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Johnson v. M’Intosh

Todd Berman

InstructorTodd Berman

CaseCast "What you need to know"

CaseCast –  "What you need to know"

Johnson v. M'Intosh

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Brief Fact Summary. Action for ejectment for lands in the State of Illinois, in which plaintiff claims superior title under purchase and conveyance from the certain Indian nations over defendant under a later grant from the United States.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. Discovery of land gives the exclusive right to settle, possess, and govern the new land, and the absolute title to the soil, subject to certain rights of occupancy only in the natives.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

They were admitted to be the rightful occupants of the soil, with a legal as well as just claim to retain possession of it, and to use it according to their own discretion; but their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished, and their power to dispose of the soil, at their own will, to whomsoever they pleased, was denied by the original fundamental principle, that discovery gave exclusive title to those who made it.

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Facts. Johnson (P) claimed title to property conveyed under two grants, one in 1773 and the other in 1775, by the chiefs of the Illinois and Piankeshaw nations. P contends superior title because his title came directly from the Indian nations who owned the land. D claims superior title due to a direct conveyance from the United States government. District Court held for D. P appeals.

Issue. Whether a title conveyed by the Native Americans can be recognized by the Federal Courts?

Held. No. Judgment affirmed.
Title to lands is and must be admitted to depend entirely on the law of the nation in which they lie.  Discovery of America by Great Britain gave them the exclusive right to settle, possess, and govern the new land, and the absolute title to the soil, subject to certain rights of occupancy of the Native Indians.

By treaty between Great Britain and the United States, the powers of government, and the right to the soil, passed to the United States, subject only to the Indian right of occupancy, and the exclusive power to extinguish that right was vested in that government which might constitutionally exercise it.  Conquest gives a title that the Courts of the conqueror cannot deny, respecting the original justice of the claim that has been successfully asserted.

Discussion. The United States holds absolute title with the exclusive right to convey land while the Native Indians only had a right of occupancy that can be extinguished at any time. Conquest gives title that the Courts cannot deny; therefore property rights are defined by law.

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