The Rhetoric of Seneca Removal: Aspirations of the Holland Land Company in Western New York, 1790-1829

New York State is often seen as completely developed at the end of the American Revolution. Its boundaries are portrayed as solidified, despite the fact that most of the state was still Native territory. This is a familiar story in the early national period as Americans envisioned the boundaries of the United States extending to the Pacific while Native groups west of the Appalachians held power on the ground. But New York State was unique in that it already was a state, even though half of the land was not yet incorporated. The story of the development and incorporation of western New York is not linear or inevitable. Native groups in western New York resisted state expansion well into the nineteenth century. Land speculators and surveyors laid out plans to incorporate what was imagined as western New York on a map into real state boundaries. These boundaries were to be solidified by the creation of townships, which would allow white settlers to buy land and create private property. Land surveyors drew the shape of New York as we know it today on survey maps, but these maps were often aspirational rather than reality. This conflict between the Holland Land Company and the Seneca over space and sovereignty shaped the landscape of western New York.

Prior to the American Revolution, land surveying and property allocation were often not carried out by land surveyors. Individuals would claim pieces of land that could be a variety of shapes based on natural boundaries, often leaving the less fertile land outside of their property lines. After the Revolution as the nation expanded in a systematic way, land surveyors became more important as they were responsible for expansion by creating new states, and in turn, new citizens. In western New York, this was carried out by the Holland Land Company who employed Joseph Ellicott as land surveyor and later resident agent. Although the systematic survey system had been used in the past all over the world, the township suddenly became the foundational building block of state formation in the United States. (William Wyckoff. The Developer’s Frontier: The Making of the Western New York Landscape. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 25.) Although land surveyors in western New York did not work for the federal or state government, their interests often overlapped as land surveyors profited from creating state boundaries.

The plans to incorporate western New York into the rest of the state required a complicated plan with many steps. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 is a well known case of how Native land was stolen in the early national period to facilitate white settlement. (Karim M. Tiro. The People of the Standing Stone: The Oneida Nation from the Revolution Through the Era of Removal. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011), xiv.) Andrew Jackson used his executive power to expediently remove Native groups in the south to reservations in the west. But western New York was patently different from the rest of the country and the federal government did not have the authority to take land from the Seneca. Tracing back to seventeenth century land grants from the King of England, both Massachusetts and New York claimed that their territories extended all the way to the Pacific Ocean. To resolve this conflicting claim, in 1786 the two states came together at the Treaty of Hartford. The treaty included that the lands would become a part of New York as they were acquired from the Seneca, while Massachusetts obtained the pre-emption rights to the lands. The preemption rights allowed Massachusetts the first chance to buy the land when the Seneca agreed to sell. (Seneca Nation of New York. Memorial of the Seneca Indians to the President of the United States, Also an Address from the Committee of Friends, Who Have Extended Care to These Indians, and an Extract From the Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. (Baltimore: Printed by William Wooddy and Son, 1850), 3.) These rights prevented the federal government from directing land sales in western New York and the rights were bought and sold throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By the time the eighteenth century came to a close the Holland Land Company, a consortium of Dutch bankers, owned the rights. In 1797 after the Treaty of Big Tree extinguished Seneca title to all but 200,000 acres of land, the Holland Land Company spent an enormous amount of money and manpower on surveying and incorporating western New York. (William Chazanof, Joseph Ellicott and the Holland Land Company. (Syracuse: Syracuse Univeristy Press, 1970), 22.)

Joseph Ellicott was charged with surveying the almost four million acre territory beginning in 1797. The survey took two years and required the employment of 150 men. Ellicott’s undertaking was named the “Great Survey” and included adjusting the boundaries of the Seneca reservations during the survey that had been agreed upon at the negotiations at Big Tree. (Brian Phillips Murphy. Building the Empire State: Political Economy in the Early Republic. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 166-177.) Although the Holland Land Company had no authority to be present at the Big Tree negotiations, because they already invested money in land speculation in western New York, the company gave money to both the interpreters and the federal agent present at the treaty to ensure that the Seneca were left with only 200,000 acres. (Chazanof, 22.) The Holland Land Company’s bribe of the federal commissioner at Big Tree directly violated the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790, which gave the federal government sole authority to deal with Native groups. (“An Act to Regulate Trade and Intercourse With the Indian Tribes, July 22, 1790.” The Treaty of Big Tree in 1797 was the result of illegal private interests, violating federal law in order to extinguish Seneca title to land west of the Genessee River.

