Appellants: Johnson and Graham
Appellee: William McIntosh
Appellant's Claim: That title to land purchased by private individuals directly from Indian tribes before the United States gained independence should be recognized by the United States.
Chief Lawyers for Appellants: Harper and Webster
Chief Lawyers for the Appellee: Winder and Murray
Justices for the Court: Gabriel Duvall, William Johnson, Chief Justice John Marshall, Joseph Story, Smith Thompson, Thomas Todd, Bushrod Washington
Justices Dissenting: None
Date of Decision: February of 1823
Decision: Ruled in favor of McIntosh by denying recognition of land purchases from Indian tribes by individuals.
Significance: This landmark ruling established the legal basis by which the United States could establish its land base. Chief Justice John Marshall had to piece together the concept of discovery as used by early European explorers and Indian sovereignty (governmental independence). Being sovereign governments, the rights to lands that Indians physically possessed could only be acquired by the U.S. government, not by private individuals or states.
When European explorers began arriving on the eastern shores of North America in the sixteenth century, they found numerous long-established Indian societies, each with their own governments, laws, and customs. Although the explorers asserted the "doctrine of discovery" to claim control of lands they "discovered" for their rulers, European colonists who later followed the explorers still had to deal with the question of Indian land possessions. By 1532 Spain officially declared that Indians held a certain right to land that foreign nations could not take simply through "discovery." Actual possession of land occupied and used by American Indians could only be gained by signing a treaty or by waging a "just war."
Prior to the Revolutionary War (1776–1783) while the thirteen American colonies were still under British rule, the Illinois and Piankeshaw Indian tribes lived in the Ohio Valley region to the west. During the period of European exploration, France had claimed the region through discovery. A 1763 treaty ending the French and Indian War (1754–1763) between France and Great Britain over North American lands transferred claim to the region to Great Britain. A number of years later, in 1773 and 1775, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Graham, two individuals acting on their own, purchased lands northwest of the Ohio River directly from the two tribes.
At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1776, numerous conflicts erupted between tribes, the colonies, and their citizens. Many of the tribes were sympathetic to the British. Attempting to establish claim and some control over the Ohio Valley to its west, the state of Virginia passed a law proclaiming exclusive right to large tracts of land. Included were the two parcels owned by Johnson and Graham. Consistent with existing legal principles, the law recognized that the Indians held a right of possession to continue living in the region until the lands could be purchased by Virginia. The act also provided that all previous land transactions by Indians to private individuals for their own use were not valid. Additionally, upon defeat, Great Britain gave up its claim to the...