119 U.S. 55 (1886)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided November 15, 1886.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. Albert G. Riddle and Mr. Henry E. Davis for appellant. Mr. James E. Padgett was with them on their brief.

Mr. W.P. Clough for appellee.

MR. JUSTICE FIELD, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court, as follows:

The land in controversy and other lands in Dakota, through which the Northern Pacific Railroad was to be constructed, was within what is known as Indian country. At the time the act of July 2d, 1864, was passed, the title of the Indian tribes was not extinguished. But that fact did not prevent the grant of Congress from operating to pass the fee of the land to the company. The fee was in the United States. The Indians had merely a right of occupancy, a right to use the land subject to the dominion and control of the government. The grant conveyed the fee subject to this right of occupancy. The Railroad Company took the property with this incumbrance. The right of the Indians, it is true, could not be interfered with or determined except by the United States. No private individual could invade it, and the manner, time, and conditions of its extinguishment were matters solely for the consideration of the government, and are not open to contestation in the judicial tribunals. As we said in Beecher v. Wetherby, 95 U.S. 517, 525: "It is to be presumed that in this matter the United States would be governed by such considerations of justice as would control a Christian people in their treatment of an ignorant and dependent race. Be that as it may, the propriety or justice of their action towards the Indians with respect to their lands is a question of governmental policy, and is not a matter open to discussion in a controversy between third parties, neither of whom derives title from the Indians. The right of the United States to dispose of the fee of lands occupied by them has always been recognized by this court from the foundation of the government." In support of this doctrine several authorities were cited in that case.

In Johnson v. McIntosh, 8 Wheat. 543, 575, which was here in 1823, the court, speaking by Chief Justice Marshall, stated the origin of this doctrine of the ultimate title and dominion in the United States. It was this: that, upon the discovery of America, the nations of Europe were anxious to appropriate as much of the country as possible, and, to avoid contests and conflicting settlements among themselves, they established the principle that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects or by whose authority it was made, against all other governments. This exclusion of other governments necessarily gave to the discovering nation the sole right of acquiring the soil from the natives, and of establishing settlements upon it. It followed that the relations which should exist between the discoverer and the natives were to be regulated only by themselves. No other nation could interfere between them. The Chief Justice remarked that "the potentates of the old world found no difficulty in convincing themselves that they made ample compensation to the inhabitants of the new, by bestowing on them civilization and Christianity in exchange for unlimited independence." Whilst thus claiming a right to acquire and dispose of the soil, the discoverers recognized a right of occupancy or a usufructuary right in the natives. They accordingly made grants of lands occupied by the Indians, and these grants were held to convey a title to the grantees, subject only to the Indian right of occupancy. The Chief Justice adds, that the history of America, from its discovery to the present day, proves the universal recognition of this principle.

In Clark v. Smith, 13 Pet. 195, 201, which was here in 1839, the patent under which the complainant became the owner in fee of certain lands was issued by the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1795, when the lands were in possession of the Chickasaw Indians, whose title was not extinguished until 1819. It was objected that the patent was void because it was issued for lands within a country claimed by Indians, but the court replied, "That the colonial charters, a great portion of the individual grants by the proprietary and royal governments, and a still greater portion by the States of this Union after the revolution, were made for lands within the Indian hunting-grounds. North Carolina and Virginia, to a great extent, paid their officers and soldiers of the revolutionary war by such grants; and extinguished the arrears due the army by similar means. It was one of the great resources that sustained the war, not only by these States but by others. The ultimate fee (encumbered with the Indian right of occupancy) was in the crown previous to the revolution, and in the States of the Union afterwards, and subject to grant. This right of occupancy was protected by the political power and respected by the courts until extinguished; when the patentee took the unencumbered fee. So this court, and the State courts, have uniformly and often holden."

In the grant to the Railroad Company now before us, Congress was not unmindful of the title of the Indians to the lands granted, and it stipulated for its extinguishment by the United States as rapidly as might be consistent with public policy and the welfare of the Indians.

In compliance with the pledge thus given, the United States took steps, first, to obtain from the Indians the right to construct railroads, wagon roads, and telegraph lines across their lands, and to make such other improvements upon them as the interests of the government might require, and afterwards to obtain a cession of their entire title.

