Focal Case Summary US v. Winans

Mariya Gluzman

Case Summary

In 1855, the US signed a treaty with 14 Native American tribes creating the Yakama Nation. While the Treaty had the tribes give up over 11 million acres of their lands to the US government, the new reservation that it created was designed to protect the Yakama Nation’s residents’ ancestral rights to fish and hunt on their formerly held lands.

Just one year after the State of Washington was formed, the Winans brothers, residents of the State of Washington, received a permit from their state to use fish wheels on their property along the Columbia River. These devices would allow them to catch very large amounts of salmon upriver, thus significantly depleting the amount of fish available elsewhere down the river.

The Solicitor General for the United States argued that any patent issued by the State of Washington must abide by all applicable previous agreements between the US and other parties, such as the Yakama Treaty. By installing much more efficient fishing devices, Winans effectively prevented the Indians from enjoying their right to fish in the Columbia River.

Justice McKenna delivered the court’s majority opinion, affirming that no state patent or license could be granted that would strip Yakama Nation Indians of their right to fish and hunt on certain territories. McKenna argued that while the Treaty did not grant Yakama Nation members any new rights, it recognized their existing rights to hunt and fish on their ancestral lands and provided reasonable protection of those rights, even if it meant that the Indians would have to trespass on private property to do so.


At the heart of this case is a question of how to interpret the various treaties and agreements the US government signed with Native American nations in such a way as to not impose a hardship on US citizens while at the same time honoring the reserved ancestral rights of American Indians. The numerous ideological and technological differences between the white settlers and the Native peoples often created serious obstacles to resolving matters in a way that would be fair to all parties.

In his opinions, Justice McKenna cites several other cases, such as Worcester v Georgia (visit for more information), Fletcher v. Peck (visit, and several others as guides to interpreting US treaties with Native Americans.


United States v. Winans, 198 U.S. 371. (n.d.). Casetext: Smarter Legal Research. Retrieved February 14, 2023, from

United States v. Winans, 198 U.S. 371 (1905). (n.d.). Justia Law. Retrieved February 14, 2023, from

United States v. Winans. (n.d.). LexisNexis Law School Case Brief. Retrieved February 14, 2023, from


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Focal Case Summary US v. Winans Copyright © by Mariya Gluzman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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