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This Forum on settler colonialism in early American history features contributions from Ashley Glassburn, Allan Greer, Tiya Miles, Jeffrey Ostler, Susanah Shaw Romney, Nancy Shoemaker, Stephanie E. Smallwood, Jennifer M. Spear, Samuel Truett, and Michael Witgen.

Over the past decade or so, settler colonialism has emerged as one of the major keywords in the interdisciplinary field of Native American and Indigenous Studies.1 More recently, settler colonialism has also crept into the lexicon of other fields, from the history of the American West to the study of gender and sexuality.2 For some scholars, the proliferation of settler colonialism as a term across so many fields and issues makes it seem a trendy buzzword. For others, the term does little more than gesture to an external structure presumed to be more or less fully apparent. Still others employ settler colonialism to do substantive analytic work. How might early Americanists engage with settler colonialism to get the most out of its insights?

The concept originally gained currency primarily through the work of Australian scholars who wanted to differentiate between "ordinary" colonialism, in which colonizers exploited the labor and resources of colonized people, and settler colonialism, in which colonizers sought to take the lands of Indigenous people and eliminate them in one way or another. Most scholars of North America who have engaged settler colonialism have done so via the scholarship of the Australian historian Patrick Wolfe, who provided several extended analyses of settler colonialism, often peppered with a series of pithy formulations. Two of Wolfe's aphorisms have been particularly [End Page 361] influential and are quoted with an almost ritualistic regularity. The first is Wolfe's notion that settler colonialism has a "logic of elimination." Unlike other forms of colonialism that seek to exploit labor and resources, the goal of settler colonialism is to eliminate Indigenous people and settle their lands. To do this, settlers (or settler colonial regimes) can use a variety of methods including outright genocide, removal, assimilation, and erasure (the latter, for example, by requiring Indigenous people to conform to an impossible yardstick of "authenticity"). A second closely related formulation is Wolfe's notion that "invasion is a structure not an event." By this, Wolfe means to emphasize the structural relationship of various forms of elimination, showing them to be part of a project with an underlying temporal continuity that extends to the present since, as Wolfe writes, "settler colonizers come to stay."3

Building on Wolfe's work, Lorenzo Veracini, who founded the journal Settler Colonial Studies in 2011, provided a full-length book, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview, which outlines no fewer than twenty-six procedures (provided in an A-Z list) that settler societies employ for the "transfer" of Indigenous people, the establishment of political sovereignty, the production of various forms of consciousness, and the telling of stories about themselves. Many of Veracini's insights—for example, that settler societies produce narratives about the inevitable vanishing of Indigenous people and that settlers routinely claim indigeneity—draw on North American historiography, though Veracini places that continent's scholarship within a comprehensive, transnational field and draws out general characteristics of settler colonialism, particularly its capacity to erase itself (the way it "covers its tracks") and its apparent imperviousness to decolonization.4

Though a settler colonial framework has become commonplace in Indigenous studies, it only sporadically and tangentially makes an appearance [End Page 362] in scholarship on early America. Search prior issues of the William and Mary Quarterly for articles dealing explicitly with "settler colonialism," for example, and you will come up nearly empty-handed.5 There are several explanations for why early Americanists have been slow or hesitant to embrace settler colonialism as their modus operandi. First, history as a field is not theoretically inclined. In the past few years, theory's antithesis, storytelling, has captivated far more early American historians as the ideal mode of expression. In contrast, the confluence of scholars at Native American and Indigenous Studies gatherings includes many representatives from theory-driven disciplines such as literature, law, ethnic studies, political science, anthropology, and sociology.

Second, settler colonialism as articulated by its most influential formulators, Wolfe and Veracini, sketches the emergence and institutionalization of a colonial system during and after conquest. As settlers killed, removed, assimilated, and marginalized Native peoples to wrest the land from them, settlers justified their actions with racial logics and romanticized histories that separated Natives from their lands, both actually and figuratively, to privilege settler possession. Though arguable for any time period, the reach and efficacy of settler colonialism are especially open to debate for the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, when European intrusions into North America had exploration, trade, and resource extraction as driving incentives in addition to settlement.6 Early Americanists tramping through the documentary record are less likely to run into the confident, efficient, supercilious settler bully that is so often the protagonist of settler colonial theory. Recent historiography on Indigenous-settler relations in early America more often emphasizes the enduring political and economic power of Native polities and how slowly and tenuously Europeans gained sovereign control over the North American continent. Countless historians have supplied us with [End Page 363] evidence showing that Indians did not give up their lands and identities easily, quickly, or entirely.7 Thus the sweeping totality of the settler colonial state implied by works dealing with the modern period conflicts with another trend in early American historiography: the ambition to discover and explain the power of Native peoples relative to the puniness and dependency of European arrivals.

