Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823)

Brief Summary of Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823)

Issue: Whether private citizens can purchase lands from Native Americans, thereby acquiring valid legal title, or whether the right of soil and title to such lands is exclusively vested in the government.

Rule: Under the Doctrine of Discovery, upon discovering new lands, sovereign European nations gained the exclusive right to extinguish the “right of occupancy” (use and occupancy rights) of the indigenous populations and thus hold ultimate dominion over the territories. This exclusive right was transferred to the United States after it won its independence.

Rule Explanation: The Doctrine of Discovery, a principle of international law, was recognized by European and American governments to grant exclusive rights to the government to acquire land from the indigenous inhabitants. Private individuals could not obtain legal title to the land directly from Native Americans.

Application: In the case, two different parties claimed title to the same land. One party (Johnson) derived their claim through purchases made directly from Native American tribes, while the other party (M’Intosh) claimed title through a subsequent grant from the United States government. The Supreme Court applied the Doctrine of Discovery and determined that the title obtained from the government (M’Intosh’s claim) held legal priority over the title claimed through purchase from Native Americans (Johnson’s claim).

Conclusion: The Supreme Court concluded that the title held by M’Intosh, which was granted by the United States government, was superior to that claimed by Johnson, which was obtained through direct purchases from Native American tribes. Private citizens cannot bypass the government’s exclusive right to transfer land titles by dealing directly with Native Americans.

Detailed IRAC Outline of Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823)

I. Issue:
The central issue is the legal validity of land titles acquired by private individuals directly from Native Americans without government sanction or involvement.

II. Rule:
The Doctrine of Discovery established the legal principle that the right of soil belongs exclusively to the government, and it alone has the authority to transfer land titles. This doctrine was embedded in the law of nations and recognized by European colonizing powers, including England, and later by the U.S. government.

III. Application:

A. Facts:
1. Johnson’s predecessors obtained land deeds from the Piankeshaw tribes, which were Native American groups.
2. M’Intosh’s predecessors obtained a land patent from the United States government, which purported to give them a valid title to the same land.
3. The lands in question were within the territory of the United States, and both parties claimed to have legal title.

B. Lower Court Proceedings:
1. The District Court ruled in favor of M’Intosh.
2. This decision was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

C. Legal Analysis and Reasoning by the Supreme Court:
1. The Court, led by Chief Justice John Marshall, examined the historical context and principles of law concerning land acquisition from Native Americans.
2. It was recognized that while Native Americans had occupancy rights, they did not possess the full sovereignty required to convey the underlying title to private individuals.
3. The Court noted that the European and later American governments had historically claimed exclusive rights to extinguish the native title of occupancy, either by purchase or conquest.
4. Thus, any land purchases from Native Americans by private individuals were deemed subordinate to the ultimate dominion of the government.

D. Policy Considerations:
1. The Court took into account the practical implications of allowing private individuals to acquire land titles from Native Americans, which could lead to chaos and undermine the authority of the government.
2. It also considered the need to harmonize the law with longstanding practices of international and domestic policy regarding the acquisition and transfer of land from Native American tribes.

IV. Conclusion:
The Supreme Court held that the title obtained by M’Intosh from the U.S. government was valid and superior to the one claimed by Johnson, which was derived from purchases directly from Native American tribes. The decision established that while Native Americans had the right of occupancy, the ultimate title to the land, and the right to transfer it, lay with the government. This effectively confirmed the government’s exclusive authority to deal with Native American lands and set a significant precedent for future land transactions and Native American rights.

Discover more from Legal Three

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading