U.S. Supreme Court Reichart v. Felps, 73 U.S. 6 Wall. 160 160 (1867)
Reichart v. Felps
73 U.S. (6 Wall.) 160
ERROR TO THE SUPREME
COURT OF ILLINOIS
1. A decision in the highest court of a state against the validity of a patent granted by the United States for land, and whose validity is drawn in question in such court, is a decision against the validity of an authority exercised under the United States, and the subject of reexamination here, although the other side have also set up as their case a similar authority whose validity is by the same decision affirmed.
2. Patents by the United States for land which it has previously granted, reserved from sale, or appropriated, are void.
3. A patent or instrument of confirmation by an officer authorized by Congress to make it, followed by a survey of the land described in the instrument, is conclusive evidence that the land described and surveyed was reserved from sale.
4. Where the United States, receiving a cession of lands claimed in ancient times by France, and on which were numerous French settlers, directed that such settlers should be "confirmed" in their "possessions and rights," and ordered a particular public officer to examine into the matter &c.; -- confirmation by deed was not necessary. The officer, being admitted to have authority to make confirmation, could make it by instrument in writing without seal,
5. Congress has no power to organize a board of revision to annul titles confirmed many years by the authorized agents of the government.
In 1784, after the War of the Revolution, the State of Virginia then claiming the Northwest Territory, a part of which makes the now State of Illinois -- and in which, from early times, inhabitants of Canada, while Canada was yet a French province, had settled -- yielded her claim and title in the territory to the United States on condition
French and Canadian inhabitants, and other settlers of the Kaskaskias, St. Vincent's, and the neighboring villages, who have professed themselves citizens of Virginia, shall have their possessions and titles confirmed to them, and be protected in the enjoyment of their rights and liberties."
On the 20th of June, 1788, Congress enacted, that from any general sale of lands in this region there should be a reserve of so much land as should satisfy all the just claims of the ancient settlers;
"that they should be confirmed in the possession of such lands as they may have had at the beginning of the Revolution; that measures be immediately taken for confirming them in their possessions and titles, and that the governor of the Northwestern Territory be instructed to examine the titles and possessions of the settlers, as above described, in order to determine what quantity of land they may severally claim, which shall be laid off for them at their own expense."
Under this authority, and some instructions not necessary to be mentioned, but reciting them all, the then governor of the Northwestern Territory, General St. Clair, on the 12th of February, 1799, issued a document, somewhat in the form of a land patent, to one Jarrot, who "laid claim" to a piece of land in the county then and now known as St. Clair, Illinois, "confirming" to him in fee a tract described. This instrument of confirmation, signed by General St. Clair, and duly registered, October 19, 1804, ended thus:
"In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the territory to be affixed, at Cincinnati &c.;, on the 12th day of February, A.D. 1799, and of the Independence of the United States the 23d."
The land claimed and thus described in the patent was regularly surveyed, April 10, 1798, by one McCann, "lawfully authorized to survey such claims."
This title of Jarrot, thus confirmed, became afterwards vested in one Felps.
But an opposing title also came into existence. On the 20th of February, 1812, an act of Congress was passed,
authorizing a board of commissioners to revise and reexamine the confirmations made by the Governor of the Northwestern Territory; and the board, in pursuance of the act, made such a report to the government of the United States, that the government by its proper officers rejected this claim, and subsequently exposed the land previously confirmed to Jarrot to public sale, when a certain Reichart became the purchaser. Two patents were accordingly issued to him by the United States, one in 1838 and one in 1853.
Reichart, asserting the title conferred by these patents, now brought ejectment in a state court of Illinois against Felps, relying on his old French claim confirmed by Governor St. Clair.
The plaintiff having given his patents of 1838 and 1853 in evidence, the defendant on his part offered the survey of McCann, and a certified copy from the records of the instrument of confirmation given by Governor St. Clair. On this certified copy no evidence appeared of a seal having ever been on the original; though there was oral testimony tending to show that the original did have a seal in wax, with an emblem and letters.
The plaintiff objected to the survey, and to the copy of the instrument from Governor St. Clair, because it showed that the original had no seal.
The court overruled the exception, and gave judgment for the defendant, so deciding against the validity of the patents of the United States issued in 1838 and 1853; though deciding in effect in favor of the validity of the instrument of confirmation professing to be done under authority of Congress. The judgment having been affirmed in the Supreme Court of Illinois, [ Footnote 1 ] the case was brought here under the 25th section of the Judiciary Act of 1789, giving a right to the court to reexamine the final judgments of the highest state courts, "where is drawn in question the validity of a statute or of an authority exercised under the United States, and the decision is against their validity."
MR. JUSTICE GRIER delivered the opinion of the Court.
The patents under which the plaintiff claimed in the state court were declared by that court to be void. The case therefore is properly cognizable in this Court under the twenty-fifth section of the Judiciary Act of 1789.
He claimed under two patents of the dates of 1838 and 1853, which exhibit conclusive evidence of title if the land claimed had "not been previously granted, reserved from sale, or appropriated." The only question to be decided in this case is, whether the land had been so granted, reserved, or appropriated.
The patent of Governor St. Clair, February 12, 1799, duly registered in 1804, with the survey of McCann, April 10, 1798, are conclusive evidence that the land in question was reserved from sale. The case of Moore v. Hill [ Footnote 2 ] decided nearly forty years ago in the Supreme Court of Illinois, on the same survey and grant which is now before us, should have been conclusive against the objections which have been revived on the present writ of error.
"This very able and elaborate opinion received the concurrence of the bar and the country at the time it was delivered, and has never been called in question since. There is no fact in the present case calculated to produce a result different from the one there announced. [ Footnote 3 ]"
The objection that the patent from the governor was without a seal ought not to have been made. The act of Congress giving power to the governor did not require him to issue a patent nor to execute an instrument under seal. Any written evidence of his confirmation would have been a sufficient execution of the power. All that was necessary was an authentic declaration by the United States, through their authorized agent, that they had no claim to the land. It was not a grant by the United States, because the title was not in them.
Congress is bound to regard the public treaties, and it had
no power to organize a board of revision to nullify titles confirmed many years before by the authorized agents of the government. And Congress became afterwards so well satisfied itself of this that it passed an act restoring to the purchasers the money which they had paid for titles obtained on the assumption of such a right.
[ Footnote 1 ]
Reichart v. Felps, 33 Ill. 433.
[ Footnote 2 ]
[ Footnote 3 ]
Reichart v. Felps,
33 Ill. 439, A.D. 1864, per Breese, J., who reported the case A.D. 1829.