Native American Heritage

Record Group 123: Records of the United States Court of Claims

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The National Archives in Washington, DC, houses historical records of the U.S. Court of Claims in Record Group 123.

These records document claims that American Indian and Alaska Native tribes brought against the United States government for unfulfilled treaty promises. The records also include claims that non-Natives brought against tribes for alleged depredations.



Agency Overview

The United States Court of Claims was established by an act of Congress on February 24, 1855 (10 Stat. 612). The Court was charged with hearing claims against the United States brought by claimants under general provisions of law or on referral from Congress or Executive departments. Prior to the Court’s establishment, individuals with monetary claims against the federal government petitioned Congress directly for relief.

Tribal Claims

Until 1946, American Indian and Alaska Native tribes could bring a suit against the federal government in the Court of Claims if Congress passed a special jurisdictional act waiving the United States’ sovereign immunity. Claims had to be for monetary damages for:

  • a Fifth Amendment taking of recognized (or reservation) title to particular lands; or
  • cession of land to the federal government for allegedly inadequate compensation.

By 1946, nearly 200 claims had been filed in the Court of Claims by American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and their representatives under special jurisdictional acts. However, the Court only awarded damages in 29 of these cases. The majority of remaining cases were dismissed on technicalities, leaving many tribes’ claims unresolved.

This situation ultimately led to the establishment of the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) to hear longstanding tribal claims. When the ICC was abolished in 1978, pending cases were transferred back to the Court of Claims.

For more information, see:

Depredation Claims

On March 3, 1891, Congress passed a special act (26 Stat. 851) authorizing the Court of Claims to investigate and render final judgment on depredation claims related to American Indian tribes. Depredation claims were brought by non-Native individuals who alleged that American Indians had taken or destroyed their property. Claims could only be submitted against tribes who had entered into a treaty relationship with the federal government.

Claims had to be filed within three years of the act’s passage to be considered, and claimants had to be U.S. citizens. The U.S. Attorney General was directed to defend the interests of the United States and of Indian tribes in these cases. A subsequent act of January 11, 1915 (38 Stat. 791), allowed the Court to consider depredation cases brought by U.S. “inhabitants” in addition to U.S. citizens. The Court of Claims’ Indian depredation jurisdiction was terminated in 1920 when the last of the claims was decided.

Summary of 26 Stat. 851: 

If the Court of Claims ruled in a claimant’s favor, then the U.S. Treasury was directed to deduct the amount awarded by the Court:

  1. From the tribe’s annuities;
  2. If no annuities were due or available, from other funds set aside for or due to the tribe (e.g., from land sales); or
  3. If no funds were set aside for or due to the tribe, from the Treasury’s general funds.

In the last instance, the amount paid out of Treasury funds was to be deducted from future annuities or funds due to the tribe. Court judgments and awards could be appealed by the claimant, the U.S. government, or the tribe to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Records Overview

The National Archives in Washington, DC, houses historical records of the U.S. Court of Claims in Record Group 123. 

Records Related to Tribal Claims

Claims brought by tribes against the U.S. government are typically found within the following series:

  • “Congressional Jurisdiction Case Files, 1/10/1884–5/19/1943” (National Archives Identifier 2734730)
  • “General Jurisdiction Case Files, 1855–1970” (National Archives Identifier 2733380)

Both series are arranged by case number.

  • Case numbers for the Congressional Jurisdiction Case Files can be obtained by checking Microfilm Publication M2007, U.S. Court of Claims Docket Cards for Congressional Case Files, 1884–1937 (National Archives Identifier 57140081).
  • Case numbers for the General Jurisdiction Case Files can be obtained by checking “General Jurisdiction Dockets, 5/23/1855–4/7/1970” (National Archives Identifier 594766).

Indian Tribal Cases Decided in the Court of Claims of the U.S., Briefed and Compiled to June 30, 1947, compiled and edited by E. B. Smith (2 volumes), serves as another finding aid to these series. A copy of this publication is available in the Archives 1 consultation room.

Records Related to Depredation Claims

Claims brought by non-Natives against tribes for alleged depredations are found within the following series:

  • “Indian Depredation Case Files, 3/5/1891–9/21/1917” (National Archives Identifier 2734773)

This series is arranged by case number. Indexes by claimant name and by tribe are available. Please contact the Archives 1 Reference Branch in Washington, DC, at for copies.