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United States v. New Orleans Pacific Ry. Co., 248 U.S. 507 (1919)

United States v. New Orleans Pacific Railway Company

Nos. 164, 165, 166

Argued December 10, 11, 1918

Decided January 27, 1919

248 U.S. 507


Persons qualified and claiming under the Homestead Law who, before the definite location of the New Orleans Pacific Railway between Whitecastle and Shreveport (November 17, 1882), settled on portions of odd-numbered sections within the primary and indemnity limits of its grant, erecting dwellings and in part cultivating and fencing their respective tracts, and who thereafter maintained their claims, residency, occupation and cultivation, held entitled to the benefits of the Act of February 8, 1887, c. 120, 24 Stat. 391, which, while confirming the grant to the Railway Company, provides that lands occupied by actual settlers at the date of said definite location and still remaining in the possession of them or of their heirs or assigns shall be excepted from the grant and be subject to entry under the public land laws. Pp. 248 U. S. 516-519.

The provisions of the Act of 1887, supra, §§ 2 and 6, in favor of settlers, became applicable, when accepted by the confirmee company, to all of the unpatented lands and to such of the patented lands as it had not sold (p. 248 U. S. 515), and to indemnity as well as to place lands (p. 248 U. S. 521), but not to lands which while vacant and unclaimed, were withdrawn from entry and sale, and were patented to the Railway and by it conveyed to a bona fide purchaser before the act was passed. P. 248 U. S. 520.

Subsequent purchasers from the Railway were charged with notice of the Act of 1887, supra, and of the claims of settlers entitled to its benefits and occupying the tracts purchased. Id.

Because of the obligations which the act imposes, the United States

Page 248 U. S. 508

may maintain a suit on behalf of settlers to secure their rights under the act against the Railway and its grantees holding the legal title through patents. P. 248 U. S. 518.

In such a suit, affecting a patent issued to the Railway before the Act of March 2, 1896, c. 39, 29 Stat. 42, the five-year limitation of that act may be a bar to relief by cancellation, but the bill may stand upon the more appropriate prayer, to affix a trust upon the legal title in favor of the settlers. Id.

While the laches of a private person is imputable to the United States in a suit brought by it for his benefit, in this case, it is held that settlers, entitled to the benefits of the Act of 1887, supra, who maintained peaceable and continued possession, affording notice of their equitable rights which they asserted and sustained before the Land Department, and who relied upon the promise of that Department to secure their titles and on suits brought by the government to that end, were not guilty of laches notwithstanding long delays in the litigation. Id.

235 F. 846 reversed.

235 F. 841 affirmed in part and reversed in part.

The cases are stated in the opinion.

Page 248 U. S. 510

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