Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ILTF)

Research Guide
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As businessmen, politicians, and landowners, US treaty signers were involved in hundreds of court cases, from local to federal levels. They were defense attourneys and prosecutors for the state, judges and justices of the peace, and often-agressive litigants in court cases. Treaty signers also included many slaveholders who were named in “freedom suits” by which enslaved people attempted to gain their emancipation.

John F. A. Sanford, litigant in the Dred Scott case.Supreme Court cases involving US treaty signers

Many court cases involving treaty signers were litigated before State and Territorial Supreme Courts, and some of these cases reached the US Supreme Court. Twenty US supreme court cases that involved US treaty signers are listed here. (This is by no means an exhaustive list.) These cases, usually related to property, slaveholding and disputes stemming from the aftermath of treaty making, include some of the most significant Supreme Court decisions in history.

Supreme Court Justices

When the US organized a territory, a supreme court was appointed by the President. Territorial Supreme Court Justices held extensive power, effectively establishing all the laws in the territory until a legislature was created. With the admission of territories as states, permanent Supreme Courts were established, comprised in some places by elected officials and in other places by appointees. More than 25 US treaty signers held seats on the Supreme Courts of US territories and states.

Freedom Suits

Before the Civil War, enslaved people in some parts of the country could petition the courts for their freedom. These cases were especially prevalent in Missouri and Washington, D.C., the two places that were also the most frequent sites of treaty signing. Consequently, US treaty signers are among the slaveholders named in these suits.

Supreme Court Cases Involving US Treaty Signers

Johnson & Graham's Lessee v. McIntosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823)

Johnson v. M’Intosh is one of the pillars of property law in the United States. In his majority opinion for this case, John Marshall set forth the infamous “Doctrine of Discovery” as a foundation for land titles in the US. The Johnson named in the title of the case was a partner in the Illinois Wabash Company, which had purchased land in present-day Illinois just prior to the Revolution. Though not named in the case, treaty signer Robert Morris – an inveterate land speculator – was an investor in the Illinois Wabash Company in its early years.

Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515 (1832)

In 1831, a missionary named Samuel Worcester was arrested by Georgia authorities for living among the Cherokee without a state license. (In 1830 Worcester had signed the infamous Choctaw Treaty at Dancing Rabbit Creek). This case and Johnson v. M’Intosh (above) are two of the three “Marshall Trilogy” decisions that profoundly shaped US-Indian relations.

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856)

By declaring that all restrictions on slavery were unconstitutional, the infamous Dred Scott case turned the entire United States into a slave state. A number of treaty signers were involved in the Dred Scott story. The Sanford referred to in the title was treaty signer John F. A. Sanford, (pictured above) who claimed to own Dred and Harriet (Robinson) Scott. Sanford had acquired the Scotts from his sister, who was married to treaty signer John Emerson. Another brother-in-law of Emerson, treaty signer Henry Bainbridge, had leased Dred Scott’s labor for three years in Missouri. Treaty signer Lawrence Taliaferro had owned Harriet Robinson, and officiated at her marriage to Dred Scott. And treaty signer Henry Sheffie Geyer was Sanford’s attorney before the Supreme Court.

For a fuller overview of this case, see "Missouri's Dred Scott Case" (Missouri State Archives website), here.

Fletcher v. Peck, 10 U.S. 87 (1810)

In the Yazoo Land Fraud of the late 1700’s, the Georgia legislature sold millions of acres – much of the current State of Mississippi – to four corporations. Virtually every legislator was bribed to authorize the sale. The political fallout of this sale was so great that the sales were cancelled by the next legislature, but much of the land had been resold to smaller-scale land owners. The resulting legal battle over land titles culminated in the US Supreme Court case of Fletcher v. Peck; the Court ruled that the original sale was valid. No individual land owners are mentioned in Fletcher v. Peck, but many treaty signers were involved in the Yazoo Land Fraud. Treaty signer George Walton was a governor of Georgia during the scandal and approved the sale. Other treaty signers who invested in the Yazoo lands included William Hull, Robert Morris, Oliver Phelps, John Smith T., William Blount, and William Constable

Brown v. Gilman, 17 U.S. 255 (1819)

This US Supreme Court case, related to the Yazoo Land Fraud, does mention a treaty signer by name: William Hull, the former Governor of Michigan Territory, who purchased some of the 11,000,000 acres claimed by the New England Land Company.

