HOWARD V. INGERSOLL, 54 U. S. 381 (1851)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Howard v. Ingersoll, 54 U.S. 13 How. 381 381 (1851)

Howard v. Ingersoll

54 U.S. (13 How.) 381


In 1802, when Georgia ceded her back lands to the United States, she had jurisdiction over the whole of the Chattahoochee River, from its source to the thirty-first degree of north latitude.

The rule is that where a power possesses a river and cedes the territory on the other side of it, making the river the boundary, that power retains the river unless there is an express stipulation for the relinquishment of the rights of soil and jurisdiction over the bed of such river.

When Georgia ceded to the United States all the land situated on the west of a line running along the western bank of the Chattahoochee River, she retained the bed of the river and all the land to the east of the line above mentioned.

The river flows in a channel, between two banks, from fifteen to twenty feet high, between the bottom of which and the water, when the river is at a low stage, there are shelving shores, from thirty to sixty yards each in width.

The boundary line runs along the top of this high western bank, leaving the bed of the river and the western shelving shore within the jurisdiction of Georgia.

These two cases were argued and decided together. The suits related to the same tract of land and the rights of the same parties, although they came up from different states. The first, which is referred to in the opinion of the court as No. 121, was an action on the case brought by Ingersoll in the Circuit Court of Alabama (state court) to recover damages for the wrongful obstruction by Howard of the Chattahoochee River whereby the waters of that stream were backed in such a manner as to overflow Ingersoll's land and obstruct the use of his mill. This mill was built between the high bank of the river and low water mark, as it was called, so that when the water was high, it was overflowed; but when the water was low, it was on dry ground. At such times, it was worked by a race fed from the river by means of a wing dam. Howard built a

Page 54 U. S. 382

dam below, which backed the water upon the mill and impeded its operations. On the trial of this cause, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Ingersoll for the sum of $4,000. The cause was carried to the Superior Court of Alabama, where the judgment was affirmed, whence it was brought to this Court under the 25th section of the Judiciary Act.

"HOWARD & ECKOLLS, Plaintiffs in error"

"v. No. 131"


This case was brought by writ of error, from the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Georgia. Howard & Eckolls, the builders of the dam, brought a suit against Ingersoll in the Superior court of Muscogee county, Georgia, to recover damages for an illegal entry upon their land covered with water and fishing thereon. The jury found a verdict for the plaintiffs for the sum of $600. A bill of exceptions brought the case up to this Court.

After these general observations upon the two cases, let us now take them up separately; and first of

"HOWARD, Plaintiff in error"

"v. No. 121"


It has been always stated that this case was brought from the Supreme Court of Alabama. The bill of exceptions, which was taken on the trial of the cause in Russell circuit court, was as follows:

"Bill of Exceptions. On the trial of this cause, the plaintiff Ingersoll produced a patent from the United States to himself dated in 1802 to fractional section No. 11, township 7, range 30, and proved title in himself to lots 1, 2, 3, and 4, in the Town of Girard, lying in Russell County, Alabama, and specifically described in some of the counts of the declaration; said land has for its eastern boundary the State of Georgia, and is immediately west of the Chattahoochee River on the bank thereof. This river has, for the most part, high bluff banks, but in some places the banks are low and the adjacent lands on either side where they are low are subject to inundation for nearly a mile out of the banks. Immediately at the plaintiff's lands and lots there are banks of the river from fifteen to twenty feet high, and very abrupt, and are high on both sides, and above and below, for considerable distances. The abrupt and high banks, however, do not extend down to the water's edge at ordinary low water. The bed of the river at this point is about two hundred yards wide from bank to bank; and by the bed is meant the space between these abrupt and high banks, and is composed of rocks

Page 54 U. S. 383

and slues among the rocks from one side to the other; ordinary low water and extreme low water together prevail for about two-thirds of the year, during which time the river is confined to a channel about thirty yards wide, leaving the bed of the river as above described, exposed on each side of this channel from thirty to sixty yards. Immediately under the western abrupt and high bank, and within the latitude of the north and south boundary line of plaintiff's land, side lines being drawn down to the water's edge, and in the bed of the river, as above described, east of said western abrupt and high bank, the plaintiff erected a mill previous to 1842, and continued the possession and use thereof until overflowed by defendant's dam. The place on which said mill was situated was covered with water in ordinary high water, but was bare and dry in ordinary low water."

