Opinion: Doctrine of Discovery alive in modern times

"Planting a flag or burying brandy isn't enough these days to guarantee possession -- international treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea are invoked. But historically, staking a physical claim is the first rule of the discovery doctrine. Spanish, Portuguese and, later, English and French explorers engaged in all sorts of rituals on encountering new lands: hoisting the flag, displaying the Christian cross and leaving evidence to prove who was there first.

In 1776-78, for example, Capt. James Cook established English claims to British Columbia by burying bottles of English coins in several locations. In 1774, he erased Spanish marks of possession in Tahiti and replaced them with English ones. On learning of this, Spain dispatched explorers to restore its claim. Nearly 40 years earlier, in 1742-49, French military expeditions buried lead plates along the Ohio River. The plates stated that they were "a renewal of possession" that dated from 1643.

Americans also staked their claims. The Lewis and Clark expedition marked and branded trees and rocks in the Pacific Northwest to prove the American presence and claim to the region. It also left a document at Ft. Clatsop, at the mouth of the Columbia River, in March 1806, and gave copies to Indians to deliver to whites who might arrive later to prove the U.S. claim to the Northwest. As the document stated, it was posted and circulated so that "through the medium of some civilized person . . . it may be made known to the informed world" that Lewis and Clark had secured land rights all the way to the Pacific Ocean on behalf of the U.S. government.

A decade later, as the U.S. and England argued about dueling discovery claims to the Pacific Northwest, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and President James Monroe ordered American officials back to the Columbia "to reassert the title of the United States." In August 1818, Capt. James Biddle performed a textbook discovery ritual: In the presence of Chinook Indians on the north side of the Columbia River, he raised the U.S. flag, turned the soil with a shovel and nailed up a lead plate inscribed: "Taken possession of, in the name and on the behalf of the United States by Captain James Biddle." He repeated the performance on the south shore of the Columbia, with a wooden sign declaring American ownership of the region."

Get the Story:
Robert J. Miller: Finders keepers in the Arctic? (The Los Angeles Times 8/6)

Related Stories
Opinion: Half-hearted apology from Pope Benedict (5/24)
Jodi Rave: Doctrine of Discovery and Indians (4/11)
Opinion: US owes Indians billions for theft (3/14)
Robert Miller: Lewis and Clark depended on Indians (5/10)