The right to construct railroads and telegraph lines across their lands was secured by the treaty concluded on the 19th of February, 1867, ratified on the 15th of April, and proclaimed on the 2d of May of that year. The right was in terms ceded to the United States, but the cession must be construed to authorize any one deriving title from the United States to exercise the same right. 15 Stat. 505.

For the relinquishment of the entire title of the Indians to the lands, an agreement was made by commissioners appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, under the act of Congress of June 7, 1872. That agreement in form was merely a proposition by the Indians to cede their title, upon certain money considerations to be paid, and certain acts to be performed by the United States. Congress declined to approve of it in its entirety, but expressed an approval of it so far as it related to the cession of the title of the Indians upon the money considerations named. It refused, however, to allow an appropriation made to meet the first instalment of the money consideration to be expended, except upon the condition that the Indians should abandon the other provisions and ratify the agreement thus modified. The Indians on the different reservations accepted the condition and ratified the agreement as modified — those on one reservation on May 2, 1873, and those on the other on the 19th of the same month.

The agreement, thus ratified, was forwarded to the Secretary of the Interior, and was approved by him on the 19th of June following; and on June 22, 1874, Congress approved it in the Indian appropriation act of that year, when it also provided for the payment of the second instalment of the money consideration.

This modified agreement must be considered as accepted, on the part of the United States, when it was approved by the Secretary of the Interior. Some official recognition was necessary to satisfy those who might be interested as to the good faith of the alleged consent of the Indians; whether the parties acting nominally in their behalf really represented them, and whether their assent was freely given after full knowledge of the import of the legislation of Congress. Proof of these facts was not to rest in the recollection of witnesses, but in the official action of the officers of the government, or in the legislation of Congress. The agreement, however, on the part of the Indians was only to cede their title; it was not a cession in terms by them. The officers of the Land Department, however, treated it as an actual cession of title from its date. The Indians had then retired to the reservations set apart for them by the treaty of 1867, thus giving up the occupancy of the other lands. The relinquishment thus made was as effectual as a formal act of cession. Their right of occupancy was, in effect, abandoned, and full consideration for it being afterwards paid, it could not be resumed. The agreement in terms provided that it should be binding from its ratification. So, therefore, considered in connection with the actual retirement of the Indians from the land, it may properly be treated as establishing the extinguishment of their title from its date, so far as the United States are concerned. The definite location of the line of railroad was subsequently made by the company, and a map of it filed with the Secretary of the Interior. The right of the company, freed from any incumbrance of the Indian title, immediately attached to the alternate sections, a portion of one of which constitutes the premises in controversy. The defendant could not initiate any preëmptive right to the land so long as the Indian title remained unextinguished. The act of Congress excludes lands in that condition from preëmption. Rev. Stat. § 2257.

If we are mistaken in this view, and the relinquishment of the right of occupancy by the Indians is not to be deemed effected until the agreement was ratified by Congress in June, 1874, notwithstanding their actual retirement from the lands, the result would not be changed. The right of the company to the odd sections within the limits of its grant, covered by the Indian claim, did not depend upon the extinguishment of that claim before the definite location of the line of the road was made, and a map thereof filed with the Commissioner of the General Land Office. The provisions of the third section, limiting the grant to lands to which the United States had then full title, they not having been reserved, sold, granted, or otherwise appropriated, and being free from preëmption or other claims or rights, did not exclude from the grant Indian lands, not thus reserved, sold, or appropriated, which were subject simply to their right of occupancy. Nearly all the lands in the Territory of Dakota, and, indeed, a large, if not the greater, portion of the lands along the entire route to Puget Sound on which the road of the company was to be constructed, was subject to this right of occupancy by the Indians. With knowledge of their title and its impediment to the use of the lands by the company, Congress made the grant, with a stipulation to extinguish the title. It would be a strange conclusion to hold that the failure of the United States to secure the extinguishment at the time when it should first become possible to identify the tracts granted, operated to recall the pledge and to defeat the grant. It would require very clear language to justify a conclusion so repugnant to the purposes of Congress expressed in other parts of the act. The only limitation upon the action of the United States with respect to the title of the Indians was that imposed by the act of Congress, that they would extinguish the title as rapidly as might be "consistent with public policy and the welfare of said Indians." Subject only to that condition, so far as the Indian title was concerned, the grant passed the fee to the company. In our judgment, the claims and rights mentioned in the third section are such as are asserted to the lands by other parties than Indians having only a right of occupancy.