And yet, given that settler colonialism as a term and as a theory has been taken up by so many historians, this is the optimum moment to consider its place and potential in the study of #VastEarlyAmerica. For this Forum, we asked contributors to discuss the relevance of settler colonial theory to early American history by considering one or more of four fundamental parameters: who, when, where, and what. We did so because the stunning rapidity with which "settler colonialism" as a phrase has spread among scholars signals the need to mark the parameters of its usage. If settler colonialism is everywhere—if we bandy it about as though it were a synonym for Indigenous studies, colonialism in general, or all of American history—then any analytic power it possesses to illuminate particular phenomena will dissipate. By fixing with more precision to whom it might or might not apply, when and where it appears to be relevant or not relevant, and its constitutive elements, early Americanists could see in the concept a host of new questions and could contribute their particular vantage points to larger discussions about what settler colonialism is exactly.

None of the contributors to this Forum deny the basic premises of settler colonial theory, at least in some contexts. But some are more committed to its explanatory power, while others lean toward addressing its limited scope. The contributors come at the issue from different angles, yet certain themes recur across the essays. Perhaps not surprisingly, "when" turns out to be the core grappling point in all essays, though in every instance "when" is tightly entangled with "where," "who," and "what" and invokes an array of more particular questions about origins, change over time, and timing. Often talked about as something fully formed and omnipresent, settler colonialism has a history. Wolfe's famous summary of settler colonialism as "a structure not an event" mires the concept in stasis and might be better reworded as "a process, not a structure or an event."

So when and where did settler colonialism begin, and who started it? Nancy Shoemaker suggests that we might need to go as far back as the Roman Empire to locate its origins. She proposes that certain threads of settler colonial thought, heavily infused with nostalgia for ancient Britons, the Roman invasion of England, and the succeeding Anglo-Saxon invasion, became popular in England during the late sixteenth century, just as [End Page 364] schemes for Atlantic expansion got underway. By conceptualizing England as a beneficent settler state that could assimilate and civilize colonized people, colonization's supporters rooted their designs for conquest in English traditions.8 Taking a bird's-eye view of the expansive seventeenth-century Dutch Empire, Susanah Shaw Romney identifies pockets of settler colonialism popping up around the globe from New Netherland to Indonesia. Across this immense geography and with state support, Dutch settlers advocated for the enslavement, removal, and violent elimination of Native inhabitants to make way for Dutch families and towns. Allan Greer suggests a different scenario for New France in the same period. In his critique of settler colonial theory's emergence out of the Australian experience and thus its projection of post-1780s sensibilities onto earlier time periods, Greer observes that the French were well aware of their dependence on Native North Americans for the furtherance of their endeavors. Therefore the desire to eliminate the Native, which is at the forefront of settler colonialism, does not extend to early French-Indian relations in North America.9

Pinpointing the exact origins of settler colonialism in any one locale is complicated by two factors: its dual nature as an aspiration and an actuality with severe material consequences, and the fact that at some point the balance tipped, turning aspirations into actualities. Michael Witgen's essay on the United States' efforts to expand into the territory organized by the 1787 Northwest Ordinance captures this complicated dynamic. Shrouding their expansionist designs in a deliberately constructed fiction that this region existed in a "state of nature" and refusing to recognize Native sovereignty or even Native habitation, U.S. officials plotted a settler colonial society that anticipated Indian removal and disappearance.10 Ashley Glassburn's contribution focuses on the same region as Witgen's to suggest how settler colonialism, particularly when informed by "standpoint theory," can center the histories and voices of Indigenous people. Through the example of Frances Slocum, a Miami woman who was taken captive as a young girl from a Quaker family in Pennsylvania in the late 1770s, Glassburn shows how an Indigenous-centered approach to settler colonialism leads to productive questions about settler claims of innocence, the multiplicity of Indigenous perspectives, and the persistence of Miami people in Indiana.11 [End Page 365]

