Race, Removal, and the Right to Remain: Removal and the British Empire

Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day! We’re happy to be celebrating the first-ever presidential proclamation of this day in which we appreciate Native Americans and their land that we colonized and continue to occupy. In an effort to help celebrate this new proclamation, read an excerpt from Samantha Seeley’s Omohundro Institute and UNC Press recently published book, Race, Removal, and the Right to Remain: Migration and the Making of the United States. In the country’s founding decades, federal and state politicians debated which categories of people could remain and which should be subject to removal. The result was a white Republic, purposefully constructed through contentious legal, political, and diplomatic negotiation. But, as Samantha Seeley demonstrates, removal, like the right to remain, was a battle fought on multiple fronts.

The seventeenth-century English Atlantic world was a world of motion, as colonial projects sent people toward the Americas. Atlantic crossings were largely made by those who were bound to labor for someone else. Demands for labor in the Caribbean and North America brought three hundred thousand English, upward of twenty thousand Irish, and seven thousand Scottish migrants to the English colonies over the course of the century. Half of them were indentured servants with contracts that obligated them to remain in service for a set number of years, while a much smaller number were convicted prisoners from England and Scotland also subject to terms of indenture. By the eighteenth century, the great majority were forced African migrants. Enslaved Africans taken to the English colonies far outnumbered indentured servants.

Removal and seventeenth-century English colonization went hand in hand. Migration was calculated, something to be managed by the monarch toward the ends of empire. In vagrancy statutes, Elizabethan poor laws, and criminal transportation, expulsion