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Law School Case Brief

Johnson v. M'Intosh - 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543 (1823)


The United States have unequivocally acceded to that great and broad rule by which its civilized inhabitants now hold the country. They hold, and assert in themselves, the title by which it was acquired. They maintain, as all others have maintained, that discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest; and gave also a right to such a degree of sovereignty, as the circumstances of the people would allow them to exercise. The power now possessed by the government of the United States to grant lands, resided, while it was colonies, in the crown, or its grantees. The validity of the titles given by either has never been questioned in the courts. It has been exercised uniformly over territory in possession of the Indians. The existence of this power must negative the existence of any right which may conflict with, and control it. An absolute title to lands cannot exist, at the same time, in different persons, or in different governments. An absolute must be an exclusive title, or at least a title that excludes all others not compatible with it. All institutions recognize the absolute title of the crown, subject only to the Indian right of occupancy, and recognize the absolute title of the crown to extinguish that right. This is incompatible with an absolute and complete title in the Indians.


Plaintiffs, mostly British subjects and their heirs, claimed title to property conveyed to them by the Piankeshaw Indians prior to the American Revolution. Plaintiffs contended that their title ran directly from the Native Americans who owned the property, and therefore, it was superior to defendants' title. The District Court of Illinois granted title to property in that state to defendants on the basis of a land grant from the United States. Thereafter, plaintiffs sought a review of the district court’s decision.


Were the defendants' claim to the contested property superior to that of the plaintiffs’ claim?




The Court upheld the decision of the lower court and treated defendants' claim to the contested property to be superior to plaintiffs' claim. The court based this decision on the idea that the Piankeshaw were not actually able to convey the land because they never "owned" it in the traditional sense of the word. 

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