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JOHNSON AND GRAHAM'S LESSEE v. M'INTOSH.
FEBRUARY TERM, 1823.
[8 Wheaton's Reports, 543 – 605.)
Johnson sued M’Intosh in the United States district court of Illinois for certain lands, claimed by Johnson under a private purchase from the Indians, while M’Intosh held under the United States. Judgment being given for the defendant, Johnson brought it up on a writ of error.
Chief Justice Marshall delivered the opinion of the court as follows:
The plaintiffs in this cause claim the land, in their declaration mentioned, under two grants, purporting to be made, the first in 1773, and the last in 1775, by the chiefs of certain Indian tribes constituting the Illinois and the Piankeshaw nations ; and the question is, whether this title can be recognized in the courts of the United States.
The facts, as stated in the case agreed, show the authority of the chiefs who executed this conveyance, so far as it could be given by their own people; and likewise show that the particular tribes for whom these chiefs acted were in rightful possession of the land they sold. The inquiry, therefore, is, in a great measure, confined to the power of Indians to give, and of private individuals to receive, a title which can be sustained in the courts of this country.
As the right of society to prescribe those rules by which property may be acquired and preserved is not, and cannot be, drawn into question; as the title to lands, especially, is and must be admitted to depend entirely on the law of the nation in which they lie; it will be necessary, in pursuing this inquiry, to examine, not singly those principles of abstract justice which
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the Creator of all things has impressed on the mind of his creature man, and which are admitted to regulate, in a great degree, the rights of civilized nations whose perfect independence is acknowledged; but those principles, also, which our own government has adopted in the particular case, and given us as the rule for our decision.
On the discovery of this immense continent, the great nations of Europe were eager to appropriate to themselves so much of it as they could respectively acquire. Its vast extent offered an ample field to the ambition and enterprise of all; and the character and religion of its inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendancy. The potentates of the old world found no difficulty in convincing themselves that they made ample compensation to the inhabitants of the new by. bestowing on them civilization and Christianity, in exchange for unlimited independence. But as they were all in pursuit of nearly the same object, it was necessary, in order to avoid conflicting settlements, and consequent war with each other, to establish a principle which all should acknowledge as the law, by which the right of acquisition, which they all asserted, should be regulated as between themselves. This principle was, that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects or by whose authority it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession.
The exclusion of all other Europeans necessarily gave to the nation making the discovery the sole right of acquiring the soil from the natives, and establishing settlements upon it. It was a right with which no Europeans could interfere. It was a right which all asserted for themselves, and to the assertion of which by others all assented.'
Those relations which were to exist between the discoverer and the natives were to be regulated by themselves. The rights thus acquired being exclusive, no other power could interpose between them.
In the establishment of these relations the rights of the origi
nal inhabitants were in no instance entirely disregarded; but were necessarily, to a considerable extent, impaired. They were admitted to be the rightful occupants of the soil, with a legal as well as just claim to retain possession of it, and to use it according to their own discretion ; but their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished, and their power to dispose of the soil, at their own will, to whomsoever they pleased, was denied by the original, fundamental principle that discovery gave exclusive title to those who made it.
While the different nations of Europe respected the right of the natives, as occupants, they asserted the ultimate dominion to be in themselves; and claimed and exercised, as a consequence of this ultimate dominion, a power to grant the soil, while yet in possession of the natives. These grants have been understood by all to convey a title to the grantees, subject only to the Indian right of occupancy.
The history of America, from its discovery to the present day, proves, we think, the universal recognition of these principles.
Spain did not rest her title solely on the grant of the pope. Her discussions, respecting boundary, with France, with Great Britain, and with the United States, all show that she placed it on the rights given by discovery. Portugal sustained her claim to the Brazils by the same title.
France, also, founded her title to the vast territories she claimed in America on discovery. However conciliatory her conduct to the natives may have been, she still asserted her right of dominion over a great extent of country not actually settled by Frenchmen, and her exclusive right to acquire and dispose of the soil which remained in the occupation of Indians. Her monarch claimed all Canada and Acadie, as colonies of France, at a time when the French population was very inconsiderable, and the Indians occupied almost the whole country. He also claimed Louisiana, comprehending the immense territories watered by the Mississippi and the rivers which empty into
it, by the title of discovery. The letters patent granted to the Sieur Demonts, in 1603, constitute him lieutenant general, and the representative of the king in Acadie, which is described as stretching from the fortieth to the forty-sixth degree of north latitude; with authority to extend the power of the French over that country and its inhabitants, to give laws to the people, to treat with the natives, and enforce the observance of treaties, and to parcel out and give title to lands according to his own judgment.
The states of Holland also made acquisitions in America, and sustained their right on the common principle adopted by all Europe. They allege, as we are told by Smith, in his History of New York, that Henry Hudson, who sailed, as they say, under the orders of their East-India Company, discovered the country from the Delaware to the Hudson, up which he sailed to the forty-third degree of north latitude ; and this country they claimed under the title acquired by this voyage. Their first object was commercial, as appears by a grant made to a company of merchants in 1614; but in 1621 the States General made, as we are told by Mr. Smith, a grant of the country to the West-India Company, by the name of New Netherlands.
The claim of the Dutch was always contested by the English; not because they questioned the title given by discovery, but because they insisted on being themselves the rightful claimants under that title. Their pretensions were finally decided by the sword.
No one of the powers of Europe gave its full assent to this principle more unequivocally than England. The documents apon this subject are ample and complete. So early as the year 1496 her monarch granted a commission to the Cabots to discover countries then unknown to Christian people, and to take possession of them in the name of the king of England. Two years afterwards Cabot proceeded on this voyage, and discovered the continent of North America, along which he sailed as far south as Virginia. To this discovery the English trace their title.
In this first effort made by the English government to ac· quire territory on this continent we perceive a complete recog
nition of the principle which has been mentioned. The right of discovery given by this commission is confined to countries " then unknown to all Christian people ; ” and of these countries Cabot was empowered to take possession in the name of the king of England. Thus asserting a right to take possession, notwithstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens, and, at the same time, admitting the prior title of any Christian people who may have made a previous discovery.
The same principle continued to be recognized. The charter granted to Sir Humphrey Gilbert, in 1578, authorizes him to discover and take possession of such remote, heathen, and barbarous lands as were not actually possessed by any Christian prince or people. This charter was afterwards renewed to Sir Walter Raleigh, in nearly the same terms.
By the charter of 1606, under which the first permanent English settlement on this continent was made, James I. granted to Sir Thomas Gates and others those territories in America lying on the sea-coast, between the thirty-fourth and forty-fifth degrees of north latitude, and which either belonged to that monarch, or were not then possessed by any other Christian prince or people. The grantees were divided into two companies at their own request. The first or southern colony was directed to settle between the thirty-fourth and forty-first degrees of north latitude; and the second or northern colony, between the thirty-eighth and forty-fifth degrees.
In 1609, after some expensive and not very successful attempts at settlement had been made, a new and more enlarged charter was given by the crown to the first colony, in which the king granted to the “ Treasurer and Company of Adventurers of the City of London for the first Colony in Virginia,” in absolute property, the lands extending along the sea-coast four hundred miles, and into the land throughout from sea to sea. This charter, which is a part of the special verdict in this cause was annulled, so far as respected the rights of the company, by the