The process of surveying land across the United States was made complicated by the existence of Native reservations. Later nineteenth and early twentieth century federal policy to move reservations farther and farther west and eventually encourage Native groups to move off of reservations altogether shows how complicated the process of westward expansion truly was. This was especially true of the Seneca reservations in New York at the end of the eighteenth century. Not only were the reservations not in the same square grid as the townships, but the Treaty of Big Tree included that Ellicott consult the Seneca on the exact boundaries of their reservations. (Chazanof, 24.) Incorporation was again complicated because the Holland Land Company ran into issues when trying to distribute these parcels beginning in 1801. Ellicott wanted to play a larger role in distributing the individual parcels, but he misjudged the interest in lands in western New York from season to season. Parcels were sold unevenly rather than across the grid and not as quickly as the company anticipated. (Wyckoff, 119.)

Holland Company officials blamed Ellicott for selling to “pioneers” who did not turn into proper settlers quickly enough. Rather than settling down and farming the land, the individuals who purchased from Ellicott extracted marketable resources, like timber, from their parcels. By the 1820s, the Holland Land Company was over four million dollars in debt and Joseph Ellicott was fired. (Charles E. Brooks. Frontier Settlement and Market Revolution: The Holland Land Purchase. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 84.) The rhetoric surrounding Seneca land claims and attempted removal is baffling considering the uneven and chaotic nature of land settlement in western New York. The argument used to convince the Seneca to give up their land, the same argument which formed the basis of Manifest Destiny, was that white populations would overrun Native groups. White population pressures would compel or force Natives to give their land to the United States. This was rarely the case. A comparison of the white population and Seneca reservation boundaries shows that land company officials falsely argued that white population pressures in western New York would overrun the Seneca.

This project explores the “Great Survey” of 1797-1799 utilizing census data and georeferenced surveys of intended and actual land cessions. By examining the relationship between white population pressures and the contestation of reservation boundaries using maps created by the Holland Land Company, and by reading between land company aspirations and the actual outcomes of treaties and land cessions, it is clear that Native actions shaped the physical landscape of western New York. The Seneca, the state and federal governments, the land companies, and white settlers grappled with and understood sovereignty and space-making in very different ways. The use of maps created by the Holland Land Company as aspirational rather than documentary show how the changing landscape in western New York was altered by intersecting and conflicting sovereignties.

The maps used for this project are from the archives of the Holland Land Company and were digitized by the Archives and Special Collections of the Daniel A. Reed Library at SUNY Fredonia. Most of the maps were created by Joseph Ellicott, but for many of the maps it is unclear exactly who created them. It is likely that other surveyors employed by the Holland Land Company also created some of the maps used for this project. I created graphs that compare acreage of each reservation between 1799 and 1829 and white population by county between 1790 and 1820. More questions are raised about why the Holland Land Company believed they could pressure the Seneca into selling their lands when the population census data and reservation acreage data are placed side by side in a line graph.

In the line graph with only two lines, comparing acres with population, the reservation acres are represented by the blue line, while the populations of the counties in western New York are represented by the orange line. The line graph shows that although government and land company officials believed Seneca land would easily be acquired through treaty negotiations, the Seneca did not give up a significant portion of land between 1790 and 1829. The acreage decreased slightly in 1800, but increased steadily to 1829. There is no treaty associated with 1800, which indicates that the 1800 map was likely a possibility for reservation boundaries during the Great Survey. There was a decrease again in reservation acres in 1802 to 18,829, although again there was no treaty associated with this date. The decrease in reservation acres in both 1800 and 1802 points to the possibility that land surveyors envisioned a decrease in reservation acres after the Great Survey. If this is so the maps drawn in 1800 and 1802 were likely aspirational on the part of the land surveyors.

