PACKER v. BIRD

No. 111.

137 U.S. 661 (1891)

PACKER v. BIRD.

Supreme Court of United States.

Decided January 19, 1891.


Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. W.C. Belcher for plaintiff in error.

Mr. Charles N. Fox for defendant in error.


MR. JUSTICE FIELD after stating the case as above reported, delivered the opinion of the court.

The question presented is, whether the patent of the United States, describing the eastern boundary of the land as commencing at a point on the river, which was on the right and west bank, and running southerly on its margin, embraces the island within it, or whether, notwithstanding the terms of apparent limitation of the eastern boundary to the margin of the river, the patent carries the title of the plaintiff holding under it to the middle of the stream. The contention of the plaintiff is that the land granted and patented, being bounded on the river, extends to the middle of the stream, and thus includes the island. It does not appear in the record that the waters of the river at the point where the island is situated are affected by the tides; but it is assumed that such is not the case. The contention of the plaintiff proceeds upon that assumption.

It is undoubtedly the rule of the common law that the title of owners of land bordering on rivers above the ebb and flow of the tide extends to the middle of the stream, but that where the waters of the river are affected by the tides, the title of such owners is limited to ordinary high-water mark. The title to land below that mark in such cases is vested in England in the Crown, and in this country in the State within whose boundaries the waters lie, private ownership of the soils under them being deemed inconsistent with the interest of the public at large in their use for purposes of commerce. In England this limitation of the right of the riparian owner is confined to such navigable rivers as are affected by the tides, because there the ebb and flow of the tide constitute the usual test of the navigability of the streams. No rivers there, at least none of any considerable extent, are navigable in fact, which are not subject to the tides. In this country the situation is wholly different. Some of our rivers are navigable for many hundreds of miles above the limits of tide-water, and by vessels larger than any which sailed on the seas when the common law rule was established. A different test must, therefore, be sought to determine the navigability of our rivers, with the consequent rights both to the public and the riparian owner, and such test is found in their navigable capacity. Those rivers are regarded as public navigable rivers in law which are navigable in fact. And, as said in the case of The Daniel Ball, 10 Wall. 557, 563: "they are navigable in fact when they are used, or are susceptible of being used, in their ordinary condition, as highways for commerce, over which trade and travel are or may be conducted in the customary modes of trade and travel on water."

The same reasons, therefore, exist in this country for the exclusion of the right of private ownership over the soil under navigable waters when they are susceptible of being used as highways of commerce in the ordinary modes of trade and travel on water, as when their navigability is determined by the tidal test. It is, indeed, the susceptibility to use as highways of commerce which gives sanction to the public right of control over navigation upon them, and consequently to the exclusion of private ownership, either of the waters or the soils under them. The common law doctrine on this subject, prevailing in England, is held in some of the States, but in a large number has been considered as inapplicable to the navigable waters of the country, or, even if prevailing for a time has given way, or been greatly modified, under the different conditions there.

It has been adopted in most, if not all, of the New England States. In New York, in the earlier cases, it was considered as in force; and in Ex parte Jennings, 6 Cowen, 518, was formally declared. There a patent of lands by the State, bounded on the margin of a river above tide-water, was held to carry the land granted to the middle of the stream, the court stating that the rule was otherwise where the land was bounded on a navigable river, but adding that by the term "navigable river," the law did not mean such as is navigable in common parlance; that the smallest creek might be so to a certain extent as well as the largest river, without being legally a navigable stream; and that the term has in law a technical meaning, and applies to all streams, rivers or arms of the sea where the tide ebbs and flows. This doctrine was modified and finally overruled in subsequent cases.

