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Circuit Court Opinions:

Associate Justice Peter Vivian Daniel, United States v. Sanders (1847)

Associate Justice Peter Vivian Daniel (1841–1860)

United States v. Sanders, 27 F. Cas. 950 (C.C.D. Ark. 1847) (No. 16,220) [Ninth Circuit]

Sanders was yet another murder case from the Indian Territory that came before Justice Daniel while riding circuit. Once again, the government alleged that an Indian had killed a white person, this time a boy, in the territory. The accused did not deny the offense, instead resting his defense on the proposition that the victim was an Indian rather than a white person. If true, the case would be governed by the provision of the Indian Intercourse Act of 1834 excluding crimes committed by one Indian against another from the jurisdiction of the federal courts.

The act did not define the term Indian, so the court was left to its own devices to determine the issue. After consulting with U.S. District Judge Benjamin Johnson, who sat with him on the case, Daniel stated, “[W]e concur in laying down this rule as the safest: that the child must follow the condition of the mother. If the mother is an Indian woman her offspring must be considered Indians within the meaning of the proviso alluded to, whether the father be a white man or Indian.” This holding aligned with laws determining racial status in states where slavery existed. Daniel left it to the jury to determine whether the victim’s mother was an Indian or not. The case was illustrative of nineteenth-century laws that frequently codified racial distinctions but did not always define racial categories, leaving judges to make difficult and sometimes arbitrary decisions when interpreting and applying the law. Taken together, Alberty, Ragsdale, and Sanders show the prevalence of Indian issues in the Arkansas federal courts of the mid-nineteenth century.