In 1790, reservation acres were measured at 21,210 while the white population of all of the counties in western New York was 1,074. By 1829, the reservations were at 20,782 acres while the twelve counties in western New York had a white population of 273,195. It is clear that the Seneca did not lose very many acres between 1800 and 1829, even though the white population grew slowly between 1790 and 1800 and then quickly between 1800 and 1829. Despite the argument that the Seneca would be pushed off their land by white settlers in the 1790s, the graphs show that the increase in the white population did not compel the Seneca to sell land during this period, perhaps revealing that the Seneca did not see their white neighbors as a threat before 1829.

The census data indicates that there was no white population in the western most portion of New York in 1790. Although this may not be entirely accurate as 1790 was the first federal census and western New York was not yet surveyed as formally incorporated into the state, it is likely that the white population was not very high. Transcripts from treaty negotiations throughout the 1790s and into the nineteenth century show that negotiators for the land companies and federal government tried to convince the Seneca that pressure from their white neighbor population was a reason they should give up their land. (Red Jacket. “The Treaty of Canandaigua, 1794” in The Collected Speeches of Sagoyewatha, or Red Jacket, ed. Granville Ganter (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2006), 66; Red Jacket “The Treaty of Big Tree” in The Collected Speeches of Sagoyewatha, or Red Jacket, ed. Granville Ganter (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2006), 91.) At the Treaty of Big Tree in 1797, Thomas Morris, who held the treaty negotiations to extinguish Seneca title in order to sell to the Holland Land Company, argued that the Seneca were already surrounded by their white neighbors. (Ganter. The Collected Speeches of Sagoyewatha, or Red Jacket, 86.) But the census data does not indicate a heavy white population living in the region where most of the Seneca reservations were. Red Jacket, a Seneca leader, counter argued that the Seneca would be overrun by white neighbors only if they gave up more land. (Red Jacket. “The Treaty of Big Tree” in The Collected Speeches of Sagoyewatha, or Red Jacket, ed. Granville Ganter (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2006), 91.) Seneca arguments for remaining on their land focused more on the fact that the Seneca were a sovereign nation, not on the white population.

While it is possible that the white population increased between 1790 and the Great Survey in the late 1790s, the prediction by land company officials of an influx of white settlers in the area appears to be aspirational rather than what was happening on the ground. Even by the 1800 census, the two counties that made up western New York were very lightly populated. Like the rest the United States throughout the nineteenth century, many American leaders believed the land would be filled evenly and rapidly as Americans expanded westward under Manifest Destiny. But in western New York, as Joseph Ellicott’s failures to rapidly settle the land show, these white treaty negotiators used exaggerated information to persuade the Seneca to give up portions of their land. Although the 1799 map and earlier maps in the collection show the western most portion of New York State as fully incorporated into the rest of the state as we see on maps today, this was clearly not the case in terms of political control and citizen population.

This false sense of incorporation became more clear after I layered and georeferenced the Holland Land Company maps. I outlined the reservation boundaries for each map and calculated the acreage of each reservation for each year and added the modern reservation boundaries. I added county boundaries and census data from the years 1790, 1800, 1810, and 1820. This allowed me to look at the shift and growth in county boundaries over time and how they overlapped with reservation boundaries. The first visualization using QGIS shows the 1790 white populations divided by county with the reservations from 1799 layered over the counties. While white population growth in Ontario county, the western most county in New York, is very likely in this nine year period, it is unlikely that the white population grew to a size that would put pressure on the Seneca to relocate, as the “Great Survey” was still taking place in 1799. This space had not been completely bounded and divided by the Holland Land Company and Joseph Ellicott had not yet begun his efforts to promote white settlement.

1790 counties, 1799 reservation
1790 white population census data and 1799 reservation boundaries

The second visualization using QGIS shows that by 1800, Ontario county was divided into Ontario and Steuben counties, but white population was still very light compared to counties in eastern New York. These maps comparing white population with reservation boundaries show again that while U.S. Commissioners throughout the 1790s made the argument that the Seneca would be compelled to sell their lands as pressure from white neighbors increased, the white population in western New York was not large enough to warrant any actual threat to Seneca land possessions. Federal and land company officials used false information to try to force the Seneca to give up land, as these officials legally had nothing else to bargain with. The preemption clause allowed for the Seneca to sell land only when they chose to sell land. If the land company wanted to acquire more land from the Seneca, they would have to do so illegally, as they often did into the nineteenth century.

