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In December 1829, President Andrew Jackson announced his Indian removal proposal in an address to the U.S. Congress. 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 developed out of Georgia’s attempt to assert its jurisdiction over Cherokee land within the state that was protected by federal treaty. In the first case, 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 domestic, dependent nation” (in other words, 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.

The Georgia Legislature meanwhile had 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 settled and 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 tried, convicted, and sentenced to four years of hard labor. Worcester and the other missionaries appealed their convictions to the U.S. Supreme Court.