Sacred Ground Additional Resources

Doctrine of Discovery

"Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."             

— Blaise Pascal (1670)

The Doctrine of Discovery is a principle of international law dating from the late 15th century. It has its roots in a papal decree issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452 that specifically sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples. Hundreds of years of decisions and laws continuing right up to our own time can ultimately be traced back to the Doctrine of Discovery—laws that invalidate or ignore the rights, sovereignty, and humanity of indigenous peoples in the United States and around the world.


A series of decrees by Roman Catholic Popes, beginning in 1452, were adopted by European Christian Nations for the purpose of providing legal cover in the colonization/seizure of non-Christian lands, the treatment of non-white indigenous peoples, and the seizure of their lands.


The Doctrine of Discovery was strongly held by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain who financed Columbus' first expedition to America. Pope Alexander VI confirmed their right of possession of all newly discovered lands in the Americas in his Papal Bull "Inter Caetera," issued on May 4, 1493.  The Papal Bull supported Spain’s strategy to ensure its exclusive right to the lands discovered by Columbus the previous year. It established a demarcation line one hundred leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands and assigned Spain the exclusive right to acquire territorial possessions and to trade in all lands west of that line. All others were forbidden to approach the lands west of the line without special license from the rulers of Spain. This effectively gave Spain a monopoly on the lands in the New World.


The Bull stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be "discovered," claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that "the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself."


In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas declared that only non-Christian lands could be colonized under the Doctrine of Discovery.


In 1792, U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson claimed that this European Doctrine of Discovery was international law which would apply equally to dealings the infant U.S. government would have with non-Christian lands.


In 1823, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Johnson v. M'Intosh that the discovery rights of European sovereigns had been transferred to the new United States.  Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in an unanimous decision held "that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands." In essence, American Indians had only a right of occupancy, which could be abolished. He added that the United States had “unequivocally acceded to that great and broad rule” and that “discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title.”


Associate Justice Joseph Story, a Unitarian, (1779-1845) later wrote: "As infidels, heathens, and savages, they [the Indians] were not allowed to possess the prerogatives belonging to absolute, sovereign and independent nations."


The doctrine has continued to be used to support decisions invalidating or ignoring Indigenous peoples possession of land in favor of modern colonial/imperial governments, such as in the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case of Sherrill v. Oneida Nation. The decision has been the subject of a number of law review articles and has come under increased scrutiny by modern legal theorists, and has strongly challenged in Canada.


The Bull Inter Caetera made headlines again throughout the 1990s and in 2000, when many Catholics petitioned Pope John Paul II to formally revoke it and recognize the human rights of indigenous "non-Christian peoples."



In 2009, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church declared the Christian Doctrine of Discover - the dogma that Christian sovereigns and their representative explorers could assert dominion and title over non-Christian lands with the full blessing and sanction of the Church - as evil and opposed to our understanding of the inherent rights all humans and peoples enjoy derived from God.


In 2012, the United Nations described the Doctrine of Discovery "as the foundation of the violation of their (Indigenous people) human rights".


The Unitarian Universalist General Assembly has repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, as has the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Indigenous People of Beaufort County


Earliest Inhabitants


When William Hilton landed in the Lowcountry in 1663, he was greeted by Spanish-speaking Indians from the Yemassee tribe, who had migrated north from Florida 100 years prior. He also encountered the native Escamacus Indians, but little is known of the earlier native civilization that inhabited the Island as far back as 4,000 years ago. Remnants of mysterious shell rings, measuring up to 240 feet across and nine feet high, can still be found on the Island. Yet, like the enigmatic rocks of Stonehenge and the carvings of Easter Island, their secrets remain hidden. Today, you can view these artifacts of Hilton Head Island history at Sea Pines Forest Preserve and on the north end of the Island, off Squire Pope Road in Green Shell Park.


Yemassee Indians 



Current Status – Yemassee Indians

  • Active - in Allendale and as the Yamassee Indian Tribe (The Yamassee Nation) which is not a state nor a federally recognized organization. Others may have formed the Oklevueha Band of Yamassee Seminole in Florida and the Altamaha Yamassee Indians in Georgia.


SC Location, Territory – Yemassee Indians

  • Traditional: Near the mouth of the Savanna River  Beaufort and Jasper counties. Altamaha Town along the Okatie River was the principal settlement.

  • A 1707 state act defined the boundaries of the 'Yamosee Settlement' as being the area from the Combahee River on the north to the Coosaw, Port Royal and Savannah Rivers on the south (The Statutes at Large of South Carolina: Acts from 1682 to 1716, p. 641).


Related SC Names – Yemassee Indians


Population Estimates – Yemassee Indians

  • 1650: 2000 approximately

  • 1715: 1215


History – Yemassee Indians

  • Offended by the Spanish Governor from 1684 to 1685 in their home of Georgia, the Yemassee moved to South Carolina and were given land at the mouth of the Savannah River.

  • 87 warriors fought with the colonists in the Tuscarora War of 1712.