"To supply his mill with water, the plaintiff had erected a wing dam, which ran in a north-east direction into the river, and supplied his mill with water at all seasons, and diverted a portion of the stream to the said mill, which passed again into the river above defendant's dam, and he, plaintiff, had blown out rock to give room to his mill wheel."

"It was further proved that in 1845 the defendant erected a dam across the river about three hundred yards below the plaintiff's mill and opposite the City of Columbus, Georgia. The said dam was four to five feet high, and at ordinary low water backed the water on plaintiff's mill, so as to prevent its working; in high water the said dam made no difference, as the water was level above it and on both sides of it. The plaintiff further proved the value of his mill and the injury he sustained. The defendant introduced in evidence the act of cession of the State of Georgia to the United States; the Constitution of the State of Georgia; an act of the State of Georgia granting to the City of Columbus, the right to lay off lots on her river boundary, running across the Chattahoochee River, to high water mark, on the western bank of said river. All of which evidence, being printed in the public acts, are to be read and considered in full as part of this bill of exceptions."

"The defendant also offered in evidence an authenticated deed to him from the City of Columbus granting him said lots, running across the river, and authority to erect the dam across the river, which original deed and accompanying plat, it is agreed, may form a part of this bill of exceptions and may be exhibited as such. The plaintiff's land was situated at a point of the river where there were falls or rapids and where it was not navigable, and that it was far above tidewater, and a fresh water stream, and between Miller's Bend and Cochei Creek.

Page 54 U. S. 384

The defendant's dam raised the water to a point on the western high bank which [is] dry at ordinary low water. One witness proved that he never knew a sheriff or constable of Georgia to come over on the western bank to serve any writ or process or other official act, and stated that he, the witness, had good opportunity to know if any such thing had been attempted, as he had lived on the western bank for ten years."

"At the place at which plaintiff's mill was erected, the summit of the bank was never overflowed, even at the highest stages of the river, the water of which always remained several feet below it. The plaintiff gave in evidence to the court, which was not allowed to go as evidence to the jury, although requested by plaintiff, acts of the State of Georgia conveying authority to the commissioners to negotiate the cession of territory from Georgia to the United States and also the act of Georgia ratifying said cession, all of which may be read from the public acts. The court charged the jury that one passing from Georgia to Alabama, across the Chattahoochee River, at ordinary low water, would be upon the bank as soon as he left the water on the western side, although an inappreciable distance from the water, and that the line described in the treaty of cession from Georgia to the United States as running up said river and along the western bank thereof is the line impressed upon the land by ordinary low water, and if they believed the plaintiff's mill was west of that line and defendant's dam backed the water so as to obstruct the operation of said mill, the plaintiff was entitled to recover, to which charge the defendant excepted."

"The defendant asked the court to charge the jury that if the bank of the river was ordinary low water mark, the plaintiff had no right to the use of the water at that stage, which charge the court refused, to which defendant excepted, and prays his exceptions to be signed and sealed and made part of the record of this cause, which is accordingly done in term time."


The judgment of the circuit court was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Alabama, and brought to this Court to be reviewed, under the 25th section of the Judiciary Act.

"HOWARD & ECKOLLS, Plaintiffs in error"

"v. No. 131"


This action was brought by way of petition by Howard & Eckolls, the owners of the dam below, against Ingersoll, the owner of the mill above, for entering the close ground covered with water of the petitioners and fishing. Ingersoll removed

Page 54 U. S. 385

the cause into the circuit court of the United States, where it was tried in July, 1850. The court having refused to charge the jury as prayed for by the plaintiffs, they brought the case to this Court, although there was a verdict in their favor for $600 damages.

