No. 239.

171 U.S. 93 (1898)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided May 31, 1898.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. Samuel Y. Finley for plaintiff in error.

Mr. C.M. Cooper and Mr. J.C. Cooper for defendant in error.

MR. JUSTICE BREWER, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

The ruling of the trial court in sustaining the demurrer to the first equitable plea and refusing to permit the second to be filed presents no question for the consideration of this court, for it was held by the Supreme Court of the State that under the plea of not guilty all the matters of defence set up in these equitable pleas could be offered in evidence and made available; and, in fact, the defendant on the trial did offer his testimony to establish them. So the substantial rights of the defendant were not prejudiced, and the ruling involved merely a question of state practice.

We pass therefore to a consideration of the merits of the case: Was the land within the limits of any military reservation at the time that it was patented? The Supreme Court of the State said in respect to this matter:

"There is doubt whether the documentary evidence offered by the defendant shows that the particular lots of land described in the declaration were embraced in the Fort Brooke reservation when the patent was issued."

It is clear to us that they were not. The description of the reservation asked for in the letter of May 29, 1878, from the Secretary of War to the President, is not of itself sufficient to show whether the land was within or without the limits of such reservation. The plat, notes and survey were not in evidence. But the record recites that the diagram, certified by the Commissioner of the Land Office, "shows the contiguity of the land in question." If contiguous it was not within, and while the diagram is unsatisfactory, yet it tends to support this statement of the record. Again, the testimony of the defendant is that he entered into possession of this land in 1871, which was before the reservation was established, and continued in such possession until after the restoration in 1883, and this is in accord with the averments in the equitable plea. This also indicates that the land was not included in any government reservation. Further and finally, the plat on file in the General Land Office, and a part of the public records, puts the question at rest and locates the land outside the reservation. Hence, as shown by the testimony and by the public records, this land ever since 1870 has been part of the public lands of the United States, and subject to disposal in accordance with the general land laws. It was unappropriated land within the meaning of the act of 1872.

It being so a part of the public domain, subject to administration by the land department and to disposal in the ordinary way, the question arises whether a party can defend against a patent duly issued therefor upon an entry made in the local land office on the ground that he was in actual possession of the land at the time of the issue of the patent? We are of opinion that he cannot. It appears from the testimony that the defendant, although in occupation of this land, as he says, from 1871, never attempted to make any entry in the local land office, never took any steps to secure a title, and in fact did nothing until after the issue of a patent, when he began to make inquiry as to his supposed rights. But whether a party was or was not in possession of a particular tract at a given time is a question of fact, depending upon parol testimony; and if there is any one thing respecting the administration of the public lands which must be considered as settled by repeated adjudications of this court, it is that the decision of the land department upon mere questions of fact is, in the absence of fraud or deceit, conclusive, and such questions cannot thereafter be relitigated in the courts. The law in reference to this matter was summed up in the case of Burfenning v. Chicago, St. Paul &c. Railway, 163 U.S. 321, 323, as follows:

"It has undoubtedly been affirmed over and over again that in the administration of the public land system of the United States questions of fact are for the consideration and judgment of the land department, and that its judgment thereon is final. Whether, for instance, a certain tract is swamp land or not, saline land or not, mineral land or not, presents a question of fact not resting on record, dependent on oral testimony; and it cannot be doubted that the decision of the land department, one way or the other, in reference to these questions is conclusive and not open to relitigation in the courts, except in those cases of fraud, etc., which permit any determination to be reëxamined. Johnson v. Towsley, 13 Wall. 72; Smelting Company v. Kemp, 104 U.S. 636; Steel v. Smelting Company, 106 U.S. 447; Wright v. Roseberry, 121 U.S. 488; Heath v. Wallace, 138 U.S. 573; McCormick v. Hayes, 159 U.S. 332.

"But it is also equally true that when by act of Congress a tract of land has been reserved from homestead and preemption, or dedicated to any special purpose, proceedings in the land department in defiance of such reservation or dedication, although culminating in a patent, transfer no title, and may be challenged in an action at law. In other words, the action of the land department cannot override the expressed will of Congress, or convey away public lands in disregard or defiance thereof. Smelting Company v. Kemp, 104 U.S. 636, 646; Wright v. Roseberry, 121 U.S. 488, 519; Doolan v. Carr, 125 U.S. 618; Davis' Admr. v. Weibbold, 139 U.S. 507, 529; Knight v. U.S. Land Association, 142 U.S. 161."

Reference is made in the brief to the act of Congress, of July 5, 1884, c. 214, 23 Stat. 103, concerning the disposal of abandoned and useless military reservations. But obviously that statute can have no significance in this case, for the patent had issued and the title passed from the Government prior to its enactment. We see no reason to doubt that upon the facts in this case the judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida was right, and it is, therefore,



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