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Timeline / Reshaping America / 1823: Supreme Court rules American Indians do not own land

1823: Supreme Court rules American Indians do not own land

The first of three court cases (the “Marshall Trilogy”) that become the foundation of American Indian law is decided. The case involves a series of land transfers. In the 1770s, Illinois and Piankeshaw Indians, in what is now Illinois State, sold some land to Thomas Johnson. After American independence, the Indians sold the same land to the U.S. government, which then sold it to William McIntosh. In Johnson v. McIntosh, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall upholds the McIntosh family’s ownership of land purchased from the federal government. It reasons that since the federal government now controls the land, the Indians have only a “right of occupancy” and hold no title to the land.

Marshall based the decision on the “Discovery Doctrine,” referring to the way colonial powers laid claim to newly discovered land: in other words, title to the land lay with its discover. In Johnson v. McIntosh and other cases, the doctrine had the effect of ignoring aboriginal land possession. Other cases in the “Marshall Trilogy” are Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832).

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