Maze v. Hamilton

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Maze v. Hamilton, Wythe 51 (1789), was a case involving a dispute over land in Greenbrier County.[1]


James Maze claimed 400 acres of land in Greenbrier County in 1764 through settlement, along with the right of preemption (the right to take priority over other parties in claiming land). William Hamilton claimed the same land based on settlement - Hamilton said he bought part of the land from John Tackett, who Hamilton said had settled the land with Maze - and on a survey by the Greenbrier Company that Hamilton said was taken in 1774, but which seemed to have actually been taken in 1775. In 1779, Maze presented his claim to a special court of commissioners, which awarded the 400 acres of land and preemption rights for 500 adjacent acres to Hamilton in January 1780. Maze filed a caveat, asking to temporarily bar any land grants based on the commissioners' decision, and in October 1782, the General Court of Virginia reversed the commissioners court and ordered that a grant for the 400 acres plus preemption rights for 1000 acres be awarded to Maze. Hamilton appealed by a writ of error to the Virginia Court of Appeals, which granted the appeal on April 30, 1783. On October 29, 1783, the Court of Appeals dismissed the writ of error, stating that the General Court had the final word on decisions about caveats filed against commissioners' decisions. On October 30, 1783, the Court of Appeals restored the appeal, then dismissed it for good on November 1, 1783.[2]

On May 2, 1783, however, the Supreme Court of Appeals handed down an opinion stating that all surveys taken before 1776 should be confirmed, and land should be granted according to those surveys.[3] On November 5, 1783, using the Court of Appeals's new ruling as a basis, Hamilton applied with the land office for title to 1100 acres, including the land Maze had won in the General Court. Maze filed a bill in the High Court of Chancery to stop Hamilton's claim, saying it was fraudulent.

The Court's Decision

The High Court of Chancery declared that the General Court had supreme jurisdiction over this issue and therefore equal authority to the Court of Appeals on the topic, and that since the General Court handed its decision down before the Court of Appeals did, the General Court's decision was final. Furthermore, the Court of Chancery said, since Maze was not party to the Court of Appeals decision making all surveys before 1776 official, it did not apply to him. Therefore, the High Court of Chancery found that the land grant Hamilton obtained after the Supreme Court's May 2, 1783, decision was fraudulent, and it nullified the grant of any land to Hamilton that included land awarded to Maze by the General Court back in October 1782. The High Court of Chancery directed Maze to pay the Greenbrier Company £3 as compensation for every 100 acres he reclaimed from Greenbrier's surveyed property.

Hamilton appealed the High Court of Chancery's decree to the Court of Appeals, and on June 20, 1791, the Court of Appeals issued a decision upholding the part of the High Court of Chancery's decree awarding the 400 acres of settled land to Maze, but dismissing the part of the decree that gave Maze preemptive rights to 1000 adjacent acres.[4]

Wythe's Discussion

Some time after the High Court of Chancery issued its decision, Wythe began to have second thoughts. Wythe opined that it may have been improper to award Maze not just the 400 acres he claimed he owned, but also acreage that he claimed preemptive rights to, since the settler's right of preemption wasn't created until 1779, several years after the survey that gave Hamilton his claim to that land. In the end, though, Wythe decided the award was proper, because if the initial claim took priority over a survey, then that claim's "shadow" - the preemptive right - should also take priority over the survey. Wythe, however, thought that the High Court of Chancery should not have required Maze to reimburse the Greenbrier Company for the land he claimed from its surveyed territory. Wythe believed that either Maze's claim prevailed over Greenbrier's, in which case Maze just needed to pay the required fee to the government; or Maze's claim failed against Greenbrier, in which case Maze had no grant and thus nothing to pay for.

Wythe disagreed with the Court of Appeals' 1791 decision for several reasons. Wythe noted that in November 1783, the Court of Appeals dismissed a writ of error Hamilton filed in a dispute over the same land, stating that they did not have jurisdiction to hear appeals from the General Court's decision. Had the land office's official known of this decision, Wythe said, the official would have deemed Hamilton's land grant application fraudulent and denied it. Wythe stated that the Court of Appeals should not be able to effectively reverse the General Court's decision through a new lawsuit when it had held earlier that they could not grant a writ of error on that decision; nevertheless, Wythe says, that is exactly what the Court of Appeals did with their 1791 decision.

Wythe also disputed the Court of Appeals' assertion that its May 1783 decision could not be superseded by any other court's decision, and barred Maze from disputing the legitimacy of Greenbrier's survey. Wythe argued that since Maze was not a party in that case, nor did he derive his rights from anyone involved in that case, he could not be bound by the decision. Furthermore, Wythe stated, while the Court of Appeals' decision in appellate matters is final, this was a matter of original jurisdiction for that court, and could have been appealed through a writ of error or appeal naming the justices as defendants.

Wythe disagreed with the Court of Appeals' contention that no right to settlement existed before the Assembly created it by statute in 1779. Wythe stated that it was undeniable that every man had the right to a royal grant of unappropriated land - that the only reason the government had not passed legislation stating this was that "such an assertion seemed unnecessary". A royal proclamation in 1763 and a governors council order of 1773 preventing settlers from getting land grants on the "western waters", Wythe said, was unlawful.

Wythe also argued that the Court of Appeals erred in stating that a right to land acquired by settlement fails in the face of a right to land acquired by a council-authorized survey. Wythe wrote that the May 1779 session statute stated that surveys would only create a right to a grant for "waste and unappropriated lands". Wythe again contended with the argument that since the Assembly did not pass a law creating a right to land grants by settlement until 1779, Maze's land was still "unappropriated" when the Greenbrier survey was done in 1775. Wythe noted that the 1779 statute's preamble states the Assembly's intent to compensate settlers for the risk they took pioneering new areas. Wythe stated that the act's language showed that the Assembly wanted to put settlers on an equal ground with people who had acquired their grants through surveys when it came to determining seniority of claims.

Wythe also stated that the council order of 1751 authorizing the Greenbrier Company to survey up to 100000 acres of land along the Greenbrier River did not negate Maze's right by settlement, but only gave the Greenbrier Company the opportunity to receive a grant by surveying the land. Had Greenbrier surveyed the land before Maze settled it, their right would have come first. Since Maze settled the land before Greenbrier surveyed it, though, Maze's claim took priority, and Hamilton could not use the law to work a wrong by taking Maze's land just because Greenbrier had previously had the option to survey it.

Wythe concluded by stating that he found no basis in the 1779 act for the Court of Appeals' decision, and comparing the situation of the "judge of the H.C.C."[5] to Galileo being forced to renounce heliocentrism.


  1. George Wythe, Decisions of Cases in Virginia by the High Court of Chancery, 51 (Richmond: J.W. Randolph, 2d ed. 1852).
  2. Maze v. Hamiltons, 8 Va. (4 Call) 33 (1783).
  3. In re Loyal & Greenbrier Cos., 8 Va. (4 Call) 21 (1783).
  4. Hamilton v. Maze, 8 Va. (4 Call) 196 (1791). Wythe and the Court of Appeals would rehash this case in Burnsides v. Reid, Wythe 150 (1794), and Reid v. Burnsides, 2 Va. (2 Wash.) 43 (1794).
  5. The High Court of Chancery - the "judge" presumably a reference to Wythe himself