In People v. Canal Appraisers, 33 N.Y. 461, 499, the whole subject of the rights of riparian owners on navigable streams, whether affected or not by the ebb and flow of the tide, was elaborately considered, with a careful examination of the adjudged cases in the different States, and the conclusion reached was against the applicability of the common law rule in this country. The court in its opinion refers to the great embarrassment experienced by courts, judges and text-writers in applying the principles of the common law to the waters of this continent, the variant conclusions reached by them, and the contradictory and unsatisfactory reasons given for the results arrived at; and, after tracing the progress of judicial discussion of the doctrine of the common law on the subject, it expresses satisfaction that the discussion had culminated in the decision by the court of ultimate appeal repudiating the applicability of the doctrine to the rivers of that State, and establishing what it terms "the better doctrine of the civil law."

In Pennsylvania the common law doctrine was never recognized. In Monongahela Bridge Co. v. Kirk, 46 Penn. St. 112, 120, the Supreme Court of that State, in holding that the river Monongahela was a navigable stream, and that its soil up to low-water mark, and the river itself, were the property of the Commonwealth, said:

"We are aware that by the common law of England such streams as the Mississippi, the Missouri, the rivers Amazon and Platte, the Rhine, the Danube, the Po, the Nile, the Euphrates, the Ganges and the Indus, were not navigable rivers, but were the subject of private property, whilst an insignificant creek in a small island was elevated to the dignity of a public river, because it was so near the ocean that the tide ebbed and flowed up the whole of its petty course. The Roman law, which has pervaded Continental Europe, and which took its rise in a country where there was a tideless sea, recognized all rivers as navigable which were really so, and this common sense view was adopted by the early founders of Pennsylvania, whose province was intersected by large and valuable streams, some of which are a mile in breadth."

In the courts of the Western States there is much conflict of opinion, some, like the courts of Illinois, adopting the common law rule to its fullest extent; and others, like the courts of Iowa, repudiating its application in determining the navigability of the great rivers, and the rights of riparian owners upon them. A very elaborate consideration of the adjudged cases on the subject is found in McManus v. Carmichael, 3 Iowa, 1. Indeed, the opinion of the Supreme Court of Iowa in that case, and the opinion of the Court of Appeals of New York in People v. Canal Appraisers, above cited, contain an exhaustive and instructive consideration of the whole subject, with a careful review of the decisions of the courts of the States. In this case we accept the view of the Supreme Court of California in its opinion as expressing the law of that State, "that the Sacramento River being navigable in fact, the title of the plaintiff extends no farther than the edge of the stream." Lux v. Haggin, 69 California, 255.

The courts of the United States will construe the grants of the general government without reference to the rules of construction adopted by the States for their grants; but whatever incidents or rights attach to the ownership of property conveyed by the government will be determined by the States, subject to the condition that their rules do not impair the efficacy of the grants or the use and enjoyment of the property by the grantee. As an incident of such ownership the right of the riparian owner, where the waters are above the influence of the tide, will be limited according to the law of the State, either to low or high-water mark, or will extend to the middle of the stream. It is, therefore, important to ascertain and determine what view will be taken by the courts of the United States in the construction of grants of the general government in conferring ownership, when they embrace lands bordering on navigable waters above the influence of the tide. How far will such grants be deemed to extend into the water, if at all? From the conflicting decisions of the state courts cited, it is evident that there is no such general law on the subject as will be deemed to control their construction.

In the courts of the United States the rule of the common law in determining the navigability of rivers, and the effect thereof upon the jurisdiction of the court, has been disregarded since the decision of the case of The Genesee Chief, 12 How. 443, 455. This court there said that there was nothing in the ebb and flow of the tide which made a stream suitable for admiralty jurisdiction, nor anything in the absence of the tide that rendered it unfit; that if a stream was a public navigable water, on which commerce was carried on between different States and nations, the reason for the jurisdiction was precisely the same; and that any distinction made on that account was merely arbitrary, without any foundation in reason, and indeed would seem to be inconsistent with it. The eminent Chief Justice who delivered the opinion in that case explained how in England the ebb and flow of the tide became the test of the navigability of a stream, as we have stated it above; that there tide-waters, with a few small and unimportant exceptions, meant nothing more than public rivers as contradistinguished from private ones; and that hence arose the doctrine of admiralty jurisdiction, which was confined to the ebb and flow of the tide; in other words, to public navigable waters. He then added: "As the English definition was adopted in our courts, and constantly used in judicial proceedings and forms of pleading, borrowed from England, the public character of the river was in process of time lost sight of, and the jurisdiction of the admiralty treated as if it was limited by the tide. The description of a public navigable river was substituted in the place of the thing intended to be described. And under the natural influence of precedents and established forms, a definition originally correct was adhered to and acted on, after it had ceased, from a change in circumstances, to be the true description of public waters."