1800 census data of white population and 1800 reservation boundaries
1800 white population census data and 1800 reservation boundaries

One inconsistency is revealed in the map layers themselves. On the map created by the Holland Land Company in 1800, the Cattaraugus Reservation is shown as two pieces, while on every other map used in this project, it is drawn as one reservation with a consistent shape. Because this map was drawn at approximately the same time the Great Survey was wrapping up, it is plausible that the shapes shown on the 1800 map were a possibility for the resurveying of the Cattaraugus reservation based on Seneca demands, as the Treaty of Big Tree in 1797 stipulated that the Seneca had to work with Ellicott to determine their exact reservation boundaries. The Cattaraugus reservation on other maps borders Lake Erie, but takes up very little shore line. But the map in 1810 shows Cattaraugus bordering a much larger portion of the lake. There is documentation for Ellicott surveying the Buffalo Creek reservation away from the shore of Lake Erie in 1798. He knew the importance of controlling the land along Lake Erie and excluded that portion of the lake shore from the Buffalo Creek reservation in his survey. Ellicott called the shore “one of the Keys to the Companies land.” (Chazanof, 26.) This could also be the case with the Cattaraugus reservation as it would be logical that the Seneca would want to control more shore line of Lake Erie. Alternately, Cattaraugus as drawn in 1810 looks as though the surveyor was trying to push the land flat against the western most edge of New York State so as to separate Seneca lands more clearly from the surveyed townships. It is possible that an explanation for this inconsistency exists in the field notes of the survey.

In the visualization showing the percent change in reservation acres over time, there was a 75% increase in the acres of the Cattaraugus reservation from 1799 to 1800, showing that Cattaraugus when divided into the two shapes was much larger than when in one piece. But by the map drawn in 1802 there was a 31.2% decrease in the amount of acres when Cattaraugus was depicted as one piece again. The increase in the percentage complicates this story further, as it would not make sense for a land surveyor to increase the acres of the Cattaraugus reservation by such a large percentage if it were the goal of the company to reduce Seneca land claims. This inconsistency again will require further research into the field notes of the Holland Land Company archive.

Together, these visualizations show that despite the Holland Land Company’s belief that they would quickly make a lot of money from selling Seneca lands, acquiring Seneca territory was not as easy as they thought. Even with the acquisition of the title, the Holland Land Company could not predict how many people would move to western New York, their settlement patterns once they arrived, or how settlers would use the land once it was sold. Despite arguments made by the land company, the state, and the federal government about inevitable white population pressures as an early form of Manifest Destiny, Seneca landholding remained steady in the early nineteenth century as they resisted pressure from the land company to give up their territory.

Primary and Secondary Sources

“An Act to Regulate Trade and Intercourse With the Indian Tribes, July 22, 1790.”

Brooks, Charles E. Frontier Settlement and Market Revolution: The Holland Land Purchase. Ithaca: Cornell University Press,    1996.

Chazanof, William. Joseph Ellicott and the Holland Land Company. Syracuse: Syracuse Univeristy Press, 1970.

Ganter, Granville. The Collected Speeches of Sagoyewatha, or Red Jacket. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2006.

Murphy, Brian Phillips. Building the Empire State: Political Economy in the Early Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Seneca Nation of New York. Memorial of the Seneca Indians to the President of the United States, Also an Address from the Committee of Friends, Who Have Extended Care to These Indians, and an Extract From the Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Baltimore: Printed by William Wooddy and Son, 1850.

Tiro, Karim. The People of the Standing Stone: The Oneida Nation from the Revolution through the Era of Removal. Amherst:          University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.

Wycoff, William. The Developer’s Frontier: The Making of the Western New York Landscape. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.


“Genesee Lands with Tracts Granted by Robert Morris to HLC; 1799? :: SUNY Fredonia.” Accessed February 13, 2016.

“Land Possessed by HLC in New York and Pennsylvania; 1800? :: SUNY Fredonia.” Accessed February 13, 2016.

