Sometimes the best advice that a good lawyer can give the client is that the client has no case. This is as true today as it was over 100 years ago when William Burfening first came to a lawyer about a real estate claim.
Burfening could have used a good lawyer. His life might have been better had he gotten and followed this advice, or maybe he got the advice and did not listen. In any case, he spent a lot of money and the rest of his life on a case that had no merit.
Burfening claimed that he had discovered three islands in Minneapolis on the Mississippi River that were not shown on the Original Government Surveys. He could never accept that he had no legal basis to win his case. He went to the Minnesota Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court and through Federal Land Office Hearings, all to no end. Each time he lost on long settled principles of law. He gained nothing and proved nothing.
The value in Burfening's story is that it reopens chapters in the history of Real Estate Law that have long been closed. Original government surveys and early claims of riparian rights, homestead laws, the various and sundry types of scrip were all once important, but now are footnotes in history. Burfening's story lets us relive legal rights and claims of a time long gone.
Donald R. Durbin, Jr., Will Burfening's great grandson, has written and published a history of the case, "The Bigger They Are...." (2000). It is reviewed here by David J. Meyers, a lawyer in St. Cloud specializing in real estate law.