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  • Locating Settler Colonialism in Early American History
  • Jeffrey Ostler (bio)

Is settler colonialism simply a trendy buzzword, or will it become an enduring and useful concept in North American history in general and early American history in particular? Recent criticisms (some seen in print, some heard in conference sessions and hallways) object to theorizations and applications of settler colonialism that appear reductionist and teleological, arguably leave little room for contingency, and risk reversing advances in the field that highlight Native agency and resist declensionist narratives of Native disappearance. Other critical commentary seems to imply that settler colonialism may be a useful framework (at least for some times and places) if modified and more carefully applied, while still other commentary suggests that the concept is more or less useless, if not dangerous, and should be encouraged to expire.1 Whether or not criticisms of settler colonialism will lead to the concept's elimination is anyone's guess. In my view, however, the concept is useful not simply as a theoretical construct but because it identifies an actual historical phenomenon. For that reason, it should be interrogated and refined, but it should also be retained. In other words, in the same way that scholars who object to particular theories of capitalism seldom deny capitalism's reality, problems in theorizing settler colonialism do not mean that it does not exist. If settler colonialism is a name for an actual historical phenomenon, where and when can it be found in early American history? [End Page 443]

One place is in the founding of the United States, a process beginning with the Treaty of Paris in 1763 and ending around twenty-five years later with the Constitution's ratification. Although some accounts of the coming of the American Revolution continue to focus exclusively on matters of taxation and urban protest, a growing body of scholarship, partly inspired by a general recognition that American Indians are central to early American history, has emphasized the role of the 1763 Royal Proclamation, which restricted western settlement and created uncertainties for speculators in Indian lands.2 Although this scholarship has not necessarily invoked the concept of settler colonialism, it leads to the conclusion that a central purpose of the founding of the United States was to secure the freedom to convert Indian lands into private property, a process that meant, to use settler colonialism's terminology, the elimination of Indigenous people. This purpose was revealed during the Revolutionary War through U.S. military operations against Native nations that aimed not simply to defeat Indians allied with the British but to destroy Natives' resistance to colonial settlement in general and thus gain control over their lands.3 The importance of obtaining Native lands was also evident in the making of the Constitution, which established mechanisms for funding a national army to subjugate the multinational confederacy (including Shawnees, Delawares, Wyandots, Ottawas, Potawatomis, Miamis, Chickamauga Cherokees, and others) formed to defend its Ohio Valley territories in the late 1780s and early 1790s.4 Combined with the Northwest Ordinance (1787), which allowed new states to be admitted "on an equal footing" while at the same time sanctioning genocidal war against Native nations that resisted U.S. demands for their lands, the Constitution's federalism provided a framework for containing tensions between frontier/localism on the one hand and metropolitan/national authority on the other. In doing so, the nation's founding document created the cohesion necessary to pursue elimination.5 [End Page 444]

To identify the elimination of Native people as central to the United States' founding does not mean that they were actually eliminated. Although the United States claimed a good portion of eastern North America, its ambitions often exceeded its capacity, especially in its early years. But the United States was nothing if not relentless, and even after military failures, most notably the Native confederacy's defeat of Arthur St. Clair's army in 1791, the federal, state, and territorial governments continued to mobilize fresh bodies for war and thereby wear down Native resistance. Using treaties as a mechanism for dispossession, the United States chipped away at Native lands in the Southeast, the Ohio Valley, and the lower Great Lakes...

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