175 U.S. 1 (1899), 7, Jones v. Meehan

Docket Nº:No. 7
Citation:175 U.S. 1, 20 S.Ct. 1, 44 L.Ed. 49
Party Name:Jones v. Meehan
Case Date:October 30, 1899
Court:United States Supreme Court

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175 U.S. 1 (1899)

20 S.Ct. 1, 44 L.Ed. 49




No. 7

United States Supreme Court

October 30, 1899

Argued April 27-28, 1898




A good title to parts of the lands of an Indian tribe may be granted to individuals by a treaty between the United States and the tribe, without any act of Congress, or any patent from the Executive authority of the United States. The question in every case is whether the terms of the treaty are such as to manifest the intention of the parties to make a present grant to the persons named.

A treaty between the United States and an Indian tribe must be construed not according to the technical meaning of its words to learned lawyers, but in the sense in which they would naturally be understood by the Indians.

When the United States, in a treaty with an Indian tribe, and as part of the consideration for the cession by the tribe of a tract of country to the United States, make a reservation to a chief or other member of the tribe of a specified number of sections of land, whether already identified or to be surveyed and located in the future, the treaty itself converts the reserved sections into individual property; the reservation, unless accompanied by words limiting its effect, is equivalent to a present grant of a complete title in fee simple, and that title is alienable by the grantee at his pleasure, unless the United States, by a provision of the treaty, or of an act of Congress, have expressly or impliedly prohibited or restricted its alienation.

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The effect of the Treaty of October 2, 1863, between the United States and the Red Lake and Pembina bands of Chippewa Indians, by which those bands ceded to the United States all their right, title and interest in a large tract of country, and by which

there shall be set apart from the tract .hereby ceded a reservation of six hundred and forty acres near the mouth of the Thief River for the chief Moose Dung

was to grant him an alienable title in fee in the quantity of land at the designated place, subject only to its selection in due form and to the definition of its boundaries by survey and patent.

The right of inheritance at the time of the death of the grantee in 1872 in land granted in fee by the United States by an Indian treaty to a member of an Indian tribe, whose tribal organization was still recognized by the government of the United States, is controlled by the laws, usages and customs of the tribe, and not by the law of the state in which the land lies, nor by any action of the Secretary of the Interior.

The construction of treaties is the peculiar province of the judiciary, and, except in cases purely political, Congress has no constitutional power to settle the rights under a treaty or to affect titles already granted by the treaty itself.

The case is stated in the opinion.

GRAY, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE GRAY delivered the opinion of the court.

This was a bill in equity filed in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Minnesota by Patrick Meehan and James Meehan, citizens of Wisconsin, against Ray W. Jones, a citizen of Minnesota, to quiet title in a strip of land ten feet wide along the westerly shore of the Red Lake River, in the County of Polk and State of Minnesota, extending from the northeasterly intersection of the plat of the Village of Thief River Falls with the shore at a point near the junction of the two rivers, and being a part of lot 1 in section 34, township 154, and range 43.

For convenience, the parties will be designated throughout this opinion according to their position in the court below; the Meehans, now appellees, as the plaintiffs, and Jones, now appellant, as the defendant.

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Each party derived title under the "reservation of six hundred and forty acres near the mouth of the Thief River for the chief Moose Dung," in article 9 of the treaty made at the Old Crossing of Red Lake River in the State of Minnesota, on October 2, 1863, between the United States, by their commissioners, Alexander Ramsey, a senator of the United States for the State of Minnesota, and Ashley C. Morrill, agent for the Chippewa Indians, of the one part, and the Red Lake and Pembina bands of Chippewa Indians, by their chiefs, headmen, and warriors, of the other part, and afterwards ratified by the Senate, with amendments assented to by the Indians. 13 Stat. 667-671. The material provisions of that treaty were as follows:

By article 2, those bands of Chippewas ceded to the United States all their right, title, and interest in a large tract of country to the west of Thief River in the State of Minnesota, including all the American Valley of the Red River of the North.

