn to the laws relating to town sites on the public lands, and the provisions authorizing the sale of lands under them, or to the entry of town sites for the benefit of their occupants, as contained in the Revised Statutes, we shall find a similar exception from sale or entry under them of mineral lands. Title XXXII. of the Revised Statutes contains the law as to the public lands. Chapter eight of that title relates to the reservation and sale of town sites on the public lands. It contains provisions authorizing the President to reserve from the public lands town sites on the shores of harbors, at the junction of rivers, important portages or at any natural or prospective centres of population; it declares when the survey of such reservations into lots may be made and the sale of the land had; it prescribes with particularity the manner in which parties who have founded, or who may desire to found, a city or town on the public lands may proceed, and the title to lots in them be acquired. It also provides for the entry, at the proper land office, of portions of the public lands occupied as a town site, such entry to be made by its corporate authorities, or, if the town be unincorporated, by the judge of the county court of the county in which the town is situated, the entry to be in trust for the use and benefit of the occupants, according to their respective interests. The chapter also contains many other clauses respecting town sites, but with provisions against the acquisition of title to mineral land under them. In one section it declares that "where mineral veins are possessed, which possession is recognized by local authority, and to the extent so possessed and recognized, the title to town lots to be acquired shall be subject to such recognized possession, and the necessary use thereof," with a reservation, also, that nothing in the section shall be construed to recognize any color of title in possessors for mining purposes as against the United States. § 2386. In another section, near the conclusion of the chapter and following all the provisions affecting the question before us, it declares that "no title shall be acquired under the foregoing provisions of this chapter to any mine of gold, silver, cinnabar, or copper, or to any valid mining claim or possession held under existing laws." § 2392.

It is plain, from this brief statement of the legislation of Congress, that no title from the United States to land known at the time of sale to be valuable for its minerals of gold, silver, cinnabar, or copper can be obtained under the pre-emption or homestead laws or the town-site laws, or in any other way than as prescribed by the laws specially authorizing the sale of such lands, except in the States of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri and Kansas. We say "land known at the time to be valuable for its minerals," as there are vast tracts of public land in which minerals of different kinds are found, but not in such quantity as to justify expenditures in the effort to extract them. It is not to such lands that the term "mineral" in the sense of the statute is applicable. In the first section of the act of 1866 no designation is given of the character of mineral lands which are free and open to exploration. But in the act of 1872, which repealed that section and re-enacted one of broader import, it is "valuable mineral deposits" which are declared to be free and open to exploration and purchase. The same term is carried into the Revised Statutes. It is there enacted that "lands valuable for minerals" shall be reserved from sale, except as otherwise expressly directed, and that "valuable mineral deposits" in lands belonging to the United States shall be free and open to exploration and purchase. We also say lands known at the time of their sale to be thus valuable, in order to avoid any possible conclusion against the validity of titles which may be issued for other kinds of land, in which, years afterwards, rich deposits of mineral may be discovered. It is quite possible that lands settled upon as suitable only for agricultural purposes, entered by the settler and patented by the government under the pre-emption laws, may be found, years after the patent has been issued, to contain valuable minerals. Indeed, this has often happened. We, therefore, use the term known to be valuable at the time of sale, to prevent any doubt being cast upon titles to lands afterwards found to be different in their mineral character from what was supposed when the entry of them was made and the patent issued.

