In Worcester v. Georgia presented before the Supreme Court in 1832, Chief Justice John Marshall determined that the Cherokee nation, as a distinct community, was empowered to exercise sovereign control over its internal affairs within the limits of its territory. According to the ruling, the U.S. federal government was duty bound to protect the Cherokee Indians from Georgia's violation of their treaty rights and from the interference of the state in their internal issues.
During the 1820s, the Cherokees held land in Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee. In 1823, at the core of the Cherokees' crusade against removal from the Southeast, Cherokee leaders addressed President James Monroe to "remind him that the Cherokee are not foreigners but original inhabitants of America, and that they inhabit and stand on the soil of their own territory" (Vogel, 1972, 106). Recognition of Cherokee sovereignty and land rights by the federal government represented their strongest defense against removal.
By adopting their own constitution in 1827, the Cherokees rejected Georgia's jurisdiction. The state responded in December 1828, with an act by which it unilaterally extended its laws over the Cherokee people and nullified Cherokee legislation from June 1, 1830, onward. In answer to what they considered an infringement of their sovereignty, John Ross and three Cherokee representatives addressed a memorial to Congress on February 27, 1829, by which they declared, "the Cherokee are not prepared to submit to Georgia's persecuting edict. They would therefore . . . appeal to the United States government for justice and protection" (Ross, 1829).
To prevent non-Indians from aiding the Cherokee in their resistance against removal, Georgia passed an act in December 1830, whereby "all white persons residing in the Cherokee nation on the first day of March next  without a license or permit from his Excellency, the governor, . . . and who shall not have taken the oath herein after required shall be guilty of a high misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary at hard labor, for a term not less than four years" (History of the Presbyterian Church in the Cherokee Nation, n.d., 84–85).
The missionaries who resided in the Cherokee nation were the primary targets of the Act. In 1825, Reverend Samuel Worcester started his service with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to the Cherokees at the Brainerd mission in Tennessee. He was transferred to New Echota, the capital of the Cherokee nation, in November 1827. Despite the new legislation, Worcester did not leave the Cherokee nation and refused to take the oath of allegiance to the state of Georgia. As a consequence, on March 12, 1831, Reverends Worcester, Thompson, and Proctor were arrested and presented to Judge Augustin Clayton in the Court of Gwinnett County. Clayton released the missionaries because he believed they were under the protection of the United States as agents of the government. Samuel Worcester benefited more clearly than the others from this status as a postmaster in New Echota.
Upon the request of Governor George Gilmer of Georgia, Secretary of War John Eaton denied the missionaries the status of agents of the government (McLoughlin, 1984, 259–260). In a letter dated May 16, 1831, Gilmer informed Samuel Worcester of his dismissal as a postmaster. In July 1831, the Georgia Guard arrested eleven missionaries, and they were sentenced to hard labor on September 16, 1831. Unlike most of their colleagues who surrendered to the state's law by either moving out of Georgia or taking the oath of allegiance, Samuel Worcester and Elizur Butler stood firm in their original position until the case eventually reached the Supreme Court in January 1832.
Chief Justice John Marshall pointed out that the constitutional power to deal with the Indians resided with the federal government alone, thus affirming the United States' recognition of Native peoples' sovereignty. The treaties signed between the Cherokee nation and the U.S. government demonstrated the political autonomy of the Cherokee people. Consequently, Georgia had no authority to nullify Cherokee laws or to interfere in the regulation of the dealings between American citizens and the Cherokees within the Cherokee nation. As such, Georgia was not entitled to forbid or restrain by means of a license Samuel Worcester's and the other missionaries' presence in the Cherokee nation, since the Cherokees allowed the missionaries to reside in their territory.
On March 3, 1832, Chief Justice John Marshall concluded: "The Cherokee nation is a distinct community, occupying its own territory, with boundaries accurately described, in which the laws of Georgia have no force. . . . It is the opinion of this court that the judgment of the superior court of the county of Gwinnett, in the state of Georgia, condemning Samuel A. Worcester to hard labor, in the penitentiary of the state of Georgia, for four years, was pronounced by that court under color of a law which is void, as being repugnant to the constitution, treaties and laws of the United States, and ought, therefore, to be reversed and annulled" (Getches, 1998, 120–121).
Governor Lumpkin of Georgia did not enforce Marshall's judgment immediately. In his 1832 annual message, Lumpkin condemned the decision of the Supreme Court as "Federal usurpation . . . intending to prostrate the sovereignty of this State." In addition, the governor announced the continuation of his plan "to ensure a speedy settlement of the unoccupied lands in Cherokee Country" (Lumpkin, 1907, 104, 106). Samuel Worcester and Elizur Butler were finally released in January 1833, but Georgia continued with the implementation of removal. The Cherokees' forced removal from Georgia to the Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma was achieved from 1835 through 1838.
Although Worcester v. Georgia did not thwart Georgia's removal of the Cherokees, it has served as a cornerstone in the deliberations about Indian peoples' self-government from the 1830s to the present. Marshall's decision marked clearly the limits of the states' jurisdiction and the role of the federal government as a guardian of Indian sovereignty. The case is still cited to preserve Indian nations from unconstitutional intrusions of individual states in their internal affairs.
History of the Presbyterian Church in the Cherokee Nation. No date. Unpublished typescript. Arthur W. Evans Collection. Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma.; Getches, David H., Charles F. Wilkinson, and Robert A. Williams, Jr. 1998. Cases and Materials on Federal Indian Law, 4th ed. American Casebook Series. St. Paul, MN: West.; Lumpkin, Wilson. 1907. The Removal of the Cherokee Indians from Georgia. 2 volumes. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company.; McLoughlin, William G. 1984. Cherokees and Missionaries 1789–1839. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.; Memorial of John Ross to the Honorable The Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress Assembled (1829)", published in Niles Weekly Register, Baltimore, August 7, 1830, number 24, volume 2; Vogel, Virgil J., ed. 1972. This Country Was Ours, A Documentary History of the American Indian. New York : Harper & Row.