By article 3:

In consideration of the foregoing cession, the United States agree to pay to the said Red Lake and Pembina bands of Chippewa Indians the following sums, to-wit: twenty thousand dollars per annum for twenty years, the said sum to be distributed among the Chippewa Indians of the said bands in equal amounts per capita.

By article 5:

To encourage and aid the chiefs of said bands in preserving order and inducing, by their example and advice, the members of their respective bands to adopt the habits and pursuits of civilized life, there shall be paid to each of the said chiefs annually, out of the annuities, of the said bands, a sum not exceeding one hundred and fifty dollars, to be determined by their agents according to their respective merits. And for the better promotion of the above objects, a further sum of five hundred dollars shall be paid at the first payment to each of the said chiefs to enable him to build for himself a house.

By article 8:

In further consideration of the foregoing cession, it is hereby agreed that the United States shall grant to each male adult half-breed or mixed blood who is related

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by blood to the said Chippewas of the said Red Lake or Pembina bands, who has adopted the habits and customs of civilized life, and who is a citizen of the United States, a homestead of one hundred and sixty acres of land, to be selected at his option, within the limits of the tract of country hereby ceded to the United States, on any land not previously occupied by actual settlers or covered by prior grants, the boundaries thereof to be adjusted in conformity with the lines of the official surveys when the same shall be made, and with the laws and regulations of the United States affecting the location and entry of the same.

By one of the amendments made by the Senate with the assent of the Indians, there was inserted at the end of article 8 the following:

Provided, that no scrip shall be issued under the provisions of this article, and no assignments shall be made of any right, title, or interest at law or in equity until a patent shall issue, and no patent shall be issued until due proof of five years' actual residence and cultivation, as required by the act entitled "An Act to Secure Homesteads on the Public Domain."

By article 9 of the treaty:

Upon the urgent request of the Indians, parties to this treaty, there shall be set apart from the tract hereby ceded a reservation of six hundred and forty acres near the mouth of Thief River for the chief Moose Dung, and a like reservation of six hundred and forty acres for the chief Red Bear on the north side of Pembina river.

Moose Dung, or Monsimoh, was one of the principal chiefs of the Red Lake band of Chippewa Indians, and his name was the first of the Indian signatures to the treaty, all of which were by marks only.

The plaintiffs, against the defendant's objection, introduced in evidence certified copies of extracts from the journal of the proceedings at the negotiation of the treaty, annexed to the report made by Mr. Ramsey to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in October, 1863. That journal stated that

Moose Dung, who was really the most influential of all the chiefs, stood at the head of a party embracing the large majority of all the bands who were favorable to and even anxious for

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a treaty.

It also showed that part of the discussion was as follows: Moose Dung said:

I have taken the mouth of Thieving River as my inheritance. I do not ask the chiefs here where [20 S.Ct. 3] I shall go. I make my home there. I wanted it for a reservation for myself. . . . I used to think that this was the proper place for me to settle; that it would be an inheritance for my children -- where all my children could have enough to live on in the future.

Mr. Ramsey answered, "Tell him I don't care anything about the mouth of Thieving River. He can have it if he wants it." Moose Dung replied,

I accept of the proposition, because I see that I am going to be raised from want to riches -- to be raised to the level of the white man. . . . You and the government have used every exertion for a great many years to bring about a treaty. I do not want you to exert yourselves in vain. I now give up the tract of country.

The journal further stated that

at the end of a session of three and a half hours' duration, Moose Dung, who has stood for an hour weighing and deliberating on every separate provision of this treaty, asking for this explanation and that modification, appearing to labor under a serious sense of the great responsibility he was taking, at last touched the pen which was to affix his vicarious sign-manual to the treaty,

and the other chiefs followed his example.

The plaintiffs also, against the like objection, introduced testimony of the secretary of the commission, of the official interpreter and of other persons, Indians as well as white persons...

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