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Much of the theorizing about settler colonialism has been rooted in analyses of the Anglophone world, but most of North America was initially colonized by the French or the Spanish. What can we learn about the settler colonial narrative by focusing on their colonies? As Nancy Shoemaker notes, there are, in addition to settler colonialism, "many varieties of colonialism," determined by "colonial motivations and [the] consequences" of colonization.1 The cases of French and Spanish North America demonstrate that several colonialisms could exist simultaneously, sometimes in tandem, other times in tension. The complex social and racial orders that developed, especially in places such as colonial California, also make these colonies productive spaces for thinking about how racialized settlers fit into what settler colonial theorist Patrick Wolfe terms the "Native/settler divide."2

Depending on the combination of motivations of those involved, French and Spanish North American colonies could be deemed settler colonies, but they were not always so. Where the extraction of resources (silver in New Spain or furs in New France) could take place with Indigenous labor or where Indigenous knowledge and expertise were needed and few Europeans or Africans settled, the taking of land and denial of Indigenous sovereignty were not the principal focus, and settler colonialism's "logic of elimination" could in fact undermine the colonizers' goals. Colonization taken under the guise of missionization could fall in step with extractive colonialism, as it did in New France, where Jesuit missionaries were forced to operate within the logic of the fur trade, which relied upon Indigenous [End Page 427] expertise and labor for its success. Elsewhere, however, missionaries, like settlers, "relentlessly sought the breakdown of the tribe and the absorption into White society of individual Indians and their tribal land, only separately." In Spanish California (1769–1821), Franciscans did seek the elimination of Indigenous peoples as Indigenous peoples; to paraphrase Wolfe, these Spanish missionaries certainly sought to destroy Indigenous peoples as sovereign in order to remake them as Hispanicized Christians.3 Here, colonization was driven by missionization and what Shoemaker has called "imperial power colonialism" (an effort to fend off imperial rivals), and yet its effects—the destruction of Indigenous sovereignties, high mortality rates, and the grabbing of Indigenous lands—echoed those of settler colonialism.4

For the purpose of this essay, I take settler colonialism to be embodied by invaders' desire for Indigenous lands and their efforts to deny or eradicate Indigenous sovereignty. In Wolfe's formulation, these, when combined, result in settler colonialism's defining feature: the logic of elimination. At a structural level, this way of conceptualizing settler colonialism helps to clearly demarcate it from other forms of colonialism—for instance, where few invaders arrived or did not intend to settle permanently, or where colonizers required Indigenous labor in ways that did not fundamentally challenge the sovereignty of Indigenous societies. Wolfe's logic of elimination is also a useful way of conceptualizing how religious conversion, forced schooling, and "officially encouraged miscegenation" are on the same continuum as removal, wars of conquest, and outright genocide. Far from being categorically distinct, all of these practices sought to erase or destroy Indians as Indians: as sovereign political entities who stood in the way of colonial expansion. Finally, defining settler colonialism as "a structure not an event" usefully forces us to pay attention to the ways in which settler colonialism continues to structure Indigenous-settler relations and governance.5 As Aimee Carrillo Rowe and Eve Tuck argue, wrestling with settler colonialism makes us contend with what "attending to life lived on stolen Indigenous land" means.6

Examining the colonization of California—from the Spanish invasion of 1769 through Mexican independence in 1821 and concluding with the American invasion after 1845—complicates an easy disentanglement of [End Page 428] colonial goals and effects, illustrating how different motivations could work with and against other colonial desires. Despite claiming what would become California in 1542, Spain left its assertion of sovereignty undeveloped for more than two hundred years until both the Russians and the British began to express interest in the region in the middle of the eighteenth century, forcing the Spanish Crown to establish outposts on the Pacific coast to fend off imperial rivals. Led by Franciscan missionaries and accompanied by officials, soldiers, and a few settlers, the Spanish founded their first mission in 1769 in San Diego. Within a decade, they had established seven more missions, ranging up the coast to San Francisco. By 1790, there were barely 1,000 settlers, scattered across three pueblos and four presidios, who were vastly outnumbered by an estimated 8,000 Indigenous people living in eleven missions, with another 20,000 living outside of mission control but in the coastal zone occupied by the Spanish.7