Forsyth v. Reynolds, 56 U.S. 15 How. 358 358 (1853)

This case involved the title to land in Peoria, Illinois. The litigants referred to in the title of the decision were treaty signer John Reynolds, the former Illinois Senator and US Representative; and two sons of treaty signer Thomas Forsyth. Treaty signers John L. Bogardus and Jacques Mette were also named in the suit.

Pine River Logging Co. v. United States, 186 U.S. 279 (1902)

Treaty signer Joel Bassett was an Indian agent and timber baron in Minnesota. In 1889, he illegally harvested 17 million board-feet of lumber from the White Earth Reservation. Years later, Bassett and his partners were sued for damages by the federal government and lost their appeal to the Supreme Court.

Smith T. v. Honey, 28 U.S. 469 (1830)

In 1827, treaty signer John Honey sued treaty signer John Smith T. for infringing on a patent for a device that sorted lead shot, and was awarded $100 in Missouri courts. The highly litigious Smith T. appealed the case to the US Supreme Court.

Pendleton & Webb v. Wambersie, 8 U.S. 73 (1807)

In 1786, treaty signer James Seagrove and several partners purchased 185,000 acres of land in Georgia. One of the partners sold his share in the enterprise to someone who then transferred the share to a man named Wambersie. The partnership then sold 60,000 acres of the land to a company in Holland, without paying Wambersie his share. The Supreme Court ruled that Wambersie could demand information on the sale. 

Ex Parte Bollman and Ex Parte Swartwout, 8 U.S. 75 (1807)

Treaty signer Samuel Swartwout was arrested in the roundup of co-conspirators who were involved in the Aaron Burr scandal. He was released by the Supreme Court in an 1807 case that included testimony from treaty signers James Wilkinson and William Eaton.

Long v. O'Fallon, 60 U.S. 116 (1856)

This Supreme Court case dealt with the conveyance of property titles that were complicated by mortgages, wills, land transfers to meet debts and other matters. The case lists a long chain of claims to parcels of land in Missouri; the owners at various times included treaty signers Alexander McNair and John O’Fallon.

Gilfillan v. McKee, 159 U.S. 303 (1895)

Before the Civil War, the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations hired lawyer John T. Chocrane to help them settle millions of dollars in claims against the US federal government. Cochrane was to be paid one third of the eventual settlement, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The distribution of Chochrane’s payment, however, was complicated by the Chickasaw’s alliance with the Confederacy during the Civil War; by Cochrane’s hiring of other lawyers who made claims to his fees; and by Chochrane’s death before the settlement was made, which brought his heirs into the dispute over money. Several cases related to this dispute reached the Supreme Court. Treaty signers John Cochrane, John B. Luce and John H. B. Latrobe are mentioned in Gilfillan v. McKee.

McKee v. Latrobe, 159 U.S. 327 (1895)

Treaty signers John T. Cochrane and John H. B. Latrobe are also important players in this Supreme Court case, related to the Chickasaw and Choctaw legal payments mentioned above.

United States v. Segui, 35 U.S. 10 Pet. 306 306 (1836)

The family of treaty signer Bernard Segui received a grant of thousands of acres in Florida from the Spanish government, before the area became part of the US. This Supreme Court case was related to the validity of the Segui family’s claim to the land in the US property system.

Fitzsimmons and Others v. Ogden & Others (February 4, 1812)

In the late 1700s treaty signer Robert Morris purchased millions of acres in western New York. He sold most of it to the Holland Land Company but retained half a million acres for himself. As with many of his ventures, the results of Morris’ speculation in New York resulted in litigation, and he is the central figure in the case of Fitzsimmons & Others v. Ogden & Others.

Pratt v. Law & Campbell, 13 U.S. 456 (1815)

Lee v. Munroe & Thornton, 11 U.S. 366 (1813)

Campbell v. Pratt, 18 U.S. 429 (1820)

These three Supreme Court cases related to the purchase and sale of 7,000 lots in Washington, D.C. by treaty signer Robert Morris.