“Map of the Genesee Territory with Roads, Counties and Towns: 1802 :: SUNY Fredonia.” Accessed February 2, 2016.

“Map of Genesee Accompanying the Account of 1812 :: SUNY Fredonia.” Accessed February 2, 2016.

“Map of Genesee with Townships in Counties & Inhabitants; 1814? :: SUNY Fredonia.” Accessed February 2, 2016.

“Map of the Western Part of the State of New York Including the Holland Purchase, Exhibiting Its Division into Counties and Towns :: SUNY Fredonia.” Accessed February 13, 2016.

“Map of Tracts H, M, O, P, Q, W, the Indian Resevations & Roads; 1829 :: SUNY Fredonia.” Accessed January 31, 2016.

GIS and Spatial History: Uses and Limitations

The first reading for this week, “Making a Map with QGIS” covered how to install and use QGIS. QGIS is a geographic information system that allows users to add different types of data using different types of “layers.” The article focused a lot on the frustrations that users face when trying to create a project using QGIS. The author described the program as a “general mapping tool” which does not automatically carry out functions without explicit instructions from the user. For anyone who has used QGIS “general” does not seem like the right word, as the user can easily be overwhelmed by the amount of functions on the screen. The symbols representing these functions do not seem to exist elsewhere, so the program requires lots of trial and error.
One of the reasons that first-time users often get frustrated is that QGIS does not automatically display a map. The user can choose the type of map they would like to use (like google maps) and then layer geographic and social data on top of that map. The author argues that by pulling in this information yourself and creating from scratch exactly what you are trying to display is why QGIS is such a powerful tool. This is because QGIS is not just used for geographic analysis. The user can analyze “people, commodities, ideas, political power…” and then relate that information to geographic space.
The next reading on the same site called “Linking and Styling Data with QGIS” walked the reader through how to make meaning out of data the user chooses to put into the program. “The challenge lies in finding (or creating) the data you need, as well as making different sets of data work with each other.” The author shows the user how to relate census information (population by U.S. counties) to the geographic information imported into the program in “Making a Map with QGIS.” It is the user’s responsibility to pull in all relevant information, but also to delete irrelevant information within the data (in this case, population by state). Through this process, the user not only places data in geographic space, but makes sense of it visually. Because the author of both these articles focused so much on the difficulties of using QGIS, it makes the reader hesitant to try a program like this. Having to “haul” oneself up the learning curve of QGIS sounds painful (it totally is).
“What is Spatial History?” by Richard White ( The Middle Ground Richard White) covers the way that historians have used and resisted digital history to study spatial history. White does not see spatial history as a major “turn” in the way that history is practiced, he just sees it as a new way to do history. While he may not see it as a turn, the early examples of data visualization of space seem to come from the same time that environmental history as we know it today became popular. William Cronon (White’s first example) is considered one of the pioneers of environmental history and White himself has frequently fallen into this category throughout his career. While not all of White’s examples in the article can be tied to environmental history, these two methods seem to be coming out of the same historical moment.

White argues that spatial history differs from traditional history in a few important ways. Spatial history is more collaborative. It often requires collaboration between historians, students, GIS specialists, and computer scientists. There is also a focus on visualization rather than text and it relies much more heavily on digital history. He says the most important difference is the “focus conceptually on space.” White then defines the ways that space can be studied, based on the work of a philosopher in “The Production of Space.” According to the philosopher, there is a difference between spatial practice, representations of space, and representational space. Spatial practice “involves the segregation of certain kinds of constructed spaces and their linkages through human movement.” Representations of space are things created by people like architects or surveyors that try to shape how people live and move. Representational space is the space that overlaps physical space but has symbolic meaning to people and shapes the way they live, like a church.

White argues that what ties all of these spatial constructions together is movement. This is why spatial studies cannot rely on maps and text alone. Text and maps are static while movement is not. Another issue that White brings up is that historians like GIS because it allows historians to make sense of historical maps using modern mapping systems and conceptions of space. While GIS can help to reveal something on the original map that was not obvious before, some historians have been resistant to this use of GIS as the construction of space has not been consisted across time or between cultures. White also points out that there is a difference between what he calls “absolute physical space” and “relational space.” This is particularly interesting for those working on the walking tours as physical space would be something measurable, like distance. Relational space could be anything from time of day the person was traveling, traffic, or mode of transportation. By creating a walking tour, we know the mode of transportation (and if it were scheduled, the time of day) and in a way are constructing space in relation to historic spaces.

