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SMELTING COMPANY V. KEMP, 104 U. S. 636 (1881)

U.S. Supreme Court

Smelting Company v. Kemp, 104 U.S. 636 (1881)

Smelting Company v. Kemp

104 U.S. 636


1. A patent, duly signed, countersigned, and sealed, for public lands which, at the time it was issued, the Land Department had, under the statute, authority to convey cannot be collaterally impeached in an action at law, and the finding of the department touching the existence of certain facts, or the performance of certain antecedent acts, upon which the lawful exercise of that authority may in a particular case depend, cannot in a court of law be questioned.

2. If in the issuing of a patent the officers of that department take mistaken views of the law, or draw erroneous conclusions from the evidence, or act from either imperfect views of duty or corrupt motives, the party aggrieved cannot set up such matters in a court of law to defeat the patent. He must resort to a court of equity, where he can obtain relief, if his rights are injuriously affected by the existence of the patent, and he possesses such equities as will control the legal title vested in the patentee. A stranger to the title cannot complain of the act of the government in regard thereto.

3. A defendant in ejectment claimed adversely to the title to a placer mining claim, derived from a patent of the United States bearing date March 29, 1879, which describes, by metes and bounds, the premises, containing one hundred and sixty-four acres and sixty one-hundredths of an acre, more or less. Held that he cannot put in evidence the proceedings in the Land Department for the purpose of showing that the patent was issued upon a single application, including several mining locations, some made after the passage of the Act of July 9, 1870, c. 235, 16 Stat. 217, limiting the location of one person or an association of persons to one hundred and sixty acres, and others made after the passage of the Act of May 10, 1872, c. 152, 17 id. 91, limiting a location to twenty acres for each individual applicant.

4. A patent issued subsequently to the passage of the said act of 1870 may embrace a placer mining claim consisting of more than one hundred and sixty acres, and including as many adjoining locations as the patentee had purchased. The proceedings to obtain a patent therefor are the same as when the claim covers but one location.

5. The terms "location " and "mining claim" defined.

6. Labor and improvements, within the meaning of the statute, are deemed to have been put on a mining claim, whether it consists of one or more locations, when the labor was performed or the improvements were made for its development, though in fact such labor and improvements may be on ground which originally constituted only one of the locations, or may be at a distance from the claim.

This was an action at law brought in one of the courts of Colorado by the St. Louis Smelting and Refining Company, a corporation created under the laws of Missouri, for the possession of a parcel of land in the City of Leadville. On application

Page 104 U. S. 637

of the defendants it was removed to the circuit court of the United States. The complaint is in the usual form of actions for the possession of real property under the practice obtaining in Colorado. It alleges that the plaintiff was duly incorporated, with power to purchase and hold real estate; that it was the owner in fee and entitled to the possession of the premises mentioned, describing them, and that the defendants wrongfully withheld them, to the damage of the plaintiff of $5,000.

The defendants filed an answer admitting that the plaintiff was incorporated as averred, but denying that it was the owner in fee of the demanded premises, or that they were wrongfully detained from its possession, or that it had sustained any damage. The answer also alleged that the plaintiff, as a foreign corporation, was incompetent to acquire title to any real estate in Colorado, except such as might be necessary for the transaction of its business as a smelting and refining company, and that the premises in controversy were not necessary for that purpose, but were acquired for speculation.

The plaintiff filed a replication denying its incompetency to hold real estate as alleged, and averring that it was authorized, under the laws of Missouri, to buy, sell, and deal in real estate for any purpose whatever; that the property in controversy was acquired as a site for smelting and reduction works, and that such works were afterwards erected upon it and used for reducing and smelting silver ores.

The case was tried in November, 1879. To maintain the issues on its part the plaintiff offered in evidence a patent of the United States to Thomas Starr, dated March 29, 1879, for mining ground, which, it was admitted, included the premises in controversy. The patent recited that pursuant to provisions of chapter six of title thirty-two of the Revised Statutes, there had been deposited in the General Land Office the plat and field notes of the placer mining claim of Thomas Starr, the patentee, accompanied by a certificate of the register of the land office at Fairplay, Colorado, within which district the premises are situated; that Starr had, on the 6th of March, 1879, entered an application for the said claim, which contained one hundred and sixty-four acres of land and sixty-one hundredths of an acre, more or less. The patent also specified the boundaries

Page 104 U. S. 638

of the tract according to the field notes, and contained the recitals and words of grant and transfer usually inserted in patents for place mining land. To the introduction of this patent the defendants objected; but the record does not state on what grounds the objection was founded, and it was overruled. The patent was accordingly admitted in evidence. The plaintiff traced title to the land by sundry mesne conveyances from the patentee. It also introduced the certificate of the register of the same land office, showing that the application of Starr at that office to enter and pay for his claim was made on the 18th of March, 1878; also a copy of the articles of incorporation of the plaintiff, and of the laws of Missouri under which the incorporation was had, and proved that, in 1877, prior to the existence of the town of Leadville, the company purchased of the claimant the tract embraced in the patent, for the purpose of erecting reduction works thereon, and that at the time of the purchase and when it commenced the construction of the works the land was unoccupied by other parties.

The plaintiff having rested its case, the defendants offered in evidence a certified copy of the record of proceedings in the General Land Office at Washington, upon which Starr obtained his patent; to the introduction of which the plaintiff objected, on the ground that it could only show or tend to show the regularity or irregularity of the proceedings before the executive department in obtaining the patent, or the validity or invalidity of the possessory title or preemption right upon which the patent was founded, and that no evidence could be introduced to impeach the patent or attack it collaterally, or in any way affect it in this action. But the court overruled the objection and admitted the record. To this ruling an exception was taken.

The case being closed, the court instructed the jury substantially as follows: that a patent for a mining claim, since the passage of the act of Congress of 1870, could not embrace more than one hundred and sixty acres; that individuals and associations were, by that act, put upon the same footing, and that either might take that amount, but that by the mining act of Congress of 1872 an individual claimant was limited to twenty acres, whilst an association of persons could still take

Page 104 U. S. 639

one hundred and sixty, as before; that the proceedings in the land office were allowed in evidence in order to show whether the patent was issued upon locations made prior to 1870, and that they showed that the claim of Starr was based upon twelve or fifteen locations, some of which were prior to 1870, and some since then, and added, that

"if Mr. Starr was the owner of these claims, if he had obtained them by purchase, and they were valid and regular locations, he would, under the act, be required, if he desired to obtain a patent for them, to make application for each one of them, to post the notice, as required by the statute, and give the publication, and file his plan and survey, and do all these things which are required in the several claims upon each one of them. If he had done so, and his right had been supported as to all of them, and the patent had been issued for all of these claims, and each of them described in the patent, there would have been no objection to the patent; but it was not competent for him to consolidate these claims and put them all in as one claim, and upon notice given as one claim, and publication as one claim, and proceeding throughout as one claim embracing 164 acres,"

and that the officers of the Land Department had no authority, in law, to proceed in that way and, therefore, the patent upon which the plaintiff relied was void and its title failed.

To the instructions given, exceptions were taken. The jury thereupon found for the defendants, and judgment in their favor was accordingly entered. To review this judgment the plaintiff has brought the case to this court on writ of error.

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