Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Great Plains Quarterly 33:2 (Spring 2013)


© 2013 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska


Johnson v. McIntosh is one of the most important cases ruled on by the United States Supreme Court. Decided in 1823, the Court adopted the international law of colonialism, called today the Doctrine of Discovery, to be the controlling legal precedent on whether American Indian nations owned the absolute title, or the fee simple title, to their lands and thereby possessed the property right to sell land to whomever they wished for whatever amount they could negotiate. The Supreme Court held that under the Doctrine of Discovery, Indigenous nations had lost the full ownership of their lands and could only sell to the government that held the discovery preemption power, that is, the right to be the only purchaser. Johnson is still the law today, restricting the property rights of American Indian nations across the country and bearing upon tribal nations and their governing powers and economic rights.