Cherokee Cases Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although these two U.S. Supreme Court rulings on cases involving the Cherokees and the state of Georgia had little practical impact on those cases, they would serve to limit the sovereignty of all Native American tribes by placing them under federal protection.

Summary of Event

In 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court made its first notable ruling that helped to define the relationship between the federal government and Native Americans. Johnson v. McIntosh Johnson v. McIntosh (1823)[Johnson v. MacIntosh] , the case under review, concerned disputed land titles. The Court ruled that the federal government was, in effect, the ultimate landlord over Native Americans, who were thus the government’s tenants. Chief Justice John Marshall and the Court majority thus ruled that the federal government was responsible for Native American affairs, including the protection of Native American peoples against state actions, which often materially affected Native American lives and property. Cherokee cases (1831-1832) Native Americans;and federal government[Federal government] Marshall, John [p]Marshall, John;Cherokee cases Supreme Court, U.S.;and Native Americans[Native Americans] Georgia;Cherokee cases Georgia;Indian removal [kw]Cherokee Cases (Mar. 18, 1831, and Mar. 3, 1832) [kw]Cases, Cherokee (Mar. 18, 1831, and Mar. 3, 1832) Cherokee cases (1831-1832) Native Americans;and federal government[Federal government] Marshall, John [p]Marshall, John;Cherokee cases Supreme Court, U.S.;and Native Americans[Native Americans] Georgia;Cherokee cases Georgia;Indian removal [g]United States;Mar. 18, 1831, and Mar. 3, 1832: Cherokee Cases[1670] [c]Indigenous people’s rights;Mar. 18, 1831, and Mar. 3, 1832: Cherokee Cases[1670] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 18, 1831, and Mar. 3, 1832: Cherokee Cases[1670] Jackson, Andrew [p]Jackson, Andrew;and Native Americans[Native Americans] Gilmer, George Evarts, Jeremiah Sequoyah Webster, Daniel [p]Webster, Daniel;and Cherokee cases[Cherokee cases] Wirt, William Worcester, Samuel A.

The Supreme Court considered the Johnson case at a time when the federal government and the states were locked in disputes about where the U.S. Constitution intended ultimate sovereignty to reside. Federal authority seemed unsure, and Georgia contemplated removing its Cherokee and Creek peoples from the northern and western portions of the state. To legitimate its plans, Georgia charged that when it had agreed, in 1802, to cede its western land claims to the federal government, the latter had agreed to invalidate Native American titles to those lands and then return the lands to the state. However, the federal government never followed through, and Georgia had had to deal with the presence of a sovereign Native American state within its borders.

Land-hungry as a result of expansive pressures from the cotton culture, Georgians themselves initiated steps to remove Native Americans, primarily Cherokees. They denied the relevance of federal treaties with the Cherokees and threatened to use force against federal troops if they were dispatched to protect the tribe. Andrew Jackson’s Jackson, Andrew [p]Jackson, Andrew;and Native Americans[Native Americans] election as president in 1828 accelerated Georgia’s actions to begin removing the Cherokees, because Jackson, a veteran Indian fighter who deemed Native Americans “savages,” was a strong proponent of removal.

In December, 1828, the Georgia legislature added Cherokee lands to a number of Georgia counties. Far from being “savages,” the Cherokees who protested this action had become a successful farming people. Thanks to a syllabary produced by their own Sequoyah, Sequoyah they were literate and produced their own newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. In response to the Georgia action, they instantly assembled a distinguished delegation to appeal to Congress for assistance. Their course was applauded by a host of congressmen and public officials—including Daniel Webster Webster, Daniel [p]Webster, Daniel;and Cherokee cases[Cherokee cases] and William Wirt Wirt, William —who proclaimed Georgia’s legislation unjust, on moral as well as legal grounds.

In December, 1829, Georgia’s Georgia;gold rush legislature went even further by enacting a comprehensive law that essentially nullified all Cherokee laws. Further aggravating the Cherokees’ plight was the discovery of gold on Cherokee land in western Georgia during the following year. A gold rush Gold rushes;Georgia flooded Cherokee land with white gold seekers, whose presence violated Cherokee treaties. Under great pressure, Georgia governor George Gilmer Gilmer, George claimed the gold as state property and threatened to oust the Cherokees forcibly. Having failed in Georgia’s courts, the Cherokees, as a last peaceful resort and encouraged by missionaries Missionaries;and Native Americans[Native Americans] such as Jeremiah Evarts Evarts, Jeremiah and public officials such as Webster Webster, Daniel [p]Webster, Daniel;and Cherokee cases[Cherokee cases] and Wirt Wirt, William , appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court under Article III, section 2 of the Constitution, Constitution, U.S.;and Native Americans[Native Americans] which gave the Court original jurisdiction in cases brought under treaties or by foreign nations.

