Johnson v. Towsley

Citation13 Wall. 72,20 L.Ed. 485,80 U.S. 72
Decision Date01 December 1871
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

ERROR to the Supreme Court of Nebraska; the case being this:

By an act of Congress, approved September 4th, 1841,1 and entitled 'An act to appropriate the proceeds of the public lands, and to grant pre-emption rights,' it was enacted:

'SECTION 10. That from and after the passage of this act, every person, &c., who since the 1st day of June, A.D. 1840, has made or shall hereafter make a settlement in person on the public land . . . which has been, or shall have been, surveyed prior thereto, and who shall inhabit and improve the same, and who has or shall erect a dwelling thereon, shall be, and is hereby, authorized to enter with the register of the land office for the district in which such land may lie, by legal subdivisions any number of acres not exceeding 160, or a quarter-section of land, to include the residence of such claimant, upon paying to the United States the minimum price of such land, subject, however to the following limitations and exceptions: No person shall be entitled to more than one pre-emptive right by virtue of this act,' &c., &c.

'SECTION 11. That when two or more persons shall have settled on the same quarter-section of land, the right of pre-emption shall be in him or her who made the first settlement, &c. and all questions as to the right of pre-emption arising between different settlers shall be settled by the register and receiver of the district within which the land is situated, subject to an appeal to and a revision by the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States.'

'SECTION 14. That this act shall not delay the sale of any of the public lands of the United States beyond the time which has been, or may be, appointed by the proclamation of the President, nor shall the provisions of this act be available to any person or persons who shall fail to make the proof and payment, and file the affidavit required before the day appointed for the commencement of the sales as aforesaid.

'SECTION 15. That whenever any person has settled or shall settled and improve a tract of land, subject at the time of settlement to private entry, and shall intend to purchase the same under the provisions of this act, such person shall in the first case, within three months after the passage of the same, and in the last within thirty days next after the date of such settlement, file with the register of the proper district a written statement, describing the land settled upon, and declaring the intention of such person to claim the same under the provisions of this act; and shall, where such settlement is already made, within twelve months after the passage of this act, and where it shall hereafter be made, within the same period after the date of such settlement, make the proof, affidavit, and payment therein required; and if he or she shall fail to file such written statement as aforesaid, or shall fail to make such affidavit, proof, and payment, within the twelve months aforesaid, the tract of land so settled and improved shall be subject to the entry of any other purchaser.'

A subsequent act, that of March 3d, 1843,2 entitled 'An act to authorize the investigation of alleged frauds under the pre-emption laws, and for other purposes,' thus enacts:

'SECTION 4. That where an individual has filed, under the late pre-emption law, his declaration of intention to claim the benefits of said law for one tract of land, it shall not be lawful for the same individual at any future time, to file a second declaration for another tract.

'SECTION 5. That claimants under the late pre-emption law, for land not yet proclaimed for sale, are required to make known their claims, in writing, to the register of the proper land office, . . . within three months from the time of the settlement, . . . giving the designation of the tract, and the time of settlement; otherwise his claim to be forfeited, and the tract awarded to the next settler, in the other of time, on the same tract of land, who shall have given such notice and otherwise complied with the conditions of the law.'

Finally came an act, of June 12th, 1858:3

'SECTION 10. That the 11th section of the act of Congress, approved 4th September, 1841, entitled 'An act to appropriate the proceeds of the public lands, and to grant pre-emption rights,' be so amended that appeals from the decisions of the district officers, in cases of contest between different settlers for the right of pre-emption, shall hereafter be decided by the Commissioner of the General Land Office, whose decision shall be final, unless appeal therefrom be taken to the Secretary of the Interior.'

With these provisions of law in force, one Towsley, on the 15th of June, 1858, settled, as he alleged, on the W. 2/1 S.W. quarter-section 3, township 15 N., range 13 east, lying near the city of Omaha, and made improvements upon the same; and on the 4th of February, 1859, filed with the register of the land office his declaratory statement of an intention to claim the land under the provisions of the act of September 4th, 1841; claiming his settlement from June 15th, 1858. On the 5th of October, 1860, one Johnson, also setting up a settlement, improvement, &c., filed a declaratory statement of his intention to pre-empt the same land under the act of 1841.