Though missionization and imperial rivalries were the driving forces behind the colonization of California, colonial officials made about thirty land grants to settlers who developed ranches, focused on raising livestock and exploiting Indigenous labor (which was, of course, also the backbone of the mission economy). With Mexican independence in 1821 and the subsequent secularization of the missions in the 1830s, settler colonial motives and practices came to the fore. The Mexican government made more than 750 land grants, and most of the mission lands fell into settler hands, leaving former "Mission Indians" with virtually no land base.8 At the same time, settlers increasingly took political control away from both missionaries and colonial officials, shifting power from people who were generally immigrants to those who were second- or third-generation californios. Many newly empowered settlers were the descendants of those who arrived before 1790 who "had racially mixed backgrounds" and "were of casta origin and from the lower economic strata" of provinces in northern Mexico.9 Considered castas, mestizos, and mulatos in New Spain, these settlers re-racialized themselves along the Native/settler divide in Alta California, becoming gente de razón or españols in the censuses and sacramental records regardless of their Indigenous and/or African ancestry. In 1813 officials in Santa Barbara responded to a query from Spain about "how many castes the population is divided" into, stating, "It cannot be known with certainty. . . . Although it is very well known that not all are genuine Spaniards either of European or American origin yet at least they regard [End Page 429] themselves as such." Officials at Mission San Gabriel reported, "How many these castes are and precisely which castes they are we do not know because . . . they are all known as gente de razón."10

Although their ancestors may have been Indigenous in Sinaloa, Sonora, or Baja California, in Alta California these californios unequivocally became settler colonists. Some achieved positions of power, including Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican California and the grandson of a mestizo soldier and his mulata wife, who arrived together in 1775. Before Pico became governor, he was the civilian administrator at Mission San Luis Rey, where he oversaw the transfer of the mission's lands into settler hands. Luiseños accused him several times of abuse, eventually leading to his ouster, but not before he had substantially dispossessed the Luiseños of their lands, acquiring some of them for himself.11 Following the American conquest in 1846, however, the status of californios such as Pico changed once again as they became the colonized and were eventually dispossessed of both political power and most of their land base. Despite becoming colonized, californios nevertheless remained firmly on the settler side of the Native/settler divide.

Though missionary colonialism in California employed the logic of elimination, the transition to settler colonialism in the 1830s greatly exacerbated its effects. During the roughly six decades of missionary colonialism, California's Indigenous population declined from an estimated 310,000 to slightly under 250,000 by 1830, primarily due to virgin soil epidemics, the disruption of traditional foodways, and exacting conditions at the missions. Following secularization, californios increasingly dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their lands at the missions and in previously untouched areas inland. Despite californio reliance upon Indigenous bodies for labor, the heightened focus on seizing Indigenous land led to an even more precipitous population decline: by 1845, just 150,000 Indigenous people were left, a decline of 40 percent in fifteen years. However, even this catastrophe pales in comparison to what happened after the arrival of the Americans, whose version of the logic of elimination was laced with genocidal intentions, first through the mechanisms of the gold rush (a form of extractive colonialism that did not rely upon Indigenous labor) but quickly due to settler colonialism as well; within a decade, only 50,000 Indigenous people remained in what was now the state of California.12 [End Page 430]

By 1850, California had been colonized by three different regimes—Spain, Mexico, and the United States—and could be considered to fall into several of Shoemaker's varieties of colonialism: missionary, imperial power, extractive, trade, and, of course, settler.13 Often two or more of these motives were in play at the same time. Though settler colonial theory has been rightfully accused of flattening complexity and downplaying historical contingencies, paying attention to the shifting motivations for colonialism in California—even when, as in the Spanish-to-Mexican transition, the colonists themselves remained, for all intents and purposes, the same people—does help to explain the dramatically different mortality rates that were introduced in 1830 and again in 1848 as earlier formulations of elimination (conversion) gave way to dispossession and eradication.14

