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Winters v. United States

Water For The Pursuit Of "civilization"

In 1874, the U.S. government withdrew from settlement a large area of the future state of Montana for the exclusive use of the Gros Ventre, Piegan, Blood, Blackfeet, and River Crow Indians. However, as the U.S. population continued to push westward, the United States negotiated an agreement in 1888 with the tribes to transfer much of the land back to the United States to promote settlement of the area. As part of the agreement, Congress retained a small part of the formerly withdrawn lands specifically for the Gros Ventre and Assiniboing tribes, called the Fort Belknap Native Reservation. The lands relinquished by the tribes returned to the public domain and became available to settlers through the various land laws.

Much of the new reservation was suitable to pasture, feed and graze large numbers of cattle and horses and other portions were suitable for farming and cultivation. But large quantities of water were needed for irrigation to make them productive. In 1889 the United States constructed houses and buildings on the reservation for its officers in charge and appropriated a small amount of water from the Milk River which formed the reservation's northern boundary. The water was used for domestic use and irrigation to raise crops including grain, grass, and vegetables.

Almost a decade later in 1898, the Fort Belknap Natives diverted a much larger flow to water about 30,000 acres of land to raise crops. The Native Americans needed the waters to stabilize their rural economy and continue their pursuit of "civilization" under federal guidance.

Meanwhile, Henry Winters and the stockholders of the Matheson Ditch Company and Cook's Irrigation Company acquired lands upstream from the reservation under the Homestead and Desert Land Acts. The Empire Cattle Company soon purchased the lands. Shortly before the Belknap Indians began diverting Milk River waters, the settlers posted various signs along the river and its tributaries at the points of intended diversion containing notices of appropriation, describing the proposed means of diversion, and where the water was to be used. Forty days after posting the notices, Winters and the others built numerous dams, reservoirs, and ditches upstream from the reservation to divert Milk River waters from the river channel for their use.

The United States filed suit in federal district court to restrain Winters and the cattle company from diverting water out of Milk River above the reservation. Winters claimed their rights to the Milk River waters and its tributaries were established prior to the river use by the United States and the Natives. Winters also asserted that the Native Americans and the United States could obtain sufficient water from a large number of springs and several streams on the reservation. Winters argued the river waters were indispensable. If use of the waters was blocked, their land's productivity would be ruined. The loss would compel the settlers to abandon their homes and a substantial and irreparable damage would have been inflicted. Though the amount of damages could not be estimated, Winters asserted it would greatly exceed $100,000.

The district court ruled in favor of the United States, and an appeals court affirmed the decision. Winters then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Winters v. United States - Significance, Water For The Pursuit Of "civilization", A Special Right, Impact, Reservation Populations