The same Towsley had previously, to wit, on the 2d of April, 1858, filed a declaratory statement giving notice that he had settled, March 25th, 1858, upon other land, described in the usual manner, and claimed a pre-emption right therein; which land had not yet been offered at public sale and thus rendered subject to private entry. From this land he withdrew claim early in the following June, and waived all claim to it in favor of an opposing settler.

An investigation as to the respective rights of the two parties was had before the local office, which resulted in a decision in favor of Towsley. This decision was affirmed by the Commissioner of the General Land Office; and on the 20th of September, 1862, Towsley received a patent. The dispute between the parties being taken by appeal before the Secretary of the Interior, that officer on the 11th of July, 1863, as appeared from a statement of the Assistant Secretary, decided in favor of Johnson, on the ground that Towsley, previously to filing his declaratory statement claiming the land in question, had filed a declaratory statement claiming the other lands.

After this, Johnson entered on the lands, and a patent was issued to him.

In this state of things Towsley, relying on his patent and on different acts of Congress regulating the public lands, filed his bill in one of the inferior courts of Nebraska, against Johnson and others, his grantees, to compel them to surrender their title to him, the existing evidence of which cast a cloud on his own. The court in which the bill was filed decreed such a surrender, and the Supreme Court of the State on appeal affirmed that decree. Johnson now brought the case here under the 25th section of the Judiciary Act of 1789; or, if the reader prefer so to consider, under the 2d section of the act of February 5th, 1867, reenacting with some change that so well-known section.4

Three questions arose here:

1. Whether, conceding that the courts of Nebraska had jurisdiction in the case, this court had any under the Judiciary Act of 1789 or 1867.

2. Admitting, upon the concession stated, that it had, whether in view of the language of the 10th section of the act of June 12th, 1858 (quoted, supra, p. 75), as to the effect of decisions by the Commissioner of the General Land Office, in cases of contest between different settlers for the right of pre-emption, either of the courts below had any jurisdiction. Since if they had not, this court would have none now.

3. Whether, admitting that all three courts had jurisdiction, and that the matter was now properly here for review, the decision of the Supreme Court of Nebraska, affirming the validity of Towsley's patent, was correct.

Mr. Lyman Trumbull, for the plaintiff in error:

I. A question of jurisdiction under the 25th section has been suggested in a case similar to this. But we rely more on other points, one of which includes merits. We assert, therefore, that

II. The act of 1858, in plain terms makes the decision of the Commissioner of the General Land Office 'final,' unless appeal therefrom be taken to the Secretary of the Interior; when, of course, the decision of this officer must be equally so.

But independently of this, though courts of equity may interpose in cases of fraud, or to correct mistakes made in the disposition of the public lands by the officers charged with that duty, they cannot supervise the decisions of those officers when no fraud or mistake is alleged,5 other than in arriving at a wrong conclusion, after a full hearing of all the parties in interest.

The cases of Lytle v. State of Arkansas,6 and Garland v. Wynn,7 arose under pre-emption acts prior to 1841, and before the law vested the land officers with authority to settle questions arising between different pre-emptors, or made their decisions final. In these cases, as well as in the subsequent ones of Minnesota v. Bachelder,8 and Lindsey v. Hawes,9 fraud and misrepresentation were alleged, and in most of them the proceedings before the land officers had been ex parte. In none of them had there been a decision between conflicting claimants after a full hearing on notice and final appeal to the Secretary of the Interior, as in this case.

III. But if this is not so, and if the ordinary courts can re-examine such cases as this, Towsley has no case.

1. He filed April 2d, 1858, his declaratory statement, giving notice that he had, on th 25th day of March preceding, settled upon certain lands—different from those he now claims—and would claim a pre-emption right therein. It was not until after this, to wit, the 15th of August, 1858, that he tendered...

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