Doctrine of Discovery from Eclectic Reel
image credit:
Doctrine of Discovery from Eclectic Reel

“…invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans…to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery and to take away all their possessions and property.” 1452 from Pope Nicholas V to King Alfonso V of Portugal.

Europeans in the 1400s were focused on creating a Christian Kingdom—Christendom—that would be ruled by the Pope in Rome and backed by Christian Kings and Queens.  At this time, Christianity was organized into a hierarchy where the Pope and Monarchs were above all other living beings in the world.  In following with this practice a series of Popes instructed their subjects to take whatever riches they could from non-Christian people.  This issued in the Age of Discovery.

The “Doctrine of Discovery” originated with Papal Bulls (letters from the Pope) issued in the late 1400s. In particular, two bulls from 1452 and 1493 (written only a few short months after Columbus’ return to Spain), authorized the Kings of Portugal and Spain to exploit Africa and the Americas for slaves and lands to enrich the Catholic Church.  The Jesuits that came to Onondaga Lake in the 1650s to convert the Onondaga Nation were acting both as missionaries for the Catholic Church (headed by the Pope) and the colonial government of France (headed by the King).

The Doctrine of Discovery justified the taking of land from Native Americans long after the colonial era and during the early formation of the United States. Writing in 1823 for the Supreme Court ruling in Johnson v. McIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall said the doctrine meant that “unoccupied lands” were those “lands occupied by Indians, but unoccupied by Christians.”  The concept of owning land, in United States’ property law, rests on the “Doctrine of Discovery.”  Since then the “Doctrine of Discovery” has been regularly cited by legal scholars and in court decisions including the Supreme Court decision Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation (March 29, 2005).