Assuming that the extinguishment of the Indian title to the lands in controversy may, so far as any claim to them against the United States is concerned, be held to have taken place at the date of the amended agreement — taking the last date, when the Indians on the second reservation ratified it — the defendant did not acquire any right of preemption by his continued settlement afterwards. The act of Congress not only contemplates the filing by the company, in the office of the Commissioner of the General Land Office, of a map showing the definite location of the line of its road, and limits the grant to such alternate odd sections as have not, at that time, been reserved, sold, granted, or otherwise appropriated, and are free from preëmption, grant, or other claims or rights; but it also contemplates a preliminary designation of the general route of the road, and the exclusion from sale, entry, or preëmption of the adjoining odd sections within forty miles on each side, until the definite location is made. The third section declares that after the general route shall be fixed, the President shall cause the lands to be surveyed for forty miles in width on both sides of the entire line as fast as may be required for the construction of the road, and that the odd sections granted shall not be liable to sale, entry, or preëmption, before or after they are surveyed, except by the company. The general route may be considered as fixed when its general course and direction are determined after an actual examination of the country or from a knowledge of it, and is designated by a line on a map showing the general features of the adjacent country and the places through or by which it will pass. The officers of the Land Department are expected to exercise supervision over the matter so as to require good faith on the part of the company in designating the general route, and not to accept an arbitrary and capricious selection of the line irrespective of the character of the country through which the road is to be constructed. When the general route of the road is thus fixed in good faith, and information thereof given to the Land Department by filing the map thereof with the Commissioner of the General Land Office, or the Secretary of the Interior, the law withdraws from sale or preëmption the odd sections to the extent of forty miles on each side. The object of the law in this particular is plain: it is to preserve the land for the company to which, in aid of the construction of the road, it is granted. Although the act does not require the officers of the Land Department to give notice to the local land officers of the withdrawal of the odd sections from sale or preëmption, it has been the practice of the Department in such cases, to formally withdraw them. It cannot be otherwise than the exercise of a wise precaution by the Department to give such information to the local land officers as may serve to guide aright those seeking settlements on the public lands; and thus prevent settlements and expenditures connected with them which would afterwards prove to be useless.

Nor is there anything inconsistent with this view of the sixth section as to the general route, in the clause in the third section making the grant operative only upon such odd sections as have not been reserved, sold, granted, or otherwise appropriated, and to which preëmption and other rights and claims have not attached, when a map of the definite location has been filed. The third section does not embrace sales and preemptions in cases where the sixth section declares that the land shall not be subject to sale or preëmption. The two sections must be so construed as to give effect to both, if that be practicable.

In the present case, the general route of the road was indicated by the map filed in the office of the Secretary of the Interior on the 21st of February, 1872. It does not appear that any objection was made to the sufficiency of the map, or to the route designated, in any particular. Accordingly, on the 30th of March, 1872, the Commissioner of the General Land Office transmitted a diagram or map, showing this route, to the officers of the local land office in Dakota, and by direction of the Secretary ordered them to withhold from sale, location, preëmption, or homestead entry all surveyed and unsurveyed odd numbered sections of public land falling within the limits of forty miles, as designated on the map.

This notification did not add to the force of the act itself, but it gave notice to all parties seeking to make a preëmption settlement that lands within certain defined limits might be appropriated for the road. At that time the lands were subject to the Indian title. The defendant could not, therefore, as already stated, have then initiated any preëmption right by his settlement; and the law cut him off from any subsequent preëmption. The withdrawal of the odd sections mentioned from sale or preëmption, by the sixth section of the act, after the general route of the road was fixed, in the manner stated, was never annulled.

It follows that the defendant could never afterwards acquire any rights against the company by his settlement.

Judgment affirmed.


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