In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) , Chief Justice Marshall, who had been sympathetic to Cherokee claims but also was aware of Jackson’s Jackson, Andrew [p]Jackson, Andrew;and Native Americans[Native Americans] hostility toward both Native Americans and the Supreme Court, dismissed the case on March 18, 1831. Marshall asserted that the Court lacked the jurisdiction to halt Georgia’s sequestration, or legal seizure, of Cherokee lands. In making that ruling, Marshall defined the relationship of the Cherokees—and, by inference, all other Native American tribes—to the federal government as that of a “domestic, dependent nation,” rather than a sovereign one.

On March 3, 1832, however, Marshall modified his earlier ruling while deciding Worcester v. Georgia. Worcester v. Georgia (1832) The Worcester case arose from a Georgia law enacted in 1831 that forbade whites from residing on Cherokee lands without a state license. The law was aimed primarily at white missionaries Missionaries;and Native Americans[Native Americans] who were encouraging Cherokee resistance to removal. Under its new law, Georgia arrested, convicted, and sentenced two unlicensed missionaries, Samuel Worcester Worcester, Samuel A. and Elizur Butler Butler, Elizur , whom the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions promptly defended by engaging William Wirt as their counsel. Wirt then was running as a vice presidential candidate for the National Republican Party and as a presidential candidate for the Anti-Masonic Party. Anti-Masonic Party[AntiMasonic Party] Therefore, he hoped for a decision that would embarrass Jackson.

Because the plaintiff in Worcester was a white missionary and the defendant the state of Georgia, the Supreme Court had clear jurisdiction in this case. Without overruling his Cherokee Nation decision, Marshall ruled that the Georgia law was unconstitutional and therefore void, because it violated treaties, as well as the commerce and contract clauses of the U.S. Constitution Constitution, U.S.;commerce clause . Furthermore, Marshall declared, Georgia’s laws violated the sovereignty of the Cherokee nation, and, in this case, the Court was constrained to define relationships between Native Americans and a state. The ruling overturned Worcester’s Worcester, Samuel A. and Butler’s convictions but did nothing to save the Cherokees from eventual removal from their homeland.

Significance

As historians and legal scholars later observed, the Cherokee cases advanced two contradictory descriptions of Native American sovereignty. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, Marshall delineated the dependent relationship of Native American tribes to the federal government. In Worcester, sympathetically stressing historic aspects of Native American independence, nationhood, and foreignness rather than their domestic dependency, he defined the relationship of Native American tribes to the states. Together, these decisions suggested that although Native American tribes lacked sufficient sovereignty to claim political independence and were therefore wards of the federal government, they nevertheless possessed sufficient sovereignty to guard themselves against intrusions by the states, and that it was a federal responsibility to preserve that sovereignty. In subsequent years, these conflicting interpretations were exploited by both the federal government and Native Americans to serve their own purposes.

Marshall’s pronouncements were one thing; making them effective was yet another thing. President Jackson Jackson, Andrew [p]Jackson, Andrew;and Native Americans[Native Americans] who, as chief executive, was the only party capable of enforcing the Court’s decision, chose to ignore it. Instead, Jackson threw federal troops into the removal of Cherokees and others of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes to the newly created Indian Territory beyond the Mississippi River. The resulting tragedy became known as the Trail of Tears.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Deloria, Vine, Jr., and Clifford M. Lytle. The Nations Within. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. Traces the past and weighs the future of Native American sovereignty, from the Doctrine of Discovery through the shift from tribal and federal notions of self-government to self-determination.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guttmann, Allen. States’ Rights and Indian Removal: “The Cherokee Nation v. the State of Georgia.” Boston: D. C. Heath, 1965. Brief documentary history of the Cherokees’ legal struggle to keep their land.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McLoughlin, William G. Cherokees and Missionaries, 1789-1839. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984. Study of the missionaries, who played such an important role in supporting the Cherokees.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prucha, Francis Paul. American Indian Treaties. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Unravels the political anomaly of the treaty system, a system devised according to white perspectives that made the relationships between Native Americans and the federal government unlike the legal and political relationships of any other two peoples.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">________. The Great Father. Vol. 1. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. A masterful, detailed analysis of historical relationships—political, economic, and social—between the federal government and Native Americans through cultural changes affecting both groups, from the Revolutionary War to 1980. Chapter 2 discusses the Cherokee cases and American Indian removal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Remini, Robert V. Andrew Jackson. 3 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. Nearly definitive biography of the most fervid and effective advocate of Indian removal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Legacy of Andrew Jackson: Essays on Democracy, Indian Removal, and Slavery. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. The leading biographer of Andrew Jackson discusses Jackson’s role in Indian removal and other social and political issues of his time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Satz, Ronald N. American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974. Excellent coverage of the Cherokee cases; also clarifies the complex political climate in which the cases developed around conflicts between the Jackson administration, Georgia, and the Cherokees.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wallace, Anthony F. C. The Long, Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indians. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993. Brief overview of the removal policies, the Trail of Tears, and the implications of both for U.S. history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Robert A. The American Indian in Western Legal Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Starting with the thirteenth century notion that the West had a mandate to conquer the earth, this intriguing study explores the laws that evolved to legitimate this mandate, specifically as the mandate was interpreted by Spanish, English, and U.S. laws regarding relations with Native Americans.

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