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U.S. Supreme Court

Pine River Logging Co. v. United States, 186 U.S. 279 (1902)

Pine River Logging Company v. United States

No. 250

Argued May 1-2, 1902

Decided June 2, 1902

186 U.S. 279


By an Act of Congress of February 16, 1889, the President was authorized to allow Indians residing on reservations to cut and dispose of dead timber, standing or fallen, on such reservations, for the sole benefit of such Indians. Defendants made five different contracts with individual Indians for the cutting of an aggregate of 2,750,000 feet. As a matter of fact, they cut and removed 17,000,000 feet. Held: that as to such excess, both the Indians and the defendants were trespassers.

The objection that the several defendants were not responsible for the acts of each other is one which should be taken at the trial, and if not so taken, cannot be made available upon writ of error from this Court.

In designating the number of feet to be cut under certain contracts, the use of the words "about" or "more or less" will not justify the cutting of a quantity materially and designedly greater than the amount provided for in the contract. chanrobles.com-red

Page 186 U. S. 280

The fact that the parties themselves disregarded the amount stipulated in the contract, and the further fact that the agent of the Indian Department, who personally directed what timber should be cut and supervised such cutting, assented to their construction of the contract, is no excuse for a material departure from the terms of a contract, which had been approved by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, acting under the authority and regulations of the President.

With the contracts before them, the agents of the government had but one duty, and that was to see that they were honestly and faithfully carried out according to their spirit and letter.

Damages were properly assessed at the value of the logs as they were banked upon the streams and lakes near where they were cut.

Defendants, being either willful trespassers or purchasers from such trespassers, were held not to be entitled to credit for the labor expended upon the timber, but were liable for its full value when seized, although if the trespass had been the result of inadvertence or mistake, and the wrong was not intentional, the stumpage value of the timber when first cut would be the proper measure of damages.

The defendants were held not to be entitled to credit for a percentage of the stipulated compensation paid to the Indian Department as trustee for the benefit of helpless Indians.

In civil cases, the United States recover the same costs as if they were a private individual.

The reporter's fee for a transcript of the record used by the plaintiff in preparing its bill of exceptions on appeal should not be taxed as costs.

This was an action in the nature of trover begun in the Circuit Court for the District of Minnesota by the United States against the Pine River Logging & Improvement Company, a corporation (hereinafter called the logging company), Joel B. Bassett, and William L. Bassett, copartners under the name of J. B. Bassett & Co., and John L. Pillsbury (for whom his administrators have since been substituted) and Charles A. Smith, copartners as C. A. Smith & Co., defendants, to recover damages for an alleged wrongful entry by the defendants upon an Indian reservation, and the cutting and removing of certain pine timber thereon.

The complaint, which contains nine counts, charges in substance that nine different parties did, with the consent and at the request of defendants, wrongfully enter upon certain lands of the United States known as the Mississippi Indian Reservation, and at the special instance and request of the defendants, fell and cut into logs certain pine trees, which they chanrobles.com-red

Page 186 U. S. 281

delivered to the defendants, who thereupon caused the logs to be floated down the river to the City of Minneapolis, to be there manufactured into lumber, which they had subsequently sold and appropriated the proceeds thereof to their own use.

