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U.S. Supreme Court

Russian-American Packing Co. v. United States, 199 U.S. 570 (1905)

Russian-American Packing Co. v. United States

No. 85, 86

Argued November 29, 1905

Decided December 18, 1905

199 U.S. 570


Appellant without authority settled on a tract of land on Afognak Island, Alaska, prior to 1891, and erected a cannery. After the Act of March 3, 1891, 26 Stat. 1100, it applied for a survey of the land occupied by it and deposited the money therefor. The survey was made, approved, and forwarded to the Commissioner of the General Land Office. On December 24, 1892, the President, under provisions of the said Act of March 3, 1891, by proclamation, declared the whole island reserved for fish culture. The survey was rejected on that and other grounds, and appellant was ordered to leave the island, which it did. Thereupon it sued in the Court of Claims for value of its improvements and for loss of business. The claim was disallowed except for cost of survey. In affirming the judgment, held that:

The mere settlement upon public lands and making improvements thereon without taking some steps required by law to initiate the settler's right thereto, is wholly inoperative as against the United States.

This rule is not affected as to lands in Alaska by any provisions of the Act of May 17, 1884, 23 Stat. 24, providing a civil government for Alaska.

Although the occupation and cultivation of public lands with a view to preemption confers a preference over others in the purchase of such lands by the bona fide settler which will enable him to protect his possession against other individuals, it does not confer any vested rights as against the United States.

Under the preemption laws, a purchaser availing of the provisions of the Act of March 3, 1891, to purchase land in Alaska acquires no vested rights by the mere deposit for the survey or until the purchase price is paid to, and receipt given therefor by, the proper land officer, and until this is done, Congress may withdraw the land from entry and sale although inchoate rights of settlers may be defeated.

The provisions of § 14 of the Act of March 3, 1891, authorized the reservation of the land for fish culture, and the exercise of this reserved power terminated all the rights of one who as a mere trespasser had settled thereon and made improvements prior to the passage of the act.

This is an appeal from a judgment of the Court of Claims, rejecting a claim of the Russian-American Packing Company

Page 199 U. S. 571

for the value of certain improvements erected by it on the Island of Afognak, off the coast of Alaska. The packing company was incorporated in 1889 under the laws of California for the purpose of carrying on the business of packing salmon on the Island of Afognak, and for that purpose purchased and shipped materials for a cannery and buildings to be used in canning salmon, and also, without authority or license from the United States, took possession of a tract of about 159.52 acres of land, and erected thereon buildings, machinery, etc. at a cost of about $45,000. Prior to this time, no one had been in possession of this tract. Claimants remained in possession for four years, and until December 24, 1892, and carried on a canning business at a profit of about $100,000, about $35,000 of which was subsequent to the passage of the Act of March 3, 1891.

On April 1, 1892, claimant applied to the Surveyor General for a survey of the tract, under the act of 1891, and deposited in the subtreasury at San Francisco $433.80, as the estimated cost of such survey. The survey was made, was approved March 15, 1893, and forwarded to the Commissioner of the General Land Office. Prior to December 24, 1892, the tract so occupied had not been reserved by the United States for fish culture or any other purpose, nor had the same been purchased or applied for by any other person. On that day, the President issued a proclamation declaring the whole island reserved for the purpose of establishing thereon a United States fish culture station, and warned all persons to depart therefrom. In July, 1893, claimant was informed of this proclamation by agents of the government, and ordered to leave the island, which it did, and has not returned thereto. On January 15, 1895, the Commissioner of the General Land Office, in passing upon the survey transmitted to him, addressed a letter to the Surveyor General calling attention to the President's proclamation, and rejected the survey on that ground, as well as upon the ground that the survey was not in square form, as required by statute. No appeal was taken from his decision.

Page 199 U. S. 572

The court found as a conclusion of law that claimant was not entitled to recompense for the value of the improvements, nor for the loss of profits arising from its removal from the island, but was entitled to recover the amount deposited for the expense of the survey.

Page 199 U. S. 575

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