White’s final point is what he considers most important. To him, visualization and spatial history is a means of doing research, not a way to display information discovered elsewhere. Creating these projects is a way to come up with new questions and see relationships that may not have been revealed using other methods. Spatial history is there to support research, not be the research itself. The final reading was a spatial history project that White worked on with some of his students. The project “Western Railroads and Eastern Capital” seemed to be a mix between a project created with GIS and a network project. It was not the easiest project to understand based just on the visualization, but the description showed that the project was intended to analyze how running a railroad in the west was tied to friends, families and investors in the east.

Discussion Questions:

Why does the author of “Making a Map in QGIS” differentiate geographic data from the social data tied to the maps (like census data from individual states)?

While the social data is not inherently geographic, how is the author understanding how the data is categorized if not by geographic (or constructed geographic, like state boundaries) space?

Do you see a strong connection between spatial history and environmental history? If spatial history is just a tool for writing traditional history, where do the other projects in the article fit?

Do you see any problems with using “modern space and mapping conventions” to georeference historical 2D maps? What potential problems or limitations could a user trying to overlay these maps run into?

Did you find the visualizations in Western Railroads and Eastern Capital” difficult to read? How helpful was the descriptive information accompanying the visualization?

Historiography of settler-colonialism

In the 1960s, historians and scholars in related disciplines began to analyze the recent decolonization happening across the globe. Because decolonization was such a recent political issue, the study of colonialism, decolonization, and post-colonialism easily extended into other fields beyond historical study. Scholars across these fields began to formulate terms, methodologies, and categories for understanding the process of decolonization. This became problematic as fields, even within the social sciences or humanities, do not necessarily speak to each other very easily. Differences in terminology, coupled with the roughly five hundred year time span making up the colonial period, resulted in a variety of fascinating studies of colonialism and decolonization but also the creation of a very broad field riddled with fractures and limitations.
Frederick Cooper speaks to exactly these issues in his 2005 book Colonialism in Question. He asks, “How can one study colonial societies, keeping in mind—but not being paralyzed by—the fact that the tools of analysis we use emerged from the history we are trying to examine?” (Cooper, 4) While he finds value in the work on colonialism published between 1970 and 2005, the field was too tightly bounded as the “colonial” period, cut off from surrounding time periods. He argues that future historians should reconsider colonialism’s place in history, keeping in mind the possible dangers of un-bounding the period and its legacy on the way history is written. Cooper criticizes how the field of history has limited the study of colonialism in particular. Because historians have certain standards they must live up to, like publishing in certain journals, historians are limited in how far they are willing to go with their analysis. He also finds the “turns” in history problematic because historians find one aspect of the history most important at a particular moment, something he refers to as the “bandwagon effect.” (Cooper, 5)
By focusing on specific conceptual and methodological issues, Cooper believes he and future historians can avoid the problems that have previously plagued the field. Rather than a series of turns, he sees colonial histories as “overlapping and often conflicting perspectives, all in relation to the shifting politics of decolonization.” (Cooper, 7) His book reads as a historiography of colonialism and a guide for future work in the field. He focuses on “identity, globalization, and modernity.” While these terms are frequently used in the field, he believes historians need to explore the contexts in which they are being used so as to avoid analytic categories that obscure what they meant to historical actors. Cooper specifically explores the issues surrounding “globalization” because it “distorts the history of empires and colonization in order to fit into a story with a predetermined end.” (Cooper, 10) Mindful of the limitations of the concepts he criticizes, he reimagines colonialism over a longer period of time. Rather than seeing empires as nation-states projecting power outside their borders, he sees them as powers who were all concerned with incorporating people and territories. This allows him to analyze both European and non-European empires over the long-term. (Cooper, 11)
Cooper briefly discusses the United States as an empire and the problems it poses to the study of colonialism. He argues that while the nation-state has only been seen as the main form of sovereignty since the 1960s when the last empires collapsed, historians project this form of government onto the past as the only place where sovereignty can stem from. This obscures the differences between imperial and national empires and the different ways their subjects resisted them. (Cooper, 24) Cooper argues that the United States was especially unique, because even though its form of empire was not static and the power of the U.S. changed over time, “the United States may well have become a nation-state because it pretended to be one.” (Cooper, 195) The ways in which the United States incorporated new territories as equal parts allowed them to marginalize Native Americans from the nation in much the same ways other European powers did. Because theirs was a continental empire, the United States could carry on imperial activities by another name.
Joanne Barker analyzes exactly this issue that Cooper points to regarding the power of the United States. While sovereignty is an ancient term, colonists used it to negate “indigenous territorial rights and humanity which justified the right of conquest by claims to national superiority.” (Barker, 5) Because of this, only nations could possess sovereignty and the United States used this reasoning to dispossess indigenous peoples and justify the idea of Manifest Destiny. Constitutions and treaties were the primary ways sovereign nations articulated their sovereignty internationally. The strategies used by colonial powers to establish their sovereignty and have it recognized internationally bring up questions of the place of indigenous sovereignty. If the U.S. and other powers sign treaties with indigenous groups, is indigenous sovereignty recognized under international law? Why, then, have indigenous rights been disrupted through treaty making? She argues colonial powers see treaties with indigenous groups as part of their domestic policy. Rather than attributing the same rights to indigenous groups as to other sovereign nations under international law, colonial powers “defined sovereignty through the attributes of territorial integrity and jurisdiction.” (Barker, 5)Clearly, there is a contradiction in U.S. colonial actions that specifically targets indigenous peoples for marginalization.
