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  • Settler Colonialism and the Borderlands of Early America
  • Samuel Truett (bio)

The notion of settler colonialism looms large in our tales of U.S. empire. Unlike other colonialisms, which pull peoples and resources into networks of labor, trade, and extraction, settler colonialism "destroys to replace," Patrick Wolfe wrote. It eliminates others to establish new societies on stolen land. Though scholars often focus on "the elimination of the Native," some take a broader view. Kelly Lytle Hernández, for instance, uses a settler colonial lens to link the conquest of Native California to efforts to exclude, corral, and incarcerate Mexicans, Chinese, and African Americans.1 Indeed, settler colonialism's most salient feature as a category of analysis is its portability. It is, according to Wolfe, "a structure not an event." That insight gave him a way to compare North America and Australia—but he also meant, in the context of postcolonial studies, that settler colonialism was far from post. Its "logic of elimination" is alive and well. As a link between past and present, it is especially useful in historicizing ongoing capitalist, settler, and state efforts to dispossess, remove, exclude, contain, coerce, and exploit.2

The notion has also faced healthy critique. While acknowledging settler dynamics, Jodi A. Byrd resists the Eurocentric binaries of the settler colonial frame. Her Native-centered view pulls in multiple directions, yielding "an entirely different map and understanding of territory and space." Likewise, Alyosha Goldstein cautions against a reductive view. Settler colonialism, he argues, has long been entangled in a range of imperial, colonial, and [End Page 435] capitalist "practices, institutions, and conditions." As such, it shifted over time "from accommodation to annihilation to inclusion," unsettling dichotomies between "settler" and "native." More recently, Manu Vimalassery, Juliana Hu Pegues, and Goldstein have critiqued the tendency among many scholars to study settler colonialism as a structure, a view of dispossession "divorced from politics or contingency."3 Seeing settler colonialism as a structure, in fact, can promote an ahistorical view of colonialism as coloniality—"an essence of being colonized," as Frederick Cooper puts it—that distorts our sense of how colonialism worked in practice. Such a perspective might lead one, Cooper observes, to uncritically juxtapose tales from, say, sixteenth-century Spanish America, eighteenth-century Haiti, and twentieth-century Ghana. One might link stories by leaping over events in between (for example, connecting Spanish and U.S. expansion in America by ignoring intervening periods of Indigenous expansion). Or one might read history backward, projecting from present concerns or categories and missing paths not taken, "the alternatives that appeared to people in their time."4

These problems of structure, Eurocentrism, binaries, and teleology are nothing new for early Americanists. They are hallmarks of U.S. frontier history. Indeed, Wolfe once argued that U.S. settler colonialism was the story of Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier in new clothes. It began with the frontier, and with the frontier's end came "the end of the centuries-long process" of transforming Native America. Inevitably, Wolfe wrote, "the land hungry, the diggers of gold, the extractors of oil, the scalpers, the doggers, the sex workers, the pastoralists, the railroad men and the farmers—Turner's whole litany of types—arrive at the boundaries [of places] to which Natives have been removed, and the process starts all over again."5 In the end, of course, Wolfe and Turner could not have been less similar. Wolfe was a generous ally of Indigenous scholars, whereas Turner, by making Indians faceless foils to his story of white expansion, joined other settlers in eliminating the Native. Yet it is worth asking how Wolfe's and Turner's stories connect. A story "cannot avoid a covert exercise of power," notes William Cronon; "it [End Page 436] inevitably sanctions some voices while silencing others."6 Is there a pattern of silencing—in Wolfe's words, a "logic of elimination"—that connects settler colonial and frontier narratives?

One answer, to quote Kerwin Lee Klein, is that "we remain obscurely entangled in philosophies of history we no longer profess." More specifically, settler colonial history preserves the blind spots of frontier history. By placing land at the center, both paint a portrait of...

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