Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Supreme Court's Role in Choctaw and Chickasaw Dispossession*

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Supreme Court's Role in Choctaw and Chickasaw Dispossession*

Article excerpt

The depredation of Indian lands by the U.S. government represents one of the saddest chapters in American historical geography. Through a variety of policies, the United States systematically dispossessed the Indians of their lands, especially during the nineteenth century. The United States accomplished this dispossession most directly through formal treaties. Until the 1870s the federal government negotiated treaties with many tribes, treating them as sovereign nations. As westward settlement progressed, however, the fundamental relationship with the Indians changed. Policy shifted from one of westward removal and spatial segregation onto reservations to one of attempted assimilation and tribal fragmentation. This shift in policy brought about a shift in the manner of dispossession as well, from one of land "swaps" and relocation to one of allotment and outright cessions. As a result, Indians were transformed from sovereign national units to wards in the eyes of the state. Edward Smith, commissioner of Indian affairs, observed the peculiarity of this situation. Noting the treaty relationships with dozens of Indian peoples even as government agencies cared for these very Indians, Smith found this "double condition of sovereignty and wardship" both troubling and absurd (U.S. House of Representatives 1873, 371).

The transition from sovereign people to government wards, and the accompanying dispossession, is evident in the historical geography of many Indian nations (Hilliard 1971; Janke 1982; Wishart 1994; Spence 1999). This dispossession occurred at the hands of white settlers, land agents, the Office of Indian Affairs, and, principally, the U.S. Congress, as many researchers have noted. The Supreme Court, however, assisted significantly in the process, by affirming the "wardship" status of the Indians and by helping Congress obviate the provisions of many treaties. The experience of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations provides a clear example of this, especially in light of the events surrounding the area known as "Greer County." Greer County constituted a portion of the original U.S. cession to the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations in what is now Oklahoma, only to be claimed later by the state of Texas and the U.S. government itself. Greer County's fate turned on two pivotal Supreme Court cases. In the second, the Court ruled against the Indian claim. Although the Choctaw and Chickasaw claim to Greer County may have been debatable given the terms of certain treaties, the case saw the Supreme Court enter the process of Indian dispossession decisively, ultimately furthering the aims of Congress.

THE GREER COUNTY CONTROVERSY

Old Greer County covered about 2,400 square miles in what is now southwestern Oklahoma, between the North and South Forks of the Red River and east of the 100th meridian (Figure 1). The classic dispute over this area involved Texas and the U.S. government. It dated to the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, which defined the entire U.S.-Spanish boundary in the Southwest and West along a line utilizing the Sabine River, the Red River, the 100th meridian, the Arkansas River, and the 42nd parallel, the "whole being as laid down on Melish's Map of the United States" (U.S. Statutes at Large 1846, 8: 256). Although Melish's map proved to be a spectacular addition to American geography, it contained serious flaws with regard to areas of the Great Plains. This was certainly true of the Red River region, where Melish's 100th meridian was displaced to the east of its true location and where he showed but a single channel for the river itself. Rather than clarify the treaty, the map's inclusion actually laid the groundwork for future disputes and court cases (Bowman 1923; Foreman 1924; Glenn 1962; Parker 1973; Clark 1980; Miles 1980; Tyson 1981).

Problems with the boundary, however, did not materialize for several years. Instead, the United States affirmed the line in agreements with Mexico in 1828, with the Republic of Texas in 1838, and with the state of Texas in 1845 and 1850 (U. …

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