Stephanie E. Smallwood's contribution pulls us back from the local and regional to consider the entire western hemisphere. Rather than seeing settler colonialism emerging after earlier phases of colonialism (such as the fur trade) or analyzing settler colonialism and colonialism as distinctive ideal types, Smallwood outlines settler colonialism's cotemporal and reciprocal relationship to other forms of colonialism and calls on early Americanists to center "colonial relations of power" in all their dimensions, especially the enslavement of Africans. At the close of her essay, Smallwood raises a series of crucial questions about whether or not emancipated African Americans should be categorized as settler colonists.12 These issues receive sustained exploration in Tiya Miles's essay, which focuses on people of African descent who sought to realize the promise of freedom during and after the Civil War by moving to the Midwest and thus settling on lands that either were or had recently been Indigenous. By conceptualizing settler colonialism as part of a "settler colonial slavery complex" that seeks to eliminate Native people while simultaneously exploiting and marginalizing African Americans, Miles argues that depicting free blacks simply as "settlers" or "pioneers" erases power differentials. Instead, she suggests, we need to search for new language to do justice to the complexities of the position of black people within a settler/native binary. As Miles's essay notes, theorists of settler colonialism in North America have observed that Indigenous people and enslaved Africans were racialized in very different ways.13 Consistent with a logic of elimination, Native people with European ancestry were racialized as "half breeds" (and eventually could become white and in this way vanish into the dominant demographic group), whereas African people with European ancestry were racialized as black under the "one drop rule."14 This fundamental tenet of settler colonial thought could be more fully developed to explain how such racial distinctions shaped the experiences of black people who appear in the guise of settlers.

By exploring California from the Spanish period through the U.S. takeover, Jennifer M. Spear's contribution adds to discussions about the intersection of race and settler colonialism. As Spear charts how different groups of Europeans pursued various means to eliminate California's Indigenous people (ranging from assimilation in missions to outright extermination during the Gold Rush), she illuminates shifting racial and settler identities, showing that people occupying one of the mixed-race categories of New Spain "re-racialized themselves" as gente de razón and, as californios, became settler [End Page 366] colonists. With the U.S. takeover of California, however, the racial position of californios changed again as they were forced into a subordinate position within U.S. hierarchies of race and power. Spear concludes by raising once again the question of how to classify nonwhite racialized groups within the settler/native binary. She proposes that, although settler colonial theory cannot account for everything, it "is good to think with."15 By contrast, Samuel Truett's essay suggests that settler colonialism is good to think against. From the perspective of borderlands history, Truett begins by drawing on a string of theorists to identify problems with blanket applications of settler colonialism and uses this approach as a springboard to develop alternative ways of conceptualizing relationships across and within overlapping geographies. Rather than east-to-west landscapes of elimination, Truett outlines "nodal world[s]" linking North America's West Coast through the Pacific Ocean to China and "an archipelago of settler islands" across an otherwise largely Indigenous North American continent. In so doing, he emphasizes the multiple agendas of European empires and their on-the-ground instabilities and limitations. Truett concludes by warning that histories written as demonstrations of settler colonial theory threaten to erase fragmentary stories of border crossing, shape shifting, and unfulfilled aspirations.16

Finally, Jeffrey Ostler's essay concludes the Forum with an overview of why early Americanists need to engage with settler colonialism. He distinguishes between approaches that treat history as a "snapshot" and those that explore long-term trajectories to argue that, while settler colonialism may seem absent in certain places and periods, it eventually came to dominate in North America. And moreover, interactions between Natives and newcomers that appear to be antithetical to settler colonialism's development—for example, the codependence that characterized the fur trade and other resource extraction activities or the labor exploitation driving the Indian slave trade—need to be viewed as implicated components of settler expansion across the continent, the accumulation of sovereign power by settler states, and the push for Native marginalization and invisibility that endures up to the present day.17

When we embarked on this Forum, we wondered if we would end up with a clear split between scholars who were either for or against employing settler colonialism as a framework. Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case. Though the individual contributors might agree or disagree about this or that point, their essays, taken together, show that questions raised by settler colonial theory can prod early Americanists to revisit from a fresh [End Page 367] angle the different forms European expansion took, the variations in settlement across space and time, and the complications arising from the triangulated mesh of white, black, and Indian relations as European settlement advanced across the continent.

Instead of taking a position on what role settler colonialism should have in the study of early America, this Forum offers thoughtful deliberations from a variety of angles and areas of specialization. We hope it will serve as the beginning of a more extended conversation in the field about how, when, and where settler colonialism transpired and in what ways different people's histories were affected by it. [End Page 368]

Jeffrey Ostler

Jeffrey Ostler is Beekman Professor of Northwest and Pacific History at the University of Oregon.

Nancy Shoemaker

Nancy Shoemaker is a professor of history at the University of Connecticut.


1. Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, Caroline Wigginton, and Kelly Wisecup, "Materials and Methods in Native American and Indigenous Studies: Completing the Turn," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 75, no. 2 (April 2018): 207–36, esp. 230–32; simultaneously published in Early American Literature 53, no. 2 (2018): 407–44.

