Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 515 (1832): conviction under a Georgia statute of a non-Cherokee man for the offence of living on the territory of the Cherokee Nation

.In Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 515 (1832) the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the conviction under a Georgia statute of a non-Cherokee man for the offence of living on the territory of the Cherokee Nation. The court held that the law under which he was convicted was ultra vires the State of Georgia. In so doing the court considered the nature and basis of the Cherokee claims to the land and to governance over that land. Again, it based its judgment on its analysis of the origins of those claims which, it held, lay in the relationship between the pre-existing rights of the "ancient possessors" of North America and the assertion of sovereignty by European nations (at pp. 542-43 and 559):

America, separated from Europe by a wide ocean, was inhabited by a distinct people, divided into separate nations, independent of each other and of the rest of the world, having institutions of their own, and governing themselves by their own laws. It is difficult to comprehend the proposition, that the inhabitants of either quarter of the globe could have rightful original claims of dominion over the inhabitants of the other, or over the lands they occupied; or that the discovery of either by the other should give the discoverer rights in the country discovered, which annulled the pre-existing rights of its ancient possessors.

After lying concealed for a series of ages, the enterprise of Europe, guided by nautical science, conducted some of her adventurous sons into this western world. They found it in possession of a people who had made small progress in agriculture or manufactures, and whose general employment was war, hunting, and fishing.

Did these adventurers, by sailing along the coast, and occasionally landing on it, acquire for the several governments to whom they belonged, or by whom they were commissioned, a rightful property in the soil, from the Atlantic to the Pacific; or rightful dominion over the numerous people who occupied it? Or has nature, or the great Creator of all things, conferred these rights over hunters and fishermen, on agriculturists and manufacturers?

But power, war, conquest, give rights, which, after possession, are conceded by the world; and which can never be controverted by those on whom they descend. We proceed, then, to the actual state of things, having glanced at their origin; because holding it in our recollection might shed some light on existing pretensions.

. . .The Indian nations had always been considered as distinct, independent political communities, retaining their original natural rights, as the undisputed possessors of the soil, from time immemorial, with the single exception of that imposed by irresistible power, which excluded them from intercourse with any other European potentate than the first discoverer of the coast of the particular region claimed. [Emphasis added.]

Marshall C.J.'s essential insight that the claims of the Cherokee must be analyzed in light of their pre-existing occupation and use of the land -- their "undisputed" possession of the soil "from time immemorial" -- is as relevant for the identification of the interests 35(1) was intended to protect as it was for the adjudication of Worcester's claim.

In Johnson v. M`Intosh Marshall C.J., although he acknowledged the Proclamation of 1763 as one basis for recognition of Indian title, was nonetheless of opinion that the rights of Indians in the lands they traditionally occupied prior to European colonization both predated and survived the claims to sovereignty made by various European nations in the territories of the North American continent. The principle of discovery which justified these claims gave the ultimate title in the land in a particular area to the nation which had discovered and claimed it. In that respect at least the Indians' rights in the land were obviously diminished; but their rights of occupancy and possession remained unaffected.

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