Steel v. St Louis Smelting Refining

Decision Date18 December 1882
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

T. A. Green, for plaintiffs in error.

A. T. Britton, J. H. McGowan, and Walter H. Smith, for defendant in error.


This was an action by the St. Louis Smelting & Refining Company, a corporation created under the laws of Missouri, against Steel and others, to recover the possession of certain real property in the city of Leadville, Colorado. It was com- menced in one of the courts of the state, and on motion of the defendants was removed to the circuit court of the United States. The complaint is in the usual form in actions for the recovery of land, according to the practice prevailing in Colorado. It alleges that the plaintiff was duly incorporated, with power to purchase and hold real estate; that it is the owner in fee and entitled to the possession of the premises mentioned, which are described, and that the defendants wrongfully withhold them from the plaintiff to its damage of $1,000. The plaintiff, therefore, prays judgment for the possession of the premises and for the damages mentioned. The defendants filed an answer to the complaint, which appears to have been amended several times, the questions presented for our consideration having arisen upon the demurrer to the third amended answer. That answer denied the material allegations of the complaint and set up several special defenses, and a counter-claim for the value of the improvements put on the premises. The plaintiff demurred to these defenses and to the counter-claim. The demurrer was sustained to the defenses and overruled to the counter-claim. The defendants elected to stand on their defenses, and final judgment was accordingly entered on the demurrer for the plaintiff for the possession of the premises. To review this judgment the case is brought by the defendants to this court. The amended answer averred that the defendants were the owners of the land in controversy 'by superiority of possessory title and priority of actual possession' of the premises as part of a town-site on the public domain of the United States, located and occupied since June, 1860; that the title of the plaintiff was derived from one Thomas Starr, to whom a patent was issued by the United States, bearing date on the twenty-ninth of March, 1879, embracing the premises in controversy; and the special defenses set up were that the patent was void; that fraud, bribery, perjury, and subornation of perjury were used to obtain it; and that Starr, the patentee, was estopped by his conduct from asserting title to the premises. The patent, which is subsequently stated to be a mineral patent, by which is meant that it was issued upon a claim for mineral land, is averred to be void on these grounds: that the* land which it embraces was part of the town-site of Leadville when the claim originated, and was thus reserved from sale by the laws of congress; that the land included in the town-site was neither mineral nor agricultural; and that the patentee, Starr, was not a citizen of the United States and had not declared his intention to become one when the patent was issued. These grounds are accompanied with a detail of the facts upon which they are founded, but they are sufficiently stated for the disposition of the questions arising upon them.

Land embraced within a town-site on the public domain, when unoccupied, is not exempt from location and sale for mining purposes; its exemption is only from settlement and sale under the pre-emption laws of the United States. Some of the most valuable mines in the country are within the limits of incorporated cities, which have grown up on what was, on its first settlement, part of the public domain; and many of such mines were located and patented after a regular municipal government had been established. Such is the case with some of the famous mines of Virginia City, in Nevada. Indeed, the discovery of a rich mine in any quarter is usually followed by a large settlement in its immediate neighborhood, and the consequent organization of some form of local government for the protection of its members. Exploration in the vicinity for other mines is pushed in such case by new-comers with vigor, and is often rewarded with the discovery of valuable claims. To such claims, thougs within the limits of what may be termed the site of the settlement or new town, the miner acquires as good a right as though his discovery was in a wilderness, removed from all settlements, and he is equally entitled to a patent for them. It is the policy of the country to encourage the development of its mineral resources. The act of July 26, 1866, declared that all mineral deposits on lands belonging to the United States were free and open to exploration, and the lands in which they are found to occupation and purchase by citizens of the United States and those who had declared their intention to become such, subject to regulations prescribed by law, and to the rules and customs of miners in their several mining districts, so far as the same were applicable and not inconsis- tent with the laws of the United States. This declaration of the freedom of mining lands to exploration and occupation was repeated in the act of congress of May 10, 1872, and is contained in the Revised Statutes. Section 2319. Both acts provided for the acquisition of title, by patent, to mineral lands—the first act, to such as constituted lode claims; the second, to such as constituted placer claims.

The acts of congress relating to town-sites recognize the possession of mining claims within their limits, and forbid the acquisition of any mine of gold, silver, cinnabar, or copper within them under proceedings by which title to other lands there situated is secured, thus leaving the mineral deposits within town-sites open to exploration, and the land in which they are found to occupation and purchase, in the same manner as such deposits are elsewhere explored and possessed, and the lands containing them are acquired. Rev. St. §§ 2386, 2392.

Whenever, therefore, mines are found in lands belonging to the United States, whether within or without town-sites, they may be claimed and worked, provided existing rights of others, from prior occupation, are not interfered with. Whether there are rights thus interfered with, which should preclude the location of the miner and the issue of a patent to him or his successor in interest, is, when not subjected under the law of congress to the local tribunals, a matter properly cognizable by the land department, when application is made to it for a patent; and the inquiry thus presented must necessarily involve a consideration of the character of the land to which title is sought, whether it be mineral, for which a patent may issue, or agricultural, for which a patent should be withheld, and also as to the citizenship of the applicant.

We have so often had occasion to speak of the land department, the object of its creation and the powers it possesses in the alienation by patent of portions of the public lands, that it creates an unpleasant surprise to find that counsel, in discussing the effect to be given to the action of that department, overlook our decisions on the subject. That department, as we have repeatedly said, was established to supervise the various proceedings whereby a conveyance of the title from the United States to portions of the public domain is obtained, and to see that the requirements of different acts of congress are fully complied with. Necessarily, therefore, it must consider and pass upon the qualifications of the applicant, the acts he has performed to secure the title, the nature of the land, and whether it is of the class which is open to sale. Its judgment upon these matters is that of a special tribunal and is unassailable except by direct proceedings for its annulment or limitation. Such has been the uniform language of this court in repeated decisions.

In Johnson v. Towsley the effect of the action of that department was the subject of special consideration. And the court applied the general doctrine 'that when the law has confided to a special tribunal the authority to hear and determine certain matters arising in the course of its duties, the decision of that tribunal, within the scope of its authority, is conclusive upon all others,' and said, speaking by Mr. Justice MILLER, 'that the action of the land-office in issuing a patent for any of the public land, subject to sale by pre-emption or otherwise, is conclusive of the legal title, must be admitted under the principle above stated; and in all courts, and in all forms of judicial proceedings, where this title must control, either by reason of the limited powers of the court, or the essential character of the proceeding, no inquiry can be permitted into the circumstance under which it was obtained.' 13 Wall. 83, 84.

In French v. Fyan a patent had been issued to the state of Missouri for swamp and overflowed land, under the act of ...

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