The following is the bill of exceptions:

"On the trial of this cause, the plaintiffs proved, by the articles of cession dated on t16 June, 1802, between the United States and Georgia, that the boundary line between Georgia and the territory, now State of Alabama, was a line beginning on the western bank of the Chattahoochee River and running along the western bank thereof. And did further prove by competent testimony of witnesses both for the plaintiffs and on the part of the defendant that at the part of the said River Chattachoochee where the closes in the said declaration mentioned are situated, the said river, not being a tidewater and not being navigable, is considerably reduced at its lowest state, especially in droughts, being quite narrow at such state, particularly in some places where it is confined by rocks projecting from the opposite sides of the river, and in other places spreading out more at large. That between the water in this state of the river and a high and perpendicular bluff on the western or Alabama side, the distance varies, according to one witness, from 30 to 100 yards; according to another, the bluff banks are high and precipitous; at some places they are 30 feet, at others 100, and again 150 feet from the main channel; by another, at the foot of the bluff bank is a flat space from 50 to 150 feet wide, between ordinary water mark and the bluff bank; from very low water mark to the bluff bank is more than 50 to 150 feet. According to another witness it is from 100 to 120 feet from the bluff bank to medium water mark, and from 80 to 100 feet from medium water mark to low water mark; that this intermediate space is a flat or bottom land, gradually descending from the base of the bluff to the water; that in places upon this flat there is a growth of shrubbery, and some trees, such as pines, gums, oaks, willows, alders, poplars &c.; that the growth on this flat would be liable to be destroyed if the flat were long or often overflowed; that there is a road or cartway underneath this bluff, a grist-mill, one post of which stands in the water, the water approaching very near the bluff at that point, and there being just room between the mill and the bluff for the above road to pass. There is also a saw mill, but not on the closes in the declaration mentioned, and a cotton gin factory under the bluff on this flat, and a small portion of it has at times been cultivated. That in the ordinary winter state of the river, the water covers this

Page 54 U. S. 386

flat about half way to the bluff, to the base of a bank or ridge of sand and gravel, having an inclination of about forty-five degrees; that in very full states of the river -- that is, in freshets -- the water covers the flats, reaching to or nearly to the bluff, and in the freshet of 1840, known as the Harrison freshet, it extended twelve feet up the base of the bluff; that the extent to which this flat is covered with water varies with the height of the freshets in said river, it being all dry land at the lowest state of the river and a portion of it being always, except in high freshets, uncovered with water; that it is only in the full state of the river that the water overflows the sand bank or ridge before mentioned."

"Whereupon the plaintiffs prayed the court to instruct the jury that the true interpretation of the said article of cession in the year 1802 between the United States and Georgia requires the boundary line between the State of Georgia and the Territory, now State, of Alabama, to be drawn on and along the western bank of the Chattahoochee River. And that wherever the jury may find that bank to be, the jurisdiction and limits of the State of Alabama must terminate, and cannot pass beyond that line to the eastward of the same, but that all east of said line, whether it be land or water, is included within the limits and jurisdiction of Georgia, and no grant from the United States or the State of Alabama can confer title to any part of the same, either directly or indirectly, either by virtue of the said grant or as an incident to the same."

"Which instruction the said court refused to give except subject to this modification, to-wit, that the articles of cession was an instrument the interpretation of which belonged to the court, and not to the jury, and gave the said instruction subject to the said modification, and moreover instructed the jury that by the true construction of those articles of cession, the boundary line between the State of Georgia and Alabama was to be drawn on and along the western bank of the Chattahoochee River at low water mark, when the river was at its lowest state."

To which refusal and instruction the plaintiffs except, and pray this bill of exceptions to be signed, sealed, and enrolled, which is done this fifth day of July, 1850.


"District Judge for the District of Georgia"

Page 54 U. S. 397

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