An Unexpected Mechanism of Native Dispossession

The following is a guest blog post by Jonathan Todd Hancock, author of Convulsed States: Earthquakes, Prophecy, and the Remaking of Early America. Through varied peoples’ efforts to come to grips with the New Madrid earthquakes, Hancock reframes early nineteenth-century North America as a site where all of its inhabitants wrestled with fundamental human questions amid prophecies, political reinventions, and war.


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Because of their tremendous strength and geographical scope, there are references to the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-12 in archives throughout the United States.  Road trips have taken me across the Midwest and Deep South, though rarely west of the Mississippi River.  After many miles and years of digging, I realized that I needed to call off my search for new sources if I was ever going to finish the book.  But after moving to Little Rock, I made an exception to travel only a few blocks from my home to the Arkansas State Archives.  What I found there changed the way I think about Native American dispossession in the nineteenth century and where I live today.

In the archive was a paper trail connecting the first ever instance of federal disaster relief in the United States to the establishment of Little Rock and the territorial dispossession of the Quapaw Nation.  In 1815, the U.S. Congress passed the New Madrid Relief Act, legislation that entitled owners of earthquake-damaged land the ability to claim 160 acres elsewhere.  

Land relief certificates quickly became mechanisms of fraud, speculation, and ultimately, Native dispossession.  U.S. officials were surprised the extent of damaged land claimed by settlers, and they found forged and mistakenly assigned certificates.  “I will venture to say that the New Madrid law, as it is termed, has given rise to more fraud and downright villainy than any law ever passed by the Congress of the United States, and if claims are not immediately decided upon, will involve the citizens of Missouri in endless litigation and trouble,” warned one official.  He was right; the federal government addressed land claims at least into the 1870s. 

After amassing certificates from original landholders at cut-rate prices, a consortium of speculators from St. Louis applied them to territory in central Arkansas, where the certificates’ rising values increased territorial pressure on the Quapaw Nation.  In 1818, the Quapaws ceded thirty million acres south and west of the Arkansas River in exchange for a reservation of one million acres and annuities.  The speculators then sought to claim title to the U.S. land bordering the new Quapaw reservation, which is downtown Little Rock today.  Land certificates soon skyrocketed in value, but this was risky business.  A competing group of speculators used the 1814 Pre-Emption Act to claim that their purchase of a nearby hunting cabin entitled them to the same land.  The opposing parties lobbied the territorial courts and legislature, both to recognize their competing claims and to designate the land as the territory’s new capital.  Having secured the latter, the groups eventually compromised and split Little Rock between them for development.

The consequences of these machinations were devastating for the Quapaw Nation.  As settlers flooded in, the Quapaws ceded their reservation in exchange for land in northwestern Louisiana in another treaty in 1824.  Facing flooding and starvation in Louisiana, they briefly returned to pockets of their homelands in Arkansas before relocating to Indian Territory in 1833.

Investigating the results of the New Madrid Relief Act in Little Rock reframed my understanding of Native territorial dispossession in the era of the early U.S. republic.  It’s well-known among historians that financial speculation went hand-in-hand with military conquest and the implementation of the Indian Removal Act, but this episode demonstrated a subtler, though no less devastating, means of Native displacement in the early nineteenth century.  The fraud, legal wrangling, and risky, wildly fluctuating land market that facilitated the establishment of Little Rock seemed to be more of a foreshadowing of the Allotment Era than the pattern of Native land cession treaties after U.S. military conquest common to histories of relations between Native Nations and the early United States.

As a resident of Little Rock, learning about how federal disaster relief abetted Quapaw dispossession also became more than a historiographical matter to me.  In How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (2019), a wide-ranging manifesto about reorienting one’s techno-scattered attention from screens to physical places, Bay Area artist and writer Jenny Odell argues for the importance of respectfully learning about the Indigenous communities that inhabited — or still inhabit — present-day U.S. cities.  Land acknowledgments and visits to the remarkable website “Native Land” are useful entry points, but they shouldn’t be endpoints.  Instead, they should provoke a broader reassessment of how U.S. cities might better memorialize and educate their residents about the site-specific historical contexts and mechanisms of displacement there, as well as a consideration of contemporary relations between Native Nations and the cities and institutions established on their homelands.  


Jonathan Todd Hancock is associate professor of history at Hendrix College.