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Understanding Property Theories Through Pierson v. Post


In the realm of property law, few cases are as foundational or as illustrative of property theories as the landmark United States Supreme Court case, Pierson v. Post, 3 Cai. R. 175 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1805). This early 19th-century case deals with the age-old question: What constitutes possession and ownership of property, particularly when it comes to wild animals? The ruling not only resolved a dispute but also set a precedent that continues to inform property law to this day.

The Case: Pierson v. Post

The facts of Pierson v. Post are straightforward yet impactful. On a fateful day, Lodowick Post was hunting a fox with hounds in a New York forest. As he pursued the fox, another man, Jesse Pierson, intervened, killed the fox, and took it away. Post, feeling wronged, sued Pierson for taking what he considered his property—the fox.

The crux of the dispute hinged on whether Post, by merely chasing the fox, had established a sufficient claim to ownership, or if Pierson's act of killing and capturing the fox granted him the right to it. The New York Supreme Court's decision, written by Judge Tompkins, concluded that mere pursuit of the fox did not constitute possession. Instead, Pierson's decisive action of capturing and killing the fox gave him rightful ownership.

Property Theories in Context

The ruling in Pierson v. Post is significant as it brings to light two competing theories of property: the labor theory and the rule of capture.

1️⃣ Labor Theory of Property

This theory, heavily influenced by the writings of John Locke, posits that property rights are justified by the labor one invests in an object. Locke's principle suggests that when an individual mixes their labor with natural resources, they gain a proprietary right over the outcome. Under this theory, Post might have had a claim to the fox because of the effort he invested in the hunt.

2️⃣ Rule of Capture

The court in Pierson v. Post favored the rule of capture, which is a more pragmatic approach, especially when dealing with wild animals (ferae naturae). According to this rule, property rights are established by the actual physical possession of the object in question. In this case, the capture and killing of the fox by Pierson was deemed to create a clear and indisputable claim of ownership.

Implications of the Decision

The decision in Pierson v. Post has far-reaching implications for property law. By endorsing the rule of capture, the court emphasized the need for clear and objective criteria in establishing property rights, reducing potential conflicts and providing certainty. This ruling discourages interminable disputes over efforts and intentions, focusing instead on tangible outcomes.

Modern Applications

While the context of hunting wild animals might seem archaic, the principles from Pierson v. Post apply broadly to contemporary property issues, such as intellectual property and natural resources. For instance, in the digital realm, the rule of capture parallels the idea that ownership of digital assets often depends on who can control and secure them first.


The Pierson v. Post case remains a cornerstone in the understanding of property law, illustrating the tensions and intersections between labor and capture theories. It underscores the necessity of clear legal standards in determining ownership and has shaped legal doctrines that extend well beyond its original 19th-century context. As property disputes continue to evolve in complexity, the principles from this landmark case offer enduring guidance.

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