Purchase and/or Conquest

Eric Foner

  • How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier by Stuart Banner
    Harvard, 344 pp, £18.95, November 2005, ISBN 0 674 01871 0

‘They fell upon their own knees, and then upon the Aborigines.’ The old quip about the Puritans who settled colonial New England offers a succinct and not inaccurate summary of white-Indian relations in the United States. Despite the twists and turns of official policy – from Thomas Jefferson’s efforts to assimilate Indians by teaching them to farm (even though they had been doing so for centuries), to Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal, Grant’s ‘peace policy’ and Roosevelt’s Indian New Deal – the fact is that whites from the outset coveted Indian land and eventually succeeded in acquiring almost all of it, sweeping aside periodic resistance with brutally effective violence.

Stuart Banner, a law professor, does not deny that between the early 17th century and the end of the 19th, nearly the entire land area of the United States was transferred from Indian to non-Indian ownership. But in How the Indians Lost Their Land, he offers an avowedly revisionist account of the way this happened. Previous scholars, he claims, have overemphasised the direct seizure of Indian land, failing to recognise that the process of acquisition proceeded mainly through legal forms: namely, purchase by individuals, groups or governments, and the signing of treaties between Indians and the United States. Banner criticises traditional accounts for denying that Indians had their own concept of private property and were tricked into selling land, and for maintaining that whites believed the native inhabitants had no real claim to land ownership. Actually, Banner insists, there were strong reasons to purchase the land and not simply to seize it. The early settlers lacked the power to dispossess the Indian population, and throughout the colonial era, with the French competing with the English for Indian loyalty, wholesale expropriation would have been politically counterproductive.

Indeed, Banner argues, colonial governments and authorities in London generally tried to prevent settler intrusion onto Indian land before it had been purchased. This policy culminated in the Proclamation of 1763, which declared the entire continent west of the Appalachian mountains off-limits to white settlers. Of course, settlers ignored the Proclamation, as did land speculators like George Washington, who instructed his agents to buy as much Indian land in the west as possible while keeping ‘this whole matter a profound secret’ because of its illegality. But Banner’s point is that government officials were committed to dealing with Indians in a legal, orderly manner. Even speculators like Washington paid Indians for their land.

Banner is hardly unaware of the violence that underlay Indian-white relations. But he insists that the transfer of land was neither wholly coerced nor wholly voluntary. It embodied elements of both in a combination that evolved over time. In the early days of settlement, Indians sold land in order to cement alliances with European powers and to obtain manufactured goods that only settlers could provide. Especially after epidemics caused by contact with European diseases led to a disastrous population decline, Indians owned more land than they could possibly use, so selling some of it made sense.

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