Barker’s analysis of sovereignty and treaty making brings up broader questions about the use of European etymologies for indigenous groups. Why would sovereignty matter to indigenous people if it is not a concept that fully captures their understandings of law, territory, and government? After World War II, in what Cooper calls the post-colonial period, indigenous people also began to articulate their rights through the use of “sovereignty.” While the term was not new to them, in this period it allowed them to forward their political agendas and social movements to reclaim territory and resources. In the U.S., it allowed them indigenous groups to claim a special status as “peoples” rather than simply another minority group living within U.S. borders. (Barker, 19) Barker argues “…to understand how it matters and for whom, sovereignty must be situated within the historical and cultural relationships in which it is articulated.”(Barker, 26)
The connection between territory and sovereignty is a common thread running through all histories of colonial studies, but especially histories of settler-colonialism. In Mark Rifkin’s 2009 book Manifesting America, Rifkin engages Barker’s arguments about sovereignty to explain how and why the modern United States came into being. He points to the same territorial inclusion and indigenous exclusion, arguing that the United States reimagined “land formerly beyond the purview of U.S. governance as intimately embedded in national space; and produc[ed] subjectivities for involuntary interiorized peoples that are designed to testify to their non-coerced acceptance of their place in national life.” (Rifkin, 6) Unlike Barker, Rifkin is more concerned with the physical space of the nation than the sovereignty claimed based on that space. Rifkin also points to the way the United States envisioned itself as a nation-state, asserting that “the insistence…on the inherent coherence and contiguity of national geography suggests that political pressure coalesced around the image of unbroken unity within American borders.” (Rifkin, 5) The assertion by the United States that it was and always has been a united nation denies its role as an imperial power, justifying territorial inclusion and indigenous exclusion. The existence of a nation flattens conflicting claims over territory and jurisdiction, making the existence and power of the United States “incontestable.” Because of this, Indian policy is seen as outside of the norm rather than as the crux of U.S. power. Rifkin argues that there does not need to be a “categorical distinction between imperialism and republicanism” because in the case of the United States they are one in the same. (Rifkin, 13) This reality makes it even more difficult for indigenous people within the territory claimed by the United States to assert their rights and sovereignty.
Historian Lauren Benton is also concerned with the mapping of physical spaces as a tool of empire. While focusing more broadly on European empires, like Rifkin, Benton points to the difference between colonial aspiration and the reality of control on the ground. Rather than mirroring the monochrome shading of imperial maps, imperial possessions were often “uneven, disaggregated, and oddly shaped.” (Benton, 2) Not only did imperial territories have varying levels of actual imperial control, Benton argues there were variations in the agents of empire, from pirates to travelers, who brought with them varying degrees of imperial loyalty and authority adding to the patchwork nature of these territories. (Benton, 3)
Previously, historians have read the unevenness of territorial rule as a temporary stage on the way to a solidified imperial rule. But Benton argues that this is to project backward the idea that territory was the defining element of sovereignty. As Cooper and Barker also argue, the marriage of sovereignty to territory is a post-nineteenth century ideal. While throughout the colonial period territory was a part of colonial control, Benton argues that other “spheres of influence” also played a significant role in how empires envisioned their power. (Benton, 3)Even with the creation of modern nation-states, territorial power was still uneven especially, as Rifkin points out, in the United States. While historians may find the use of imperial mapping Eurocentric, Benton finds that cartography was in no way limited to European powers, as both Muslim and Asian empires influenced and were influenced by European cartography. Also, indigenous understandings of space shaped the ways European cartographers imagined physical space. Because indigenous ideas of territoriality were not all that different from European ideas, historians can see “the ways that Europeans invoked existing geographic categories in imagining ‘new’ worlds.” (Benton, 14)
Each of these books ties together geography, law, and sovereignty together in unique yet intersecting ways. Together they reveal the similarities across imperial powers. Each empire found ways to express sovereignty through bounding physical spaces (whether on maps or in power on the ground), extending legal jurisdiction (often in uneven ways) over these spaces, and organizing and marginalizing the indigenous peoples they encountered. The historians who study this process, while approaching it from very different backgrounds, have created a coherent study which now more frequently includes indigenous peoples as prominent historical actors. While in 2005, Cooper was frustrated with the boundaries and limitations on the field as a whole, in analyzing works on colonialism and settler-colonialism since then, the long-term continuity Cooper was calling for seems to have been realized. “We know sovereignty when we see it…Yet we also know that sovereignty is often more myth than reality, more a story that polities tell about their own power than a definite quality they possess.” (Benton, 279) This idea is now recognized by all historians working in the field of colonial studies. There are many, many long-term studies of European colonial powers. Now, these methodologies and categories of analyses would be best suited for a broader study of the U.S. as an imperial power. While historians like Rifkin and Barker have begun this process, the unique character of the United States as an imperial power requires further exploration to place Native American action and resistance into a larger, global context.