A second critique of settler colonial theory that California can help us think through is its tendency to homogenize settler colonies themselves, reducing their populations to a simple binary, a Native/settler divide in Wolfe's formulation, and raising questions about where to place other racialized groups, especially but not exclusively enslaved people of African descent, in relation to "the subject position of the 'settler.'"15 Settler colonial theorists have offered a variety of formulations in their efforts to account for how Indigenous lands and African bodies could both be "the foundational site[s] of colonization" in North America.16 The founding editor of the journal Settler Colonial Studies, Lorenzo Veracini, argues for a third category of migrants who, unlike settlers, do not bring sovereignty with them but rather have to adapt to sovereignties established by settlers. For Veracini, it does not matter whether those migrants arrive voluntarily or not.17 Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, arguing that settler colonialism also required stolen labor to work stolen lands, suggest a "settler-native-slave triad," although this formulation would seem to exclude other racialized groups of exploited laborers.18 [End Page 431] Jodi A. Byrd expands Tuck and Yang's third category to a group she defines as arrivants, "those people forced into the Americas through the violence of European and Anglo-American colonialism and imperialism around the globe," a definition that could be capacious enough to embrace other involuntary or quasi-voluntary racialized laborers.19 But what is the subject position of people such as Pío Pico and his fellow californios? Grandchildren of Indigenous peoples from one place, they became native-born settler colonists in another before themselves becoming colonized peoples, dispossessed of their lands and sovereignty by new arrivals from the United States.

For Wolfe, the answer is easy: he rejects any efforts to move beyond the Native/settler divide. Though he recognizes "the existence of major differentiations within settler (and, for that matter, within Native) societies," those are, he argues, "differentiations . . . of different orders." "The fact that enslaved people immigrated against their will," he concludes, "does not alter the structural fact that their presence, however involuntary, was part of the process of Native dispossession." What defines those on the Native side of the divide and makes their histories, ongoing struggles, and futures distinct from other racialized groups is the a priori sovereignty they exercised and the land that settler colonists desired. Wolfe acknowledges the presence of "two distinct colonial relationships of inequality," both of which benefited "White settlers": one centered on land and sought to dispossess Indigenous peoples of it, while the other centered on the exploitation of labor. Indigenous peoples may also be exploited for their labor, but for Wolfe the overriding priority of settlers is to exploit them for their land: "Others can provide labour. Only Natives can provide land." It is "this ongoing binarism" that "is specific to settler colonialism" and that "distinguish[es] it from other racisms and human-rights abuses."20

This distinction that settler colonial theorists have made between those who are exploited for their labor and those who are exploited for their lands (recognizing, of course, that Indigenous peoples could be exploited for both) is an important one. The dual—and dueling—relationships are captured in a romanticized form in William Blake's Europe Supported by Africa and America, an illustration published in John Gabriel Stedman's narrative of settler colonialism in Surinam (Figure I). The image helps to illustrate the different ways in which Indigenous peoples were racialized and the different regimes of racial endogamy and assimilation they were subjected to. It also underscores the distinct legacies and ongoing struggles of colonialism for Indigenous peoples, in all of which sovereignty is key. Because settler colonial theory focuses on structural relations with an eye on both global comparisons and contemporary resonances, it will never be [End Page 432]

Figure I. William Blake, Europe Supported by Africa and America, in J[ohn] G[abriel] Stedman, Narrative, of a five years' expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the Wild Coast of South America; from the year 1772, to 1777: elucidating the History of that Country, and describing its Productions, Viz. Quadrupedes, Birds, Fishes, Reptiles, Trees, Shrubs, Fruits, & Roots; with an account of the Indians of Guiana, & Negroes of Guinea (London, 1796), vol. 2, opp. p. 394.
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Figure I.

William Blake, Europe Supported by Africa and America, in J[ohn] G[abriel] Stedman, Narrative, of a five years' expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the Wild Coast of South America; from the year 1772, to 1777: elucidating the History of that Country, and describing its Productions, Viz. Quadrupedes, Birds, Fishes, Reptiles, Trees, Shrubs, Fruits, & Roots; with an account of the Indians of Guiana, & Negroes of Guinea (London, 1796), vol. 2, opp. p. 394.