The answers filed by the defendants, the logging company, and the Bassetts allege in substance the following facts: that the logs referred to were cut under and by virtue of certain contracts which had been entered into with individual Chippewa Indians for the cutting of dead and down timber found on the reservation; that said contracts had been executed in pursuance of an Act of Congress approved February 16, 1889, 25 Stat. 673, in relation to the cutting of timber on Indian lands; that payment for the logs so cut and removed had been made in full to the United States, and to the proper Indian agent, in accordance with the provisions of said contracts; that said logs were so cut by the Indians and delivered to and accepted by the defendants in good faith, in the honest belief that said logs had been lawfully cut under their contracts from dead and down timber, and that defendants were entitled to the same and became owners thereof upon the delivery of the logs and upon making the aforesaid payments; that, after the logs had been delivered to the defendants and before they were floated down the river to Minneapolis, the United States, through its proper officer, had seized and taken possession of the logs, claiming that they were cut from green and growing timber, and not from dead or down timber; that thereafter, for the purpose of preserving said logs and realizing their full value for the party who should ultimately be determined to be the owner, a contract was entered into between the United States, on the one hand, and the logging company and J. B. Bassett, on the other, which provided in substance that the defendants might drive the logs to Minneapolis without affecting the possession of the United States or the interest of any of the parties in the logs, and that, after they had been driven to Minneapolis, the defendants executed and delivered to the plaintiff a bond conditioned to pay any judgment that might be rendered against the defendants by the United States on account of the cutting of their logs. One of these bonds was executed by the logging company chanrobles.com-red

Page 186 U. S. 282

as principal, and the other by the firm of J. B. Bassett & Co. It was next set up in the answer of the logging company that the United States had accepted the bond in lieu of the logs, and that, relying upon said acts of the complainant, the logging company had disposed of the logs to others. It was then again specifically set up in the answer, as to the fourth, seventh, and eighth counts of the complaint, that the claim of the United States was solely against J. B. Bassett & Co., and not against the logging company; that the claim set up in the first, second, third, fifth, and sixth counts was solely against the logging company, and that there was therefore a misjoinder of causes of action in improperly uniting in one complaint causes affecting solely the logging company and other causes of action affecting solely the firm of J. B. Bassett & Co.

A separate answer was filed by the firm of C.A. Smith & Co., who admitted receiving from the logging company a certain amount of the pine saw logs described in the complaint, and that they manufactured the same into lumber, and disposed of it in the ordinary course of their business; that the amount of the lumber so manufactured was 15,628 feet, and that the value of the same was not greater than the sum of $132.84; that the defendants, in receiving and manufacturing said logs, honestly believed that the logging company was the owner and entitled to dispose of them. They also pleaded a misjoinder and nonliability for the acts of the other defendants.

The answer of the logging company admitted in substance that under and by virtue of the three contracts between itself and the Indians, it had received into its possession, converted into lumber, and ultimately sold pine saw logs cut upon Indian reservations which had yielded in the aggregate 13,463,400 feet. The defendants, J. B. Bassett & Co., likewise admitted that, under two contracts with the Indians, they had received saw logs which had yielded in the aggregate 4,136,860 feet of lumber.

The United States demurred to parts of these answers and replied to other parts, admitting that the logging company and Bassett & Co. had each entered into contracts with certain Indians, but averred that all the logs cut under some of the chanrobles.com-red

Page 186 U. S. 283

contracts and a large portion of the logs cut under other contracts were cut from pine trees that were alive and standing, while the contracts authorized only the cutting of dead and down timber.

The case being at issue upon these pleadings, the logging company and Bassett & Co. moved for a judgment against the government upon the pleadings for the sole reason, as stated in the motion, that on the facts admitted, the plaintiff was not entitled to maintain an action of trover or conversion against these defendants, or either of them, for the matters and things set out in said cause of action; but that the remedy of the government was upon the bonds given when the logs were surrendered to the defendants. This motion was sustained by the circuit court, and a judgment entered against the United States which, however, was reversed by the court of appeals, holding that neither of the bonds became available to the United States until a judgment had been obtained in its favor. The case was remanded for a new trial. 78 F.3d 9.

Upon the case's being sent back to the circuit court, there was a second trial, which also resulted in a judgment in favor of the defendants. The court of appeals reversed this judgment upon exceptions taken by the United States at the trial. 89 F.9d 7.

A third trial of the case resulted in a verdict, by direction of the court, in favor of the United States for $88,269.94. This judgment was affirmed by the circuit court of appeals. Whereupon a writ of error was sued out from this Court.


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