In the present case there is no dispute as to the mineral character of the land claimed by the plaintiff. It is upon the alleged prior occupation of it for trade and business, the same being within the settlement or town site of Deadwood, that the defendant relies as giving him a better right to the property. But the title to the land being in the United States, its occupation for trade or business did not and could not initiate any right to it, the same being mineral land, nor delay proceedings for the acquisition of the title under the laws providing for the sale of lands of that character. And those proceedings had gone so far as to vest in the plaintiff a right to the title, before any steps were taken by the probate judge of the county to enter the town site at the local land office. The complaint alleges, and the answer admits, that on the 20th of November, 1877, the plaintiff applied to the United States land office at Deadwood to enter the land as a placer mining claim, and that on the 31st of January, 1878, he did enter it as such by paying the government price therefor. No adverse claim was ever filed with the register and receiver of the local land office, and the entry was never cancelled nor disapproved by the officers of the Land Department at Washington. The right of the government, therefore, passed to him; and though its deed, that is, its patent, was not issued to him until January 31, 1882, the certificate of purchase, which was given to him upon the entry, was, so far as the acquisition of title by any other party was concerned, equivalent to a patent. It was not until the 28th of July following that the probate judge entered the town site. The land had then ceased to be the subject of sale by the government. It was no longer its property; it held the legal title only in trust for the holder of the certificate. Witherspoon v. Duncan, 4 Wall. 210, 218. When the patent was subsequently issued, it related back to the inception of the right of the patentee.

The position that the patent to the plaintiff should have contained a reservation excluding from its operation all buildings and improvements not belonging to him, and all rights necessary or proper to the possession and enjoyment of the same, has no support in any legislation of Congress. The land officers, who are merely agents of the law, had no authority to insert in the patent any other terms than those of conveyance, with recitals showing a compliance with the law and the conditions which it prescribed. The patent of a placer mining claim carries with it the title to the surface included within the lines of the mining location, as well as to the land beneath the surface. The act of Congress of May 10, 1872, contemplates the purchase of the land on which valuable mineral deposits are found; and its provisions in this respect are retained in the Revised Statutes, § 2319.

Whilst we hold that a title to known valuable mineral land cannot be acquired under the town-site laws, and, therefore, could not be acquired to the land in controversy under the entry of the town site of Deadwood by the probate judge of the county in which that town is situated, we do not wish to be understood as expressing any opinion against the validity of the entry, so far as it affected property other than mineral lands, if there were any such at the time of the entry. The acts of Congress relating to town sites recognize the possession of mining claims within their limits; and in Steel v. Smelting Co., 106 U.S. 447, 449, we said that "land embraced within a town site on the public domain, when unoccupied, is not exempt from location and sale for mining purposes; its exemption is only from settlement and sale under the pre-emption laws of the United States. Some of the most valuable mines in the country are within the limits of incorporated cities, which have grown up on what was, at its first settlement, part of the public domain; and many of such mines were located and patented after a regular municipal government had been established. Such is the case with some of the famous mines of Virginia City, in Nevada. Indeed, the discovery of a rich mine in any quarter is usually followed by a large settlement in its immediate neighborhood, and the consequent organization of some form of local government for the protection of its members." It would seem, therefore, that the entry of a town site, even though within its limits mineral lands are found, would be as important to the occupants of other lands as if no mineral lands existed. Nor do we see any injury resulting therefrom, nor any departure from the policy of the government, the entry and the patent being inoperative as to all lands known at the time to be valuable for their minerals, or discovered to be such before their occupation or improvement for residences or business under the town-site title.

The claim of the defendant, under the second special plea, to allowance for improvements made upon the property, is as untenable as his claim to the title. It is asserted under a statute of the Territory, which provides that "in an action for the recovery of real property, upon which permanent improvements have been made by a defendant, or those under whom he claims, holding under color of title, adversely to the claim of the plaintiff, in good faith, the value of such improvements must be allowed as a counterclaim by such defendant." The case presented by the defendant is not covered by the provisions of this law. There can be no color of title in an occupant who does not hold under any instrument, proceeding, or law, purporting to transfer to him the title or to give to him the right of possession. And there can be no such thing as good faith in an adverse holding, where the party knows that he has no title, and that, under the law, which he is presumed to know, he can acquire none by his occupation. Here the defendant knew that the title was in the United States, that the lands were mineral, and were claimed as such by the plaintiff, and that title to them could be acquired only under the laws providing for the sale of lands of that character; and there is no pretence that he ever sought, or contemplated seeking the title to them as such lands, or claimed possession of them under any local customs or rules of miners in the district.

Judgment affirmed.


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