  • Angered by unfair trade practices, slavery and whipping of Indians, and encroachment on their land, the Yemassee and several other Indian tribes rose against the British and killed approximately 100 settlers in 1715. They were defeated by Governor Craven and fled to Florida. The uprising becomes known as the Yemassee War.

White Man's Guilt, By James Baldwin

Click here for pdf document

I have often wondered, and it is not a pleasant wonder, just what white Americans talk about with one another.


I wonder this because they do not, after all, seem to find very much to say to me, and I concluded long ago that they found the color of my skin inhibitory. This color seems to operate as a most disagreeable mirror, and a great deal of one’s energy is expended in reassuring white Americans that they do not see what they say.


This is utterly futile, of course, since they do see what they see. And what they see is an appallingly oppressive and bloody history, known all over the world. What they see is a disastrous, continuing, present, condition which menaces them, and for which they bear an inescapable responsibility. But since, in the main, they seem to lack the energy to change this condition, they would rather not be reminded of it. Does this mean that, in their conversations with one another, they merely make reassuring sounds? It scarcely seems possible, and yet, on the other hand, it seems all too likely. In any case, whatever they bring to one another, it is certainly not freedom from guilt. The guilt remains, more deeply rooted, more securely lodged, than the oldest of old trees.


And to have to deal with such people can be unutterably exhausting, for they, with a really dazzling ingenuity, a tireless agility, are perpetually defending themselves against charges which one, disagreeable mirror though one may be, has not, really, for the moment, made. One does not have to make them. The record is there for all to read. It resounds all over the world. It might as well be written in the sky. One wishes that Americans, white Americans, would read, for their own sakes, this record, and stop defending themselves against it. Only then will they be enabled to change their lives.


The fact that they have not yet been able to do this –– to face their history, to change their lives –- hideously menaces this country. Indeed, it menaces the entire world.


White man, hear me! History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historic creation. Oneself, and attempts to re-create oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating: one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.


But, obviously, I am speaking as an historical creation which has had bitterly to contest its history, to wrestle with it, and finally accept it, in order to bring myself out of it. My point of view certainly is formed by my history, and it is probable that only a creature despised by history finds history a questionable matter. On the other hand, people who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing them selves, or the world.


This is the place in which it seems to me, most white Americans find themselves. Impaled. They are deadly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence. This incoherence is heard nowhere more plainly than in those stammering, terrified dialogs which white Americans sometime entertain with that black conscience, the black man in America. The nature of this stammering can be reduced to a plea: do not blame me. I was not there. I did not do it. My history has nothing to do with Europe or the slave trade. Anyway, it was your chiefs who sold you to me. I was not present on the middle passage. I am not responsible for the textile mills of Manchester, or the cotton fields of Mississippi. Besides, consider how the English, too, suffered in those mills and in those awful cities! I also despise the governors of southern states and the sheriffs of southern counties, and I also want your child to have a decent education and rise as high as his capabilities will permit. I have nothing against you, nothing!


What have you got against me? What do you want? But, on the same day, in another gathering, and in the most private chamber of his heart always, the white American remains proud of that history for which he does not wish to pay, and from which, materially, he has profited so much. 


On the same day, in another gathering, and in the most private chamber of his heart always, the black American finds himself facing the terrible roster of his lost: the dead, black junkie; the defeated, black father; the unutterably weary black mother; the unutterably ruined, black girl. And one begins to suspect an awful thing: that people believe that they deserve their history, and that when they operate on this belief, they perish. But one knows that they can scarcely avoid believing that they deserve it: one’s short time on this earth is very mysterious and very dark and very hard. I have known many black men and women and black boys and girls who really believed that it was better to be white than black, whose lives were ruined or ended by this belief; and I, myself, carried the seeds of this destruction within me for a long time.


Now, if I, as a black man, profoundly believe that I deserve my history and deserve to be treated as I am, then I must also, fatally, believe that white people deserve their history and deserve the power and the glory which their testimony and the evidence of my own senses assured me that they have. And if black people fall into this trap, the trap of believing that they deserve the fate, white people fall into the more stunning and intricate trap of believing that they deserve their fate, and their comparative safety and that black people, therefore, need only do as white people have done to rise to where white people now are. But this simply cannot be said, not only for reasons of politeness or charity, but also because white people carry in them are carefully muffled fear that black people long to do to others what has been done to them. Moreover, the history of white people has led them to a fearful, baffling place where they have begun to lose touch with reality —to lose touch, that is, with themselves –– and where they certainly are not truly happy, for they know they are not truly safe. They do not know how this came about; they do not dare examine how this came about. On the one hand, they can scarcely dare to open a  dialogue which must, if it is honest, become a personal confession –– a cry for help and healing, which is, really, I think, the basis of all dialogs — and, on the other hand, the black man can scarcely dare to open a dialogue which must, if it is honest, become a personal confession which, fatally, contains an accusation. And yet, if neither of us cannot do this, each of us will perish in those traps in which we have been struggling for so long.


