On this day in history, Feb. 28, 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Johnson v. M’Intosh, effectively adopting a secular form of 15th Century Papal edicts as the basis for the relationship between the U.S. government and Native nations.
The Papal edicts provided the legal and religious justification for European explorers to claim indigenous lands on behalf of their monarchs by right of discovery. Collectively, these edicts (or bulls) are known as the Doctrine of Discovery. In Johnson v. M’Intosh, the Court wrote that the United States, as the successor nation to European monarchies, maintains those same land rights.
The United States civilized inhabitants “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 …”