In Barney v. Keokuk, 94 U.S. 324, 338, the same subject in some of its features was under consideration in this court, and the language used is especially applicable to cases like the one before us. That action was against the city of Keokuk and a steam packet company, to recover the possession of certain premises occupied by them with railroad tracks, buildings and sheds on the bank of the Mississippi River, and in that city. The court, in considering the question presented, observed that "the confusion of navigable with tide-water, found in the monuments of the common law, long prevailed in this country, notwithstanding the broad differences existing between the extent and topography of the British Island and that of the American Continent. It had the influence for two generations of excluding the admiralty jurisdiction from our great rivers and inland seas; and under the like influence it laid the foundation in many States of doctrines with regard to the ownership of the soil in navigable waters above tide-water at variance with sound principles of public policy. Whether, as rules of property, it would now be safe to change these doctrines where they have been applied, as before remarked, is for the several States themselves to determine. If they choose to resign to the riparian proprietor rights which properly belong to them in their sovereign capacity, it is not for others to raise objections. In our view of the subject the correct principle was laid down in Martin v. Waddell, 16 Pet. 367; Pollard's Lessee v. Hagan, 3 How. 212; and Goodtitle v. Kibbe, 9 How. 471. These cases related to tide-water, it is true; but they enunciate principles which are equally applicable to all navigable waters. And since this court, in the case of The Genesee Chief, 12 How. 443, has declared that the great lakes and other navigable waters of the country, above as well as below the flow of the tide, are, in the strictest sense, entitled to the denomination of navigable waters, and amenable to the admiralty jurisdiction, there seems to be no sound reason for adhering to the old rule as to the proprietorship of the beds and shores of such waters. It properly belongs to the States by their inherent sovereignty, and the United States has wisely abstained from extending (if it could extend) its survey and grants beyond the limits of high water."

The legislation of Congress for the survey of the public lands recognizes the general rule as to the public interest in waters of navigable streams without reference to the existence or absence of the tide in them. As early as 1796, in an act providing for the sale of such lands in the territory northwest of the river Ohio and above the mouth of Kentucky River, Congress declared "that all navigable rivers within the territory to be disposed of by virtue of the act shall be deemed to be and remain public highways; and that in all cases where the opposite banks of any stream, not navigable, shall belong to different persons, the stream and the bed thereof shall become common to both." Act of May 18, 1796, c. 29, § 9, 1 Stat. 468.

In Railroad Company v. Schurmeir, 7 Wall. 272, 288, the court said that in view of this legislation and other similar acts it did not "hesitate to decide, that Congress, in making a distinction between streams navigable and those not navigable, intended to provide that the common law rules of riparian ownership should apply to lands bordering on the latter, but that the title to lands bordering on navigable streams should stop at the stream, and that all such streams should be deemed to be and remain public highways." The same rule applies when the survey is made and the patent is issued upon a confirmation of a previously existing right or equity of the patentee to the lands, which in the absence of such right or equity would belong absolutely to the United States, unless the claim confirmed in terms embraces the land under the waters of the stream.

The language of the decree of confirmation describing the tract confirmed, and the language of the survey incorporated in the patent, both clearly indicate that the margin of the river was intended as the eastern boundary of the tract confirmed, and we find nothing either in any act of Congress or in any decision of the Federal courts which would enlarge the effect of the grant. The title of one claiming under the patent does not, therefore, extend beyond the edge of the stream.

The judgment of the court below is accordingly

Affirmed.


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