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JOHNSON V. TOWSLEY, 80 U. S. 72 (1871)

U.S. Supreme Court

Johnson v. Towsley, 80 U.S. 13 Wall. 72 72 (1871)

Johnson v. Towsley

80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 72


1. The question of the conclusiveness of the action of the land officers in issuing a patent on the rights of other persons reconsidered and former decisions affirmed.

2. The tenth section of the Act of June 12, 1858, 11 Stat. at Large 326, which declares that the decision of the commissioner shall be final, means final its to the action of the Executive Department.

3. The general proposition is recognized that when a special tribunal is authorized to hear and determine certain matters arising in the course of its duties, its decisions within the scope of its authority are conclusive.

4. Under this principle, the action of the Land Department in issuing a patent is conclusive in all courts and in all proceedings, where by the rules of law the legal title must prevail.

5. But courts of equity, both in England and in this country, have always had the power in certain classes of cases to inquire into and correct injustice and wrong, in both judicial and executive action, founded in fraud, mistake, or other special ground of equity, when private rights are invaded.

6. In this manner, the most solemn judgment of courts of law have been annulled, and patents and other important instruments issuing from the Crown or other executive branch of the government have been reformed, corrected, declared void, or other appropriate relief granted.

7. The Land Office, dealing as it does with private rights of great value in a manner particularly liable to be imposed upon by fraud, false swearing, and mistakes, exemplifies the value and necessity of this jurisdiction.

Page 80 U. S. 73

8. The decisions of this Court on this subject establish:

i. That the judiciary will not interfere by mandamus, injunction, or otherwise with the officers of the land department in the exercise of their duties, while the matter remains in their hands for decision.

ii. That their decision on the facts which must be the foundation of their action, unaffected by fraud or mistake, is conclusive in the courts.

iii. But that after the title has passed from the government to individuals, and the question has become one of private right, the jurisdiction of courts of equity may be invoked to ascertain if the patentee does not bold in trust for other parties.

9. In deciding this question, if it appears that the party claiming the equity has established his right to the land to the satisfaction of the land department in the true construction of the acts of Congress, but that, by an erroneous construction, the patent has been issued to another, the court will correct the mistake. Minnesota v. Bachelder, 1 Wall. 109, Silver v. Ladd, 7 Wall. 219.

10. The fourth section of the Act of March 3, 1843, concerning two declaratory statements of the same preemptor, is confined to preemptions of land subject to private entry.

11. The fifth section of that act, relating to lands not proclaimed for sale, does not forfeit the preemptor's right absolutely when he has failed to make his declaratory statement within three months, but it gives the better right to anyone else who has made a settlement or declaratory statement on the same land before the first settler has made the requisite declaration.

12. Therefore a declaratory statement on such land is valid if made at any time before another party commences a settlement or files a declaration.

By an Act of Congress, approved September 4, 1841, [Footnote 1] and entitled "An act to appropriate the proceeds of the public lands, and to grant preemption 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,

Page 80 U. S. 74

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 preemptive right by virtue of this act,"


"SECTION 11. That when two or more persons shall have settled on the same quarter-section of land, the right of preemption shall be in him or her who made the first settlement &c.; and all questions as to the right of preemption 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 3, 1843, [Footnote 2] entitled "An

Page 80 U. S. 75

act to authorize the investigation of alleged frauds under the preemption laws, and for other purposes," thus enacts:

"SECTION 4. That where an individual has filed, under the late preemption 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 preemption 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 12, 1858: [Footnote 3]

"SECTION 10. That the 11th section of the Act of Congress approved 4 September, 1841, entitled 'An act to appropriate the proceeds of the public lands, and to grant preemption rights,' be so amended that appeals from the decisions of the district officers, in cases of contest between different settlers for the right of preemption, 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 4, 1841; claiming his settlement from June 15, 1858. On the 5th of October, 1860, one Johnson also setting up a settlement, improvement &c., filed a declaratory

Page 80 U. S. 76

statement of his intention to preempt 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 25, 1858, upon other land, described in the usual manner, and claimed a preemption 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 5, 1867, reenacting with some change that so well known section. [Footnote 4]

Page 80 U. S. 77

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 12, 1858 (quoted, supra, p. 80 U. S. 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 preemption, 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.

Page 80 U. S. 80

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