Benson Mining Smelting Co v. Alta Mining Smelting Co

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation36 L.Ed. 762,12 S.Ct. 877,145 U.S. 428
Decision Date16 May 1892


On July 25, 1884, appellee, plaintiff below, commenced its action in the district court of the first judicial district of the territory of Arizona to recover of defendant the sum of $25,000 for 210 tons of silver bearing ore, mined and removed from the Alta mine, situated in the Harshaw mining district, in Pima county, Ariz. A jury having been waived, the case was tried before the court, and a judgment was entered for the plaintiff on March 22, 1886, for the sum of $4,590.06, with interest from that time until paid at the rate of 10 per cent. per annu. Defendant took the case to the supreme court of the territory, which, on February 17, 1888, affirmed the judgment. From such judgment of affirmance defendant appealed to this court.

Nathl. Wilson, for appellant.

J. A. Anderson and T. M. Norwood, for appellee.

Mr. Justice BREWER, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the court.

The amount due, as determined by the judgment of the supreme court of the territory, was over $5,000, being the sum of $4,590.06, as awarded by the judgment of the district court, with interest from its date, March 22, 1886, at 10 percent. per annum, to February 17, 1888, the date of the judgment of affirmance. This court, therefore, has jurisdiction of the appeal. Zeckendorf v. Johnson, 123 U.S. 617, 8 Sup. Ct. Rep. 261.

On the merits of the case two questions are presented. It appears that in 1879 Fagan, Harshaw, and others were the owners of the Alta mine, and at that time made application to the proper land office for a United States patent thereto, paid the price required by law, and obtained the ordinary certificate of purchase. Thereafter they sold and conveyed the property to the plaintiff. The plaintiff continued to do a large amount of work on the mine up to the year 1882; but, having failed in that year to do as much as $100 worth of work thereon, one J. K. Luttrell relocated it about June 1, 1883, and called it the 'Ben Butler Mining Claim,' and under this relocation and possession taken in consequence thereof the ore in controversy was mined and removed. On January 10, 1884, the patent was issued to the original locators, Fagan, Harshaw, and others. Upon these facts appellant claims that, although the mine was fully paid for by the locators in 1879, and a certificate of purchase received, inasmuch as the patent did not issue until January 10, 1884, and because the plaintiff failed to do a hundred dollars' worth of work in the year 1882, its rights ceased, and the relocation by Luttrell was valid, and vested in him the property. This claim is based upon section 2324, Rev. St., which provides, among other matters:

'On each claim located after the tenth day of May, eighteen hundred and seventy-tow, and until a patent has been issued therefor, not less than one hundred dollars' worth of labor shall be performed or improvements made during each year; * * * and upon a failure to comply with these conditions the claim or mine upon which such failure occurred shall be open to relocation in the same manner as if no location of the same had ever been made: provided that the original locators, their heirs, assigns, or legal representatives, have not resumed work upon the claim after failure and before such location.'

This language, standing by itself, apparently sustains the contention of the appellant; but a consideration of the provisions of all the statutes respecting mining claims makes it obvious that such is not the true construction. The precise question has never been presented to this court, but the import of several decisions is against appellant's contention. The uniform ruling of the land department has been against it, the question having been presented at an early day, and fully examined. In the case of the American Hill Quartz Mine, reported in Sickels' Mining Laws & Decisions, pages 377 and 385, and also in Copp's U. S. Mineral Lands, page 254, are well-considered opinion by the commissioner of the general land office and the secretary of the interior, each holding that, when the price of a mining claim has been paid, the equitable rights of the purchaser are complete, and there is no obligation on his part to do further annual work, the delay in issuing the patent being a mere matter occurring in the administration of the land department, and the patent, when issued, by relation taking effect as of the date of the purchase. In the consideration of this question the secretary of the interior opens with these pertinent suggestions: 'At the outset it is proper to remark that by the mining laws of the United States three distinct classes of titles are created, viz.: (1) Title in fee simple; (2) title by possession; (3) the complete equitable title. The first vests in the grantee of the government an indefeasible title, while the second vests a title in the nature of an easement only. The first, being an absolute grant by purchase and patent without condition, is not defeasible, while the second, being a mere right of possession and enjoyment of profits without purchase and upon condition, may be defeated at any time by the failure of the party in possession to comply with the condition, viz., to perform the labor or make the annual improvements required by the statute. The equitable title accrues immediately upon purchase, for the entry entitles the purchaser to a patent, and the right to a patent, once vested, is equivalent to a patent issued.'

Obviously section 2324 does not provide for the acquisition of title to the land. Its scope and purport are expressed in the opening words, as follows: 'The miners of each mining district may make regulations not in conflict with the laws of the United States or with the laws of the state or territory in which the district is situated, governing the location, manner of recording, amount of work necessary to hold possession of a mining claim, subject to the following requirements;' and then follow several provisions in the nature of limitations on the general authority thus given to miners. Among them is that quoted. That evidently does...

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