U.S. Supreme Court
United States v. Kingsley, 37 U.S. 12 Pet. 476 476 (1838)
United States v. Kingsley
37 U.S. (12 Pet.) 476
A grant for land in Florida by Governor Coppinger on condition that the grantee build a mill within a period fixed in the grant declared to be void, the grantee not having performed the condition or shown sufficient cause for its nonperformance.
Under the Florida treaty, grants of land made before 24 January, 1818, by His Catholic Majesty or by his lawful authorities stand ratified and confirmed to the same extent that the same grants would be valid if Florida had remained under the dominion of Spain, and the owners of conditional grants who have been prevented from fulfilling all the conditions of their grants have time by the treaty extended to them to complete such conditions. That time, as was declared by this Court in Arredondo's Case, 6 Pet. 748, began to run in regard to individual rights from the ratification of the treaty, and the treaty declares if the conditions are not complied with within the terms limited in the grant that the grants shall be null and void.
In the construction of the Florida treaty it is admitted that the United States succeeds to all those equitable obligations which we are to suppose would have influenced His Catholic Majesty to secure their property to his subjects and which would have been applied by him in the construction of a conditional grant to make it absolute, and further that the United States must maintain the rights of property under it by applying the laws and customs by which those rights were secured before Florida was ceded, or by which an inchoate right of property would, by those laws and customs, have been adjudicated by the Spanish authority to have become a perfect right.
The cases decided by the Court relative to grants of land in Florida reviewed and affirmed.
In the District Court of East Florida in April, 1829, Zephaniah Kingsley presented a petition claiming title to a tract of land situated on a creek emptying into the River St. John which he asserted was granted to him by Governor Coppinger on 20 November, 1816, while East Florida was held by the Crown of Spain.
The petition stated that in virtue of the grant, the petitioner had, soon after its date, entered and taken possession of the land, and was preparing to build a water saw mill thereon according to the condition of the grant, but was deterred therefrom by the disturbed state of that part of the province of East Florida and the occupancy of the land by some of the tribes of Florida Indians, who were wandering in all directions over the country. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary
The grant referred to in the petition was in the following terms:
"Considering the advantage and utility which is to accrue to the province if that is effected which Don Zephaniah Kingsley proposes to do, it is hereby granted to him that, without prejudice of a third party, he may build a water saw mill in that creek of the River St. John called McGirt's, under the precise condition, however, that until he builds said mill, this grant will be considered null and void, and when the event takes place, then, in order that he may not suffer by the expensive preparations he is making, he will have the faculty of using the pines comprehended within the square of five miles, which he solicits for the supply of said saw mill, and no other person will have a right to take anything from it. Let the corresponding certificate be issued to him from the secretary's office."
The District Attorney of the United States for East Florida filed, at May term, 1829, an answer to the petition of Zephaniah Kingsley requiring from the court that due proof should be made by the petitioner of the matters set forth in the petition, and also that the grantee had prepared to build a water saw mill on the land as stated in the grant.
The answer also asserts that the grant was made on the express condition that until the grantee built the mill, the grant was to be considered as null and void, and that he had wholly and entirely failed to build the mill and still fails to build the same.
On 6 July, 1833, an amended petition was filed setting forth that upon the state and condition of the province of East Florida east of the St. John's, being made known by the grantees of mill grants, and of the impossibility of complying with the conditions of the grants, Governor Coppinger, by a verbal order or decree, made known that in consequence of the continued unsettled and disturbed state of the province and of the impossibility of the grantees of mill grants complying with the conditions of the same with safety to themselves or their property, that the grantees should not, by a failure to erect their mills, thereby forfeit their title, but that the same should remain valid and be exonerated from the compliance of the condition therein named till the state of the country should be such as that the grantees could with safety erect their works.
The amended petition alleged that the country was in a disturbed and dangerous state from the date of the petitioner's grant and for a long time previous, till the transfer of the province from chanroblesvirtualawlibrary
Spain to the United States, and that your petitioner could not with any safety to himself or his property have erected said mill west of the St. John's, between the time of the date of his grant and the transfer of the province as aforesaid.
To this amended petition the district attorney answered and called for proofs of the allegations therein, and he also submitted to the court that if the part of the province in which the land said to have been granted had continued in a disturbed situation from Indian hostilities, it had been in that situation when the grant was made, and that this should not be an excuse for the noncompliance with the conditions of the grant. The answer alleged that from 1821, part of the province has been entirely tranquil, but no attempt to erect the mill has been made.
At July term, 1835, a second amendment to the petition was filed stating that soon after the issuing of the grant, the petitioner entered and took possession of a tract of the land surveyed to him under the grant, and actually began to build a mill upon it, but was deterred by the dangerous situation of the country from completing the same. The answer of the district attorney denied the allegations in this petition and called for proofs of the same. No evidence was given to sustain the statement in the second amended petition. The assertion that the uncertainty as to titles to the lands in the province since the transfer by Spain is denied to be an excuse for the laches or negligence of the grantee.
After the production of written evidence and the examination of witnesses, the district court gave a decree in favor of the petitioner, confirming to him the quantity of land mentioned in the grant. From this decree the United States prosecuted an appeal to this Court. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary