The Supreme Court held that the federal government had exclusive jurisdiction over territories owned by Native Americans. It also recognized that the tribes retained significant claims to sovereignty.

The Reverend Samuel Worcester was a Christian missionary who was convicted and imprisoned for disobeying a Georgia law that required white men to have a state license to live in Indian territory. When Worcester appealed his conviction, the Supreme Court had clear jurisdiction to consider the case under a writ of error. By a 5-1 margin, the Court held that the Georgia law violated three legal principles: the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, the Cherokee treaties with the federal government, and the residual sovereignty rights of the Cherokee Nation. In a far-reaching opinion, Chief Justice John MarshallMarshall, John;Worcester v. Georgia[Worcester v. Georgia] wrote that the Indian tribes remained “distinct, independent political communities,” possessing their own territory and substantial elements of sovereignty within their boundaries.Native American sovereignty;Worcester v. Georgia[Worcester v. Georgia]

Although the Court’s order to free Worcester was ignored by Georgia’s courts, he was eventually pardoned by the governor. The Worcester decision did not immediately help the Cherokee because it did not place any restrictions on the actions of the federal government. President Andrew Jackson, who disliked the decision, was in the process of using his authority to force the Cherokee to leave Georgia and go to Oklahoma a mass migration known as the Trail of Tears. Worcester’s concept of limited Indian sovereignty proved to be very influential during the twentieth century.

Cherokee Nation v. Georgia

Johnson and Graham’s Lessee v. McIntosh

Native American law

Native American sovereignty

Native American treaties

States’ rights and state sovereignty