United States v. Rogers (45 U.S. 567)/Opinion of the Court

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United States Supreme Court

45 U.S. 567

United States  v.  Rogers

This case has been sent here by the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Arkansas, under a certificate of division of opinion between the justices of that court.

It appears by the record, that William S. Rogers, a white man, was indicted in the above-mentioned court for murder, charged to have been committed upon a certain Jacob Nicholson, also a white man, in the country now occupied and allotted by the laws of the United States to the Cherokee Indians.

The accused put in a special plea to the indictment, in which he avers, that, having been a citizen of the United States, he, long before the offence charged is supposed to have been committed, voluntarily removed to the Cherokee country, and made it his home, without any intention of returning to the United States, that he incorporated himself with the said tribe of Indians as one of them, and was so treated, recognized, and adopted by the said tribe, and the proper authorities thereof, and exercised all the rights and privileges of a Cherokee Indian in the said tribe, and was domiciled in their country; that by these acts he became a citizen of the Cherokee nation, and was, and still is, a Cherokee Indian, within the true intent and meaning of the act of Congress in that behalf made and provided; that the said Jacob Nicholson had in like manner become a Cherokee Indian, and was such at the time of the commission of the said supposed crime, within the true intent and meaning of the act of Congress in that behalf made and provided; and that therefore the court had no jurisdiction to cause the defendant to make a further or other answer to the said indictment.

This is the substance of the plea, and to this plea the attorney for the United States demurred, setting down the causes of demurer which appear in the foregoing statement of the case.

Several questions have been propounded by the Circuit Court, which do not arise on the plea of the accused, and some of them we think cannot be material in the decision of the case, and need not therefore be answered by this court.

The country in which the crime is charged to have been committed is a part of the territory of the United States, and not within in the limits of any particular State. It is true that it is occupied by the tribe of Cherokee Indians. But it has been assigned to them by the United States, as a place of domicile for the tribe, and they hold and occupy it with the assent of the United States, and under their authority. The native tribes who were found on this continent at the time of its discovery have never been acknowledged or treated as independent nations by the European governments, nor regarded as the owners of the territories they respectively occupied. On the contrary, the whole continent was divided and parcelled out, and granted by the governments of Europe as if it had been vacant and unoccupied land, and the Indians continually held to be, and treated as, subject to their dominion and control.

It would be useless at this day to inquire whether the principle thus adopted is just or not; or to speak of the manner in which the power claimed was in many instances exercised. It is due to the United States, however, to say, that while they have maintained the doctrines upon this subject which had been previously established by other nations, and insisted upon the same powers and dominion within their territory, yet, from the very moment the general government came into existence to this time, it has exercised its power over this unfortunate race in the spirit of humanity and justice, and has endeavoured by every means in its power to enlighten their minds and increase their comforts, and to save them if possible from the consequences of their own vices. But had it been otherwise, and were the right and the propriety of exercising this power now open to question, yet it is a question for the law-making and political department of the government, and not for the judicial. It is our duty to expound and execute the law as we find it, and we think it too firmly and clearly established to admit of dispute, that the Indian tribes residing within the territorial limits of the United States are subject to their authority, and where the country occupied by them is not within the limits of one of the States, Congress may by law punish any offence committed there, no matter whether the offender be a white man or an Indian. Consequently, the fact that Rogers had become a member of the tribe of Cherokees is no objection to the jurisdiction of the court, and no defence to the indictment, provided the case is embraced by the provisions of the act of Congress of the 30th of June, 1834, entitled 'An act to regulate trade and intercourse with the Indian tribes, and to preserve the peace of the frontiers.'

By the twenty-fifth section of that act, the prisoner, if found guilty, is undoubtedly liable to punishment, unless he comes within the exception contained in the proviso, which is, that the provisions of that section 'shall not extend to crimes committed by one Indian against the person or property of another Indian.' And we think it very clear, that a white man who at mature age is adopted in an Indian tribe does not thereby become an Indian, and was not intended to be embraced in the exception above mentioned. He may by such adoption become entitled to certain privileges in the tribe, and make himself amenable to their laws and usages. Yet he is not an Indian; and the exception is confined to those who by the usages and customs of the Indians are regarded as belonging to their race. It does not speak of members of a tribe, but of the race generally,-of the family of Indians; and it intended to leave them both, as regarded their own tribe, and other tribes also, to be governed by Indian usages and customs. And it would perhaps he found difficult to preserve peace among them, if white men of every description might at pleasure settle among them, and, by procuring an adoption by one of the tribes, throw off all responsibility to the laws of the United States, and claim to be treated by the government and its officers as if they were Indians born. It can hardly be supposed that Congress intended to grant such exemptions, especially to men of that class who are most likely to become Indians by adoption, and who will generally be found the most mischievous and dangerous inhabitants of the Indian country.

It may have been supposed, that the treaty of New Echota, made with the Cherokees in 1835, ought to have some influence upon the construction of this act of Congress, and extend the exception to all the adopted members of the tribe. But there is nothing in the treaty in conflict with the construction we have given to the law. The fifth article of the treaty stipulates, it is true, that the United States will secure to the Cherokee nation the right, by their national councils, to make and carry into effect such laws as they may deem necessary for the government and protection of the persons and property within their own country, belonging to their people, or such persons as have connected themselves with them. But a proviso immediately follows, that such laws shall not be inconsistent with the Constitution of the United States, and such acts of Congress as had been, or might be, passed, regulating trade and intercourse with the Indians. Now the act of Congress under which the prisoner is indicted had been passed but a few months before, and this proviso in the treaty shows that the stipulation above mentioned was not intended or understood to alter in any manner its provisions, or affect its construction. Whatever obligations the prisoner may have taken upon himself by becoming a Cherokee by adoption, his responsibility to the laws of the United States remained unchanged and undiminished. He was still a white man, of the white race, and therefore not within the exception in the act of Congress.

We are, therefore, of opinion, that the matters stated in the plea of the accused do not constitute a valid objection to the jurisdiction of the court, and that, if he is found guilty upon the indictment, he is liable to the punishment provided by the act of Congress before referred to, and is not within the exception in relation to Indians. And we shall direct this opinion to be certified to the Circuit Court, as the answer to the several questions stated in the certificate of division. We abstain from giving a specific answer to each question, because, as we have already said, some of them do not appear to arise out of the case, and, upon questions of that description, we deem it most advisable not to express an opinion.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).