Property I, Pages 90–94

Johnson v. M'Intosh

Supreme Court of the United States, 1823

Facts:

Plaintiff's father purchased large amounts of land from the Illinois and Piankeshaw nations in 1773. The US government later acquired allegedly the same land in treaties with the tribes and then sold this land to defendant.

Procedural History:

District court of Illinois found for the defendant.

Issue:

Can a private citizen buy land from American Indian tribes?

Rule:

It is the sole right of governments to claim American land based on discovery. Land unknown to Christian peoples belongs to the first government to have citizens discover it. It is then up to the government to arrange the native occupants' departure either by purchase or conquest.

Reasoning:

The American Indians are merely barbarians occupying the federal government's land; they do not have absolute title themselves. As such, they have no right to transfer ownership to a private citizen.

Holding:

No, a private citizen cannot buy land from American Indian tribes, as all of America belongs solely to the United States government. Judgment affirmed with costs.

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