The American situation is very peculiar and it may be without precedent in the world. No curtain under heaven is heavier than the curtain of guilt and lies behind which white Americans hide. That curtain may prove to be yet more deadly to the lives of human beings then that Iron Curtain of which we speak so much and know so little. The American curtain is color. Color. White men have use this word, this concept, to justify unspeakable crimes and not only in the past, but in the present. One can measure very neatly the white American’s distance from his conscience—from himself —by observing the distance between White America and Black America. One has only to ask oneself who established this distance, who is this distance designed to protect, and from what is this distance designed to offer protection?


I have seen all this very vividly, for example, in the eyes of southern ;aw enforcement officers barring, let us say, the door to a courthouse. They are they stood, comrades all, invested with the authority of the community, with helmets, with sticks, with guns, with cattle prods. Facing them were unarmed black people—or, more precisely, they were faced by a group of unarmed people arbitrarily called black, whose color really ranged from the Russian steppes to the Golden Horn to Zanzibar. In a moment, because he could resolve the situation in no other way, the sheriff, this deputy,  this honored American citizen, began to club these people down. Some of these people might have been related to him by blood. They are assuredly related to the black mammy of his memory and the black playmates of his childhood. And for a moment, therefore, he seemed nearly to be pleading with the people facing him not to force him to commit yet another crime and not to make yet deeper the ocean of blood in which his conscience was drenched, in which his manhood was perishing. The people did not go away, of course; once a people arise, they never go away (a fact which should be included in the Marine handbook). So the club rose, the blood came down, and his bitterness and his anguish and his guilt were compounded.


And I have seen it in the eyes of rookie cops in Harlem—rookie cops who were really the most terrified people in the world, and who had to pretend to themselves that the black junkie, the black mother, the black father, the black child were of different human species than themselves. The southern sheriff, the rookie cop, could, and, I suspect still can, only deal with their lives and their duties by hiding behind a color curtain—a curtain which, indeed, eventually becomes their principal justification for the lives they lead.


They thus will barricade themselves behind the curtain and continue in their crime, in the great un-admitted crime of what they have done to themselves.


White man, hear me! A man is a man, a woman is a woman, a child is a child. To deny  these facts is to open the doors on a chaos deeper and deadlier, and, within the space of a man’s lifetime, more timeless, more eternal, than the medieval vision of Hell. White man, you have already arrived at this unspeakable blasphemy in order to make money. You cannot endure the things you acquire—the only reason you continually acquire them, like junkies on hundred-dollar-a-day habits—and your money exists mainly on paper. God help you on that day when the population demands to know what is behind that paper. But, even beyond this, it is terrifying to consider the precise nature of the things you have bought with the flesh you have sold—of what you continue to buy with the flesh you continue to sell. To what, precisely, are you headed? To what human product, precisely, are you devoting so much ingenuity, so much energy?


In Henry James’ novel, The Ambassadors, published not long before James’ death, the author recounts the story of a middle-aged New Englander, assigned by his middle-aged bride-to-be, a widow, the task of rescuing from the flesh pots of Paris her only son. She wants him to come home to take over the direction of the family factory. In the event, it is the middle-aged New Englander, The Ambassador, who is seduced, not so much by Paris as by a new and less utilitarian view of life. He counsels the young man to “live, live all you can: it is a mistake not to.” Which I translate as meaning “trust life, and it will teach you, in joy and sorrow, all you need to know.” Jazz musicians know this. The old men and women of Montgomery—those who waved and sang and wept and could not join the marching, but had brought so many of us to the place where we could march—know this. But white Americans do not know this. Barricaded inside their history, they remain trapped in that factory to which, in Henry James’ novel, the son returns. We never know what this factory produces, for James never tells yes. He only conveys to us that the factory, at an unbelievable human expense, produces unnameable objects.

Our Summary of "White Man's Guilt"

Click here for pdf document


History - “we carry it within us ... it is literally present in all that we do.” It frames our references, identities, and aspirations.


Baldwin argues that white Americans “bear an inescapable responsibility” ... [for]  “a disastrous, continuing, present, condition which menaces them ... and menaces the world.”


He asserts that white Americans bear a deeply rooted guilt for this history and are perpetually trying to defend themselves against charges of complicity in a history which they say they don’t see ... and from which they have “profited so much.”


In this regard, white Americans are said to be “impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin ... incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.”


Whites know they’re history is a lie but can’t deal with it “Don’t blame me. I wasn’t there. Anyway, it was your chiefs who sold you. Yes, I want your children to get a good education and have opportunities.” They plead with Black Americans not to blame them.


Baldwin argues that when people come to believe that they deserve their history... or their fate, they perish ... whether Black or White.


White Americans are said to be hiding behind a curtain of color. Color - a concept they use “to justify unspeakable crimes and not only in the past, but in the present. 


Baldwin warns that “once a people arise, they never go away.”


“Barricaded within their history,” living in denial, white Americans are both unable to communicate with Black Americans and unable to “live ... and trust life.” 


What does James Baldwin try to tell white Americans about history and denial?