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United States Supreme Court

U.S. v. REYNOLDS(1919)

No. 591

Argued: Decided: May 19, 1919

[250 U.S. 104, 105]   Mr.Solicitor General Alex. C. King, of Atlanta, Ga., for petitioner.

Mr. Mark Goode, of Shawnee, Okl., for respondent.

[250 U.S. 104, 106]  

Mr. Justice PITNEY delivered the opinion of the court.

This was a suit brought by the United States in behalf of Claudius Tyner and ten other persons, heirs at law of Stella Washington, deceased, who was a member of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma; its object being to cancel a deed made by Tyner to Suda Reynolds on February 17, 1917, purporting to convey an undivided eleventh interest in a tract of land inherited by the 11 heirs from Stella Washington, who was the allottee thereof. The legal title to the tract was held by the United States under a certificate of allotment or 'trust patent,' dated February 6, 1892, containing a provision that the United States did and would hold the land in question in trust for the said Stella and in case of her death for her heirs, for a period of 25 years, at the expiration of which time the United States would convey the same by patent in fee, discharged of the trust, to said Indian or her heirs, unless the trust period had been extended by the President of the United States.

The allotment was made under the provisions of the Act of Congress approved February 8, 1887 (chapter 119, 24 Stat. 388), as amended by Act of March 3, 1891 (chapter 543, [250 U.S. 104, 107]   26 Stat. 989, 1019). Section 5 of the Act of 1887 (Comp. St. 4201) provided:

    'That upon the approval of the allotments provided for in this act by the Secretary of the Interior, he shall cause patents to issue therefor in the name of the allottees, which patents shall be of the legal effect, and declare that the United States does and will hold the land thus allotted, for the period of twenty-five years, in trust for the sole use and benefit of the Indian to whom such allotment shall have been made, or, in case of his decease, of his heirs according to the laws of the state or territory where such land is located, and that at the expiration of said period the United States will convey the same by patent to said Indian, or his heirs as aforesaid, in fee, discharged of said trust and free of all charge or incumbrance whatsoever: Provided, that the President of the United States may in any case in his discretion extend the period. And if any conveyance shall be made of the lands set apart and allotted as herein provided, or any contract made touching the same, before the expiration of the time above mentioned, such conveyance or contract shall be absolutely null and void.'

Stella Washington's allotment was approved by the Secretary September 16, 1891; the allotment certificate or trust patent was issued on February 6, 1892. On November 24, 1916, the President by executive order extended the trust period for 10 years. Thereafter, on February 17, 1917, Tyner executed the deed in question to Suda Reynolds.

The first question presented by the record is whether the original trust period extended for 25 years from February 6, 1892, the date of the trust patent, or from September 16, 1891, the date of the approval of the allotment. If the former, there is no question that the executive order, being made within the original trust period, was valid (subject to an objection as to its form), and had the effect of extending the trust, with resulting [250 U.S. 104, 108]   restriction upon the right of alienation, for the further period of 10 years. If, on the other hand, the original trust period should be dated from the approval of the allotment, it still is insisted by the government that the right of the President to extend the trust period continued beyond the 25 years and until the United States surrendered its trust by conveying the absolute fee-simple title to the Indian allottee or his heirs.

The District Court sustained the contention of the United States and entered a decree canceling Tyner's deed as void and constituting a cloud upon its title. The Circuit Court of Appeals reversed this decree and directed a dismissal of the bill. 252 Fed. 65.

The latter decision rests upon the ground that under section 5 of the allotment act the right of the allottee to a preliminary or trust patent became absolute upon the approval of the allotment by the Secretary of the Interior; that her equitable title was then complete, and did not depend upon the delivery of the patent. Ballinger v. Frost, 216 U.S. 240 , 30 Sup. Ct. 338, was cited in support of this; but it is not entirely apposite. That case turned upon the effect of a certificate of allotment issued under the Choctaw and Chickasaw Agreement (Act of July 1, 1902, c. 1362, 32 Stat. 641, 644), the twenty-third section of which declared that such certificate should be 'conclusive evidence of the right of any allottee to the tract of land described therein.' The Indian, being a citizen and resident of the Choctaw Nation duly enrolled and entitled to an allotment, selected as such the land in controversy, upon which were her buildings and improvements; this was received by the Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes, and, after the expiration of 9 months, the time prescribed by statute for contest, no contest of her right to the designated allotment having been made, a certificate was issued and delivered to her. This court held the allottee's rights had become fixed, the Secretary of the In [250 U.S. 104, 109]   terior thereafter having nothing but the ministerial duty to perform of seeing that a patent was duly executed and delivered, and upon this ground sustained a judgment awarding a writ of mandamus, citing Barney v. Dolph, 97 U.S. 652 , 656; Simmons v. Wagner, 101 U.S. 260 , 261; Cornelius v. Kessel, 128 U.S. 456, 461 , 9 S. Sup. Ct. 122; Orchard v. Alexander, 157 U.S. 372, 383 , 15 S. Sup. Ct. 635; and other cases.

