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Law School Case Brief

Worcester v. Georgia - 31 U.S. 515 (1832)


The Indian nations have 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: and this was a restriction which those European potentates imposed on themselves, as well as on the Indians. The very term "nation," so generally applied to them, means "a people distinct from others." The Constitution, by declaring treaties already made, as well as those to be made, to be the supreme law of the land, has adopted and sanctioned the previous treaties with the Indian nations, and consequently admits their rank among those powers who are capable of making treaties. The words "treaty" and "nation" each have a definite and well understood meaning. They are applied to Indians, as they are applied to the other nations of the earth. They are applied to all in the same sense.


The Cherokee nation entered into treaties with the United States that guaranteed Indian lands for Indians. A congressional act to promote the civilization of Indian tribes authorized the President to appoint persons, with the assent of the tribes, to minister and educate Indians. However, a law of defendant State of Georgia prohibited white persons from living on Cherokee land without a license, and another Georgia law redrew the boundaries of Cherokee territory. The President appointed plaintiff prisoner, among others, to educate and minister to the Cherokee Indians. Georgia authorities arrested plaintiff, and the trial court convicted him. Plaintiff sought review in the court by writ of error, which the Court granted.


Whether defendant State has the right to redraw boundary lines negotiated by treaty between Congress and the Indian tribes?




The United States Supreme Court reversed and annulled the judgment of conviction. The Court held that the State of Georgia did not have the right to redraw boundary lines negotiated by treaty between Congress and the Indian tribes. The Court found the state law that prohibited all white persons from living on Indian lands repugnant to the notion of education and civilization of the Indian tribes that was present in treaties and federal laws.

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