State of Iowa v. Carr

Decision Date20 October 1911
Docket Number2,937.,2,936
Citation191 F. 257
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

(Syllabus by the Court.)

The settled decisions of the courts of a state and its laws which infringe no right secured by the Constitution of the United States, or by the general or commercial law, determine the title to the beds of navigable streams and the extent of the rights of riparian owners to accretions to their lands in that state.

It is the law of Iowa, established by uniform decisions of its highest judicial tribunal, that the title of riparian owners upon the shores of navigable streams therein extends to high-water mark only and that the state is the owner of the beds of such streams.

The title to an island which springs up in the bed of a navigable stream vests in the owner of that part of the bed upon which the land forms.

The title to land which, by natural and gradual erosion fro one bank of a river and gradual and natural accretion to the opposite bank, becomes attached to the latter and rises above high-water mark, vests in the owner of the latter bank, and the title to land which by gradual and natural accretion attaches itself to an island vests in the owner of the island.

But where, by an avulsion, a river suddenly abandons its former channel, and never returns to it, the titles to the islands in, to the bed, and to the banks of the abandoned channel remain fixed where they were at the time of the avulsion.

Where the lands of respective owners adjoin, and for many years one, with the silent acquiescence of the other, has had possession and occupation to a certain line between them claiming title, these facts constitute strong evidence of the correctness of the line, and that line should be taken as the correct line in the absence of persuasive countervailing evidence.

When a court of equity has considered conflicting evidence and made a finding and decree, it is presumptively right, and unless some obvious error of law has intervened, or some serious mistake of fact has been made, the finding and decree must be permitted to stand.

Neither limitation nor laches founded on mere delay bars a state or the nation from maintaining suits to preserve and enforce its just rights.

In a controversy between the rights of a state or nation and those of a citizen, while the state or nation is not barred by mere delay, its rights are measured and adjudicated by the doctrine of estoppel and the other principles and rules of law and equity applicable to the like rights of a citizen under similar circumstances.

The equitable claims of a state or nation appeal to the conscience of a chancellor with the same, but with no greater or less, force than would those of a private citizen, and barring the effect of mere delay, they are judicable in a court of chancery, to whose jurisdiction the state or nation voluntarily submits them, by every principle and rule of equity applicable to the rights of private citizens under like circumstances.

By an avulsion of the Missouri river whatever foundation there ever was to the claim of the state of Iowa to any land in controversy arose in 1877. It gave no notice of and took no action to enforce any such claim until 1904, when it passed an act to sell abandoned river beds and islands therein to the first applicant, and Hannan immediately applied to buy. The plaintiffs and their grantors had then been in possession of the land in controversy for more than 20 years. During this time the state had levied and collected taxes upon this land as theirs and had acquiesced in their possession, and the plaintiffs and their grantors had paid the taxes and had made costly improvements upon the land.

Held There was no equity in the claim of the state and it was estopped from maintaining this claim by these facts. 'Nothing can call a court of equity into activity but conscience, good faith and reasonable diligence.'

Estoppel as against State or United States. See note to State of Michigan v. Jackson, L. & S.R. Co., 16 C.C.A. 353.)

Jacob Sims (H. W. Byers, Atty. Gen., on the brief), for appellants.

Edgar H. Scott (Lodowick F. Crofoot, on the brief), for appellees.

Before SANBORN and VAN DEVANTER, Circuit Judges, and POLLOCK District judge.

SANBORN Circuit Judge.

The state of Iowa and Jessie W. Hannan, who is the grantee of Charles R. Hannan, one of the original defendants, appeal from a decree of the Circuit Court which quiets the title of the complainants below to the lands which are the subject of this suit, and enjoins the defendants and the state of Iowa, which intervened in the suit, from claiming or asserting any title thereto adverse to that of the complainants and from clouding their title by surveys, reports, or conveyances. The complainant of the appellants here is that the court below failed to find that the land in controversy was an island which sprang up between 1851 and 1867 in the Iowa part of the bed of the Missouri river and accretions thereto, that it also failed to find that this land was a part of the Iowa share of the old bed of the Missouri river which was abandoned during the flood of 1877, and that, on the other hand, the court found that this land consisted of gradual and natural accretions between 1851 and 1877 to the land on the Iowa shore of the river to which the complainants and their immediate and remote grantors had held the title from the United States for many years.

The land here in controversy is a part of the bottom lands round about the Missouri river between Council Bluffs and Omaha. In 1851 that river as it came down from the north turned from its southerly course near Council Bluffs and flowed for a distance of about four miles in a westerly direction across the bottom lands between the higher banks, and then turned again toward the Gulf of Mexico and swept on southerly. In the year 1851 a survey of the land on the easterly or Iowa shore of the river was made, the meander line of that bank was run and fixed by the United States, and upon that survey the patents to the land on the Iowa side of the river were based. In 1856 a survey of the land on the west shore of the river was made by the United States, the meander line of that bank was run and fixed, and the patents to the land on the Nebraska shore were based upon the latter survey. The complainants and their immediate and remote grantors had acquired the title, patented in part by the United States and in part by the state of Iowa under a grant by the United States to that state, of all the lands material to this controversy bordering upon the river upon the east and south as it flowed when these surveys were made. Between 1851 and 1877 the river gradually washed away the sand and soil on the Iowa side and crowded its channel to the south at a point called Busha's Bend on its way across the valley, and at the same time at a point westerly of Busha's Bend it gradually and naturally cut away the soil on the Nebraska side and moved its channel to the north until in 1877 it flowed in the form of an oxbow from Busha's Bend northerly and then westerly and then southerly around a large tract of land from 500 to 1,000 acres in extent. On July 8, 1887, during a freshet, this river cut across the neck of this oxbow, forever abandoned its old bed in that bow and flowed on to the south. There is within this oxbow a triangular tract of land of several hundred acres in extent which was not disturbed by the wanderings of the channel of this river and to which the state makes no claim. On the northerly and westerly sides of this triangular tract and within the outer line of the oxbow formed by the abandoned channel of the river lies a tract of land several hundred acres in extent which was gradually and naturally made during the years between 1851 and 1877, by the washing away of the soil and sand on the Nebraska shore of the river, and the natural and gradual accretion of sand and soil either to the Iowa shore of the river or to an island that sprang up in the Iowa part of the bed of the stream. The land in controversy is a part of this accreted tract. The complainants and their grantors had been in possession of substantially all of the land in controversy and had been paying taxes upon it to the state of Iowa and to the county in which it is situated for more than 20 years before the state or any of the defendants ever made claim to it. During this time they had spent many tens of thousands of dollars building streets, railroads, and other improvements upon it without any notice from the state or the defendants or any denial by the state or any of the defendants of their title to it. They claim title (1) by their long continuous adverse possession, (2) by the accretion of this land to the lands on the shore of the river to which they hold title from the United States, and (3) by the estoppel of the state from claiming title to this land by reason of the state's long acquiescence in their title and possession by reason of its levy and collection of taxes on this disputed land as the property of the complainants and by reason of the state's failure to give notice of its claim while they were making these expensive improvements and paying their taxes upon it. The state claims title to it (1) on the ground that it is an accretion to an island which arose between 1851 and 1867 on the Iowa part of the bed of the river and lay along the northerly and westerly side of but separated by navigable water from, the triangular tract whose title is not challenged and (2) on the ground that this land is the Iowa part of the abandoned bed of the river. The defendant Hannan claims the preference right to purchase the title of the state by virtue of a first application...

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