2. See for example Scott Lauria Morgensen, "Theorizing Gender, Sexuality, and Settler Colonialism: An Introduction," in "Karangatia: Calling Out Gender and Sexuality in Settler Societies," ed. Michelle Erai and Scott L. Morgensen, special issue, Settler Colonial Studies 2, no. 2 (2012): 2–22; Janne Lahti, ed., "Forum: Settler Colonialism and the American West," Journal of the West 56, no. 4 (Fall 2017): 8–96.

3. Patrick Wolfe, "Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native," Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (December 2006): 387–409 ("logic," 387, "authenticity," 402, "invasion," 388). Wolfe's other major works include Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event (London, 1999); "Land, Labor, and Difference: Elementary Structures of Race," American Historical Review 106, no. 3 (June 2001): 866–905; Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (London, 2016). For a history of the concept of settler colonialism, see Lorenzo Veracini, "'Settler Colonialism': Career of a Concept," Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 41, no. 2 (June 2013): 313–33.

4. Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (New York, 2010), esp. 15 ("covers its tracks"). See also Veracini, "Introducing Settler Colonial Studies," Settler Colonial Studies 1, no. 1 (2011): 1–12. For examples of works that support Veracini's observations about discourses of vanishing and settler claims to indigeneity, see Brian W. Dippie, The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (Middletown, Conn., 1982); Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven, Conn., 1998); Jean M. O'Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England (Minneapolis, 2010).

5. One of the few WMQ authors to address settler colonialism is Forum contributor Susanah Shaw Romney in "'With & alongside his housewife': Claiming Ground in New Netherland and the Early Modern Dutch Empire," WMQ 73, no. 2 (April 2016): 187–224. Other discussions of settler colonialism's applicability to early American history have occurred via blogs: for example, Bryan Rindfleisch, "Guest Post: Native American History and the Explanatory Potential of Settler Colonialism," Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History, Feb. 10, 2016,; Eran Zelnik, "In Pursuit of an Early America Paradigm Shift: Settler Colonialism?," Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH), Jan. 19, 2016,

6. John G. Reid and Thomas Peace, "Colonies of Settlement and Settler Colonialism in Northeastern North America, 1450–1850," in The Routledge Handbook of the History of Settler Colonialism, ed. Edward Cavanagh and Lorenzo Veracini (New York, 2016), 79–94; Daniel K. Richter, "His Own, Their Own: Settler Colonialism, Native Peoples, and Imperial Balances of Power in Eastern North America, 1660–1715," in The World of Colonial America: An Atlantic Handbook, ed. Ignacio Gallup-Diaz (New York, 2017), 209–33.

7. See for example Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Cambridge, Mass., 2001); Kathleen DuVal, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (Philadelphia, 2006); Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven, Conn., 2008).

8. Nancy Shoemaker, "Settler Colonialism: Universal Theory or English Heritage?," WMQ 76, no. 3 (July 2019): 369–74. For the Roman Empire as a settler state, see Mark W. Graham, "Settler Colonialism from the Neo-Assyrians to the Romans," in Cavanagh and Veracini, Routledge Handbook, 11–24.

9. Susanah Shaw Romney, "Settler Colonial Prehistories in Seventeenth-Century North America," WMQ 76, no. 3 (July 2019): 375–82; Allan Greer, "Settler Colonialism and Empire in Early America," WMQ 76, no. 3 (July 2019): 383–90.

10. Michael Witgen, "A Nation of Settlers: The Early American Republic and the Colonization of the Northwest Territory," WMQ 76, no. 3 (July 2019): 391–98.

11. Ashley Glassburn, "Settler Standpoints," WMQ 76, no. 3 (July 2019): 399–406 (quotation, 399).

12. Stephanie E. Smallwood, "Reflections on Settler Colonialism, the Hemispheric Americas, and Chattel Slavery," WMQ 76, no. 3 (July 2019): 407–16 (quotation, 415).

13. Tiya Miles, "Beyond a Boundary: Black Lives and the Settler-Native Divide," WMQ 76, no. 3 (July 2019): 417–26 ("complex," 420, "settlers," 418).

14. As Patrick Wolfe puts it, "As opposed to enslaved people, whose reproduction augmented their owners' wealth, Indigenous people obstructed settlers' access to land, so their increase was counterproductive." Wolfe, Journal of Genocide Research 8: 388.

15. Jennifer M. Spear, "Beyond the Native/Settler Divide in Early California," WMQ 76, no. 3 (July 2019): 427–34 ("re-racialized," 429, "think," 434).

16. Samuel Truett, "Settler Colonialism and the Borderlands of Early America," WMQ 76, no. 3 (July 2019): 435–42 ("nodal," 437, "archipelago," 438).

Jeffrey Ostler, "Locating Settler Colonialism in Early American History," WMQ 76, no. 3 (July 2019): 443–50 (quotation, 445).

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