[End Page 433] able to embrace every historical variation and nuance, especially in a place as complex as colonial California. But in forcing us to confront what it means—then and now—to live on stolen lands built with stolen labor, settler colonial theory is good to think with. [End Page 434]

Jennifer M. Spear

Jennifer M. Spear is an associate professor of history at Simon Fraser University. She thanks the students in "Decolonizing Indigenous Histories of North America" (summer 2018) and her colleague Mary-Ellen Kelm.


1. Nancy Shoemaker, "A Typology of Colonialism," Perspectives on History 53, no. 7 (October 2015),

2. Patrick Wolfe, "Recuperating Binarism: A Heretical Introduction," Settler Colonial Studies 3, nos. 3–4 (2013): 257–79 (quotation, 263). As discussed below, by racialized settlers I mean those who, while their presence may have advanced Indigenous dispossession, were themselves exploited in the furtherance of settler colonialism.

3. Patrick Wolfe, "Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native," Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (December 2006): 387–409 ("logic," 388 [see also 387], "relentlessly," 400).

4. Shoemaker, "Typology of Colonialism."

5. Wolfe, Journal of Genocide Research 8: 388 (quotations).

6. Aimee Carrillo Rowe and Eve Tuck, "Settler Colonialism and Cultural Studies: Ongoing Settlement, Cultural Production, and Resistance," Cultural StudiesCritical Methodologies 17, no. 1 (February 2017): 3–13 (quotation, 6).

7. William Marvin Mason, The Census of 1790: A Demographic History of Colonial California (Menlo Park, Calif., 1998), 2.

8. [Cris Perez], Grants of Land in California Made by Spanish or Mexican Authorities ([Sacramento, Calif., 1983]), 3.

9. Miroslava Chávez-García, Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s (Tucson, Ariz., 2004), 19.

10. Preguntas y respuestas, from the Santa Barbara Mission Archives, trans. Maynard Geiger, in As the Padres Saw Them: California Indian Life and Customs as Reported by the Franciscan Missionaries, 1813–1815, ed. Geiger and Clement W. Meighan (Santa Barbara, Calif., 1976), 11–12 ("divided," "precisely," 11, "cannot be known," 12).

11. Carlos Salomon, "Secularization in California: Pío Pico at Mission San Luis Rey," Southern California Quarterly 89, no. 4 (Winter 2007–8): 349–71; Carlos Manuel Salomon, Pío Pico: The Last Governor of Mexican California (Norman, Okla., 2010).

12. Sherburne F. Cook, "Historical Demography," in Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 8, California, ed. Robert F. Heizer (Washington, D.C., 1978), 91–98, esp. 91–93; Brendan C. Lindsay, Murder State: California's Native American Genocide, 1846–1873 (Lincoln, Neb., 2015); Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873 (New Haven, Conn., 2016).

13. Shoemaker, "Typology of Colonialism."

14. For a recent critique of settler colonial theory's homogenizing tendencies, see Daniel K. Richter, "His Own, Their Own: Settler Colonialism, Native Peoples, and Imperial Balances of Power in Eastern North America, 1600–1715," in The World of Colonial America: An Atlantic Handbook, ed. Ignacio Gallup-Diaz (New York, 2017), 209–33.

15. Iyko Day, "Being or Nothingness: Indigeneity, Antiblackness, and Settler Colonial Critique," Critical Ethnic Studies 1, no. 2 (Fall 2015): 102–21 (quotation, 103); Wolfe, Settler Colonial Studies 3: 263.

16. Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (Minneapolis, 2011), 135.

17. Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (New York, 2010), 3.

18. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, "Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor," Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 1–40 (quotation, 7 n. 7); Tuck and Yang, "R-Words: Refusing Research," in Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities, ed. Django Paris and Maisha T. Winn (Thousand Oaks, Calif., 2014), 223–48, esp. 224.

19. Byrd, Transit of Empire, xix.

20. Wolfe, Settler Colonial Studies 3: 263–64 ("existence," 263, "two distinct," 264), 277 n. 34 ("Others"), 270 ("ongoing").

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