Worcester v. Georgia

Case Summary

In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which authorized the president to grant the Indians unsettled lands west of the Mississippi River in exchange for Indian lands within existing state borders.

The U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall addressed the Indian lands question in two cases: Cherokee Nation v. Georgia in 1831 and Worcester v. Georgia in 1832. Both cases addressed Georgia’s attempt to assert its jurisdiction over Cherokee land within the state that was protected by federal treaty.

  • Cherokee Nation v. Georgia: the Supreme Court ruled that it had no jurisdiction to hear the Cherokee request to prevent Georgia’s attempt. The Court determined that the Cherokees were a ward of the United States rather than “a sovereign nation.” By refusing to hear the case, the Court left the Cherokees at the mercy of the state of Georgia.
  • Worcester v. Georgia: The Georgia Legislature passed a law requiring anyone other than Cherokees who lived on Indian territory to obtain a license from the state. Samuel Worcester and several other non-Cherokee Congregational missionaries established a mission on Cherokee land at the request of the Cherokees and with permission of the U.S. government. The state of Georgia charged Worcester and the other missionaries with “residing within the limits of the Cherokee nation without a license.” They were convicted and sentenced to four years of hard labor. Worcester and the other missionaries appealed their convictions to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Legal Issue

The Court considered the following question: Does a state have the power to pass laws concerning sovereign Indian nations?


Speaking through Chief Justice John Marshall, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Worcester and the Cherokees. The Court reasoned that the Cherokee nation was “a distinct community” with “self-government” in which the laws of Georgia had no force. Marshall wrote that the citizens of Georgia had no right to enter Cherokee land without permission of the Cherokees themselves, or in conformity with treaties, and with the acts of Congress.” All interaction between the United States and the Cherokee nation was granted to the U.S. government.

Source: Worcester v. Georgia
Copyright © The State Bar of Texas

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