- The Settlers’ Empire Colonialism and State Formation in America’s Old Northwest by Bethel Saler
When the United States won its independence in 1783, the new nation became a postcolonial republic. At the same time, however, the independent country also became a settler empire as it claimed a huge territory in the trans-Appalachian West, a territory already occupied by Native Americans and newly-orphaned creole colonial subjects. As the United States developed its identity as a nation-state, this huge domestic empire—and the process of incorporating it—became a crucial aspect of early American nation-building. This was a complicated and interesting process. On the one hand, of course, state formation in the Northwest was a matter of building formal political institutions and governments. But as Bethel Saler shows, state formation was also a cultural process focused on establishing community, creating boundaries, inventing categories of inclusion and exclusion, and even writing history. In the contested landscapes of the Northwest, moreover, many actors participated in these processes, resisting, accommodating, and shaping the formation of the [End Page 83] American state. The Settlers’ Empire is a fresh new take on state formation in the Midwest, reconsidering early American expansion through the lens of gender and race, and from the standpoint of diverse actors, including especially Native Americans.
Saler’s analysis begins with a fresh premise: like other “second world” nations, the newly independent United States became a republic at the same time as it began subjecting others in a new domestic empire (2). This made for a distinctive kind of imperialism. For Saler, the key characteristics of this imperial process were the subjection of native peoples, along with the attempted imposition of cultural practices—patriarchy, Christianity, racial exclusivity, a certain kind of economic life—as cornerstones of an emerging national community. But as a generation of scholarship on empire has made clear, imperial political culture was always contested and contingent, and a motley cast of characters resisted and participated in the new imperial state in diverse ways.
Saler’s story begins with a new look at the invention of the Northwest’s governing institutions and apparatus in the period before the War of 1812. Focusing first on the lower Ohio Valley, Saler narrates the incorporation of this land and its diverse people into the new federal system. Colonial rule of course involved military intervention, as people like Arthur St. Clair and William Harrison brought federal power to bear in subjecting Indian peoples. But federal and military power clashed with the guarantee of independent statehood and the expectations of popular sovereignty of settler citizens in the Northwest. The emergent colonial rule in the Northwest thus developed over time as a manifestation of the “more organic, local network of people,” including Indians, French Creoles, illegal squatters, and others, who helped shape the new political entities on the ground (7). To describe this process and the distributed agencies that shaped the new polities, Saler briefly deploys the tools of complexity theory, showing how the new political culture emerged “from the bottom up with no preconceived design or director,” and according to a “vernacular narrative of imperial ideas” (77).
A “second form of federal colonialism” defined state formation in the upper Great Lakes, and particularly Wisconsin, after the war of 1812. For Native peoples in particular, this process revolved around the creation of what Saler calls a “treaty polity,” a decentralized assemblage of agents, laws, infrastructures, and cultural policies acting together first to dispossess indigenous peoples, and then to either assimilate them or exclude them from the emerging Nation state. Saler explores how diverse Indians experienced, accommodated to, and resisted the treaty polity, focusing particularly on newly-arrived Brothertown Indians from Massachusetts (who came to Wisconsin in the 1820s), and especially on the participants in the Prairie du Chien Treaty of 1825. Importantly, even as the emerging colonial state tried to define Indians in strict categories and create uniform policy, Native people instead forced local officials to adapt the treaty...