Papal Doctrine Displaced Native Americans


When you buy a house or other real estate, you do a professional title search to make sure no one can claim to own the property or have a lien on it. In this part of Florida, title dates back to the Arredondo grant granted by the King of Spain in 1817 to a Havana merchant and his son.

How did the King of Spain acquire valid title to land in Alachua and neighboring counties, where the people of Creek and Seminole then lived?

The answer is the Doctrine of Discovery. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI, the famous Borgia Pope, partitioned the Americas, Africa and Asia between Spain and Portugal on the grounds that their navigators had discovered the Western Hemisphere and sub-Saharan Africa.

An earlier papal decree, Romanus Pontifex, issued and reissued by several of his predecessors, had established the right of the King of Portugal “to invade, seek out, capture, conquer and subjugate all Saracens (i.e. say the Muslims) and heathens whatsoever. , and all dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable property whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to enforce and appropriate to himself and his successors kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and merchandise.”

Together, these documents gave European Christians exclusive rights to the land and resources of the rest of the world. They were a charter to enslave and exploit the peoples of Africa, Asia and America.

We could dismiss them as historical curiosities, except that Chief Justice John Marshall invoked both papal documents in a unanimous Supreme Court decision in 1823 that established the right of the United States to dispose of lands occupied by tribes. Native Americans and the people themselves. Marshall argued that the Doctrine of Discovery gave European nations an absolute right to lands in the New World which they ceded to the United States by treaty.

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in a unanimous Supreme Court decision in 2005 that, “Under the doctrine of discovery title to the lands occupied by the Indians when the settlers arrived, it became vested in the sovereign – d first the discovered European nations and later the home states and the United States.”

Not all Americans agreed with this development. Writing shortly after America’s struggle to free itself from Britain, a patriot from South Carolina would not acknowledge any claims of European monarchs on our soil. Dr. David Ramsay began his “History of the American Revolution” (1789) with the Doctrine of Discovery and the Papal Reward to the King of Spain.

“This grant was not because the country was uninhabited, but because the nations existing therein were infidels; and therefore, in the opinion of the infallible donor, had no right to possession of the territory in which their Creator had placed them,” he wrote.

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Ramsay argued that “no European prince could derive a title to the soil of discovery, for that can give a right only to lands and things which have never been possessed or possessed, or which, after having been possessed and possessed, have been willfully abandoned.”

He insisted that “the right of the Indian nations to the land in their possession was based on nature…and such that no outsider could legitimately nullify it”.

The idea that sovereignty over North America belonged to the King of England or the King of Spain, who transferred their right to the United States by treaty, was too seductive to discard. Following precedent set in earlier cases and appealing to international law, the Supreme Court determined in 1835 that the concession of the King of Spain to the Arredondos was valid.

The Seminoles who had lived and farmed in Alachua County had already been driven from their homes under the Treaty of Moultrie Creek (1823) and would soon be sent on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma under the Indian Removal Act (1830) and Payne’s Landing Treaty (1832).

A map of Native American tribes before the Indian Removal Act

The first groups of enslaved Africans were already on the march from South Carolina. This is the story embedded in the title of your property and mine.

In recent years, many Americans and Canadians have come to the conclusion that David Ramsay came to long ago and recognized the Doctrine of Discovery as the foundational document for centuries of evil. This gave our government the right to abrogate treaties and displace tribes from their productive or mineral-rich lands and confine them to barren reservations. This was the basis for removing children from their families and their language and culture in Indian schools.

We cannot rewrite history. How can we make amends?

Richard MacMaster is a retired history teacher who lives in Gainesville.

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