Barker, Joanne, ed. Sovereignty Matters: Locations of Contestation and Possibility in Indigenous Struggles for Self-      Determination. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Benton, Lauren. A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900. New York: Cambridge   University Press, 2009.

Cooper, Frederick. Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Rifkin, Mark. Manifesting America: The Imperial Construction of U.S. National Space. Oxford; New York: Oxford University    Press, 2009.

Intro to Spreadsheets

For the data from sheet 1, I compared median wages of all men and median wages of all women using a bar graph and a histogram. The story told based on both these charts is fairly straight forward, showing that men made higher wages than women. The data from sheet 2, I compared the median number of male workers in the food, alcohol, publishing, luxury, and clothing industries. I also compared the median wages of the men in those industries. The story told by those charts shows how many men were working in each industry and compared typical wages for each industry. Beyond the technical, the main issue I encountered was putting the data in a larger context and finding value in information that I have not previously researched. Because all we have is the information in the industry census, it is difficult to answer the question “why is this important?” which is usually what historians ask first. What is the point of comparing the median of male employees in certain industries and the median of their wages? We can find out what was typical for wages in Albany for male employees between the industries and as a whole between men and women in the 1860s, but with the absence of corresponding primary sources, analysis of the data cannot be taken much further than that. Generally, I think historians would try to determine if any of their data is out of the ordinary, but the stories told in my graphs do not present information that is surprising. Both the scatter plots and the bar graphs seem to be most helpful for comparison. The scatter plot is helpful in showing what overlaps and what does not. The bar graph and histogram show the same type of comparative relationship, but the way the data is displayed in separate columns makes the overlap less obvious.