Meigs v. McClung's Lessee, 13 U.S. 11 (1815)

This Supreme Court case related to the location of a US land claim established by treaty with the Cherokee nation in 1805. Treaty signers Return J. Meigs, Jr. (who conducted the original survey for the US) and Daniel Smith were commissioners for the treaty and a letter from them is quoted in the proceedings.

McArthur v. Browder, 17 U.S. 488 (1819)

Treaty signer Duncan McArthur entered into a dispute with a Revolutionary War soldier who claimed a military bounty of land that was also claimed by McArthur.

State and Territorial Supreme Court Justices

Dakota Territory

G. C. Moody

Michigan Territory

John Griffin

Solomon Sibley

James Witherell

A. B. Woodward

Montana Territory

Hezekiah Hosmer

Utah Territory

John Kinney

State of Alabama

C. C. Clay

State of Arkansas

G. W. Paschal

State of Georgia

George Walton

State of Illinois

John Reynolds

State of Iowa

John Kinney 

State of Kansas

Thomas Ewing, Jr.

State of Kentucky

Ninian Edwards

State of Maine

Albion Parris

State of Missouri

John Rice Jones

Robert Wash

State of New Jersey

Isaac Smith

State of New York

Egbert Benson

Richard Morris

Robert Yates

State of New York Chancellor

Reuben H. Walworth

State of New Hampshire

Samuel Bell

State of New Jersey

Mahlon Dickerson 

State of Pennsylvania

G. W. Woodward

State of Tennessee

Andrew Jackson

US Signers Named In Freedom Suits By Enslaved People - St. Louis, MO

Suit #
Slave and Slaveholder(s)
April, 1821
205 (7)(16)
Marie v. Auguste P. Chouteau

February, 1824
60 (18)
Ellen Chevalier (deceased) v. Pierre Chouteau
July, 1825
25 (32)
Marguerite v. Pierre Chouteau, Sr.

March, 1827
29 (20)(40)
Francois La Grange alias Isadore v. B. Pratt and Chouteau
July, 1827
6 (41)
Theotiste (Catiche) v. Pierre Chouteau Jr. / C.J. Hempstead
July, 1830
41 (35)(62)
Nicholas Jones v. John W. Honey and John H. Gay

Feb. 11, 1834
Charles v. Pierre Chouteau
July 16, 1835
Sally v. Henry Chouteau

Nov. 20, 1839
167 (86)(139)
Polly Wash v. Joseph McMegahan (R. Wash and T. Berry)
November, 1835
63 (116)
Agnes alias Agathe v. Pierre Menard
March, 1837
43 (126)
Andrew by Judy v. John B. Sarpy
July 11, 1837
Celeste v. Alexander Papin
July 11, 1837
Celestine v. Alexander Papin
July 27, 1842
Mary v. (John) Dougherty and Curle
Sep. 8, 1842
18 (102)(166)
Lucy Ann Britton v. David D. Mitchell

Nov., 1842
125 (103)(167)
Pierre v. Gabriel Chouteau
April, 1844
51 (106)(170)
Louis Chouteau v. Gabriel S. Chouteau
May 24, 1845
Mary Charlotte v. Gabriel Chouteau
Nov. 18, 1844
Jim Brown v. William Head

Nov. 18, 1844
Mary Brown v. William Head
Nov. 18, 1844
Stephen Brown v. William Head
May 24, 1845
Mary Charlotte v. Gabriel Chouteau
April 6, 1846
Dred Scott v. Irene (John) Emerson
April 6, 1846
Harriett Scott v. Irene (John) Emerson
Dec. 11, 1846
Michael v. Adolph Paul adm. of Gabriel Paul

US Signers Named In Freedom Suits By Enslaved People - Washington, D.C.

Slave and Slaveholder(s)
Feb. 4, 1809
Susan Davis and Airy Davis v. Caleb Swann
April 15, 1843
Fredric Mortimer v. Hudson M. Garland
Sandy Weaver v. George Bomford

Source: Gateway Arch National Park website, Suits for Freedom, St. Louis, 1804-1865

Source: O Say Can You See: Early Washington D.C. Law and Family. "Cases". Accessed January 7, 2020.