The rule established by these cases is familiar. But we do not think it can be applied so as to give finality to the act of the Secretary in approving the allotment under section 5 of the act of 1887. For does that act contain any such declaration of conclusive effect as is found in section 23 of the Choctaw-Chickasaw Agreement. While the matter is not free from doubt, we have reached the conclusion that by the better construction the trust period begins and dates from the issuance of the trust patent, and not from the approval of the allotment. The Department distinctly so ruled in Klamath Allotments, 38 Land Dec. 559, 561, where it was said, after quoting the pertinent language of section 5 of the act of 1887:

    'Clearly no trust is declared until actual issuance of patent, and the use of a word of the present tense, 'does,' shows that the trust period begins to run only upon such issuance.'

This ruling was made in the year 1910, and may be inconsistent with some previous rulirgs of the Department, as counsel for respondent insists that it is. Nevertheless it is entitled to weight as an administrative interpretation of the act; it comports with our impression of the natural meaning of the language employed by Congress; and it very probably was relied upon by the President when promulgating the order of November 24, 1916, extending the trust period. This order might as well have been made a few months earlier, had it been supposed that the 25-year period was to expire in September.

This construction of the act of 1887 puts it in agreement [250 U.S. 104, 110]   with other acts for the allotment of Indian lands,1 which, while subsequently passed and perhaps not strictly to be regarded as a legislative interpretation, nevertheless seem to us to indicate the effect that Congress attributed to the act of 1887

Some criticism is made by counsel for respondent upon the form of the executive order of November 24, 1916, as being indefinite and not in accordance with the act of Congress. We deem this criticism unfounded, and need spend no time upon it.

Calculating the 25-year period from February 6, 1892, the date of trust patent for the Stella Washington allotment, it expired on February 5, 1917; but the trust was extended for a further term of ten years, and hence the deed made by Claudius Tyner to Suda Reynolds February [250 U.S. 104, 111]   17, 1917, was null and void by the terms of section 5 of the act of 1887.

As the President's order was made within the original 25-year period, it is unnecessary to consider whether he might have acted with like effect at a later time.

The decree of the Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed and that of the District Court is affirmed.


[ Footnote 1 ] Act of March 2, 1889 (chapter 422, 25 Stat. 1013, 1014), providing for allotments to Peorias and Miamis, contains this provision: 'The land so allotted shall not be subject to alienation for twenty-five years from the date of the issuance of patent therefor.'

Act of March 2, 1895 (chapter 188, 28 Stat. 876, 907, the Quapaw Act), contains this: 'Provided, that said allotments shall be inalienable for a period of twenty-five years from and after the date of said patents.'

Act of July 1, 1902 (chapter 1362, 32 Stat. 641, 642, Choctaw- Chickasaw Act), contains the following:

Section 12, relating to homesteads: 'Shall be inalienable during the lifetime of the allottee, not exceeding twenty-one years from the date of certificate of allotment.'

Section 13: 'The allotment of each Choctaw and Chickasaw freedman shall be inalienable during the lifetime of the allottee, not exceeding twenty-one years from the date of certificate of allotment.'

Section 16: 'All lands allotted to the members of said tribes, except such land as is set aside to each for a homestead as herein provided, shall be alienable after issuance of patent as follows: One-fourth in acreage in one year, one-fourth in acreage in three years, and the balance in five years; in each case from date of patent.'

Cherokee Allotment Act of July 1, 1902 (chapter 1375, 32 Stat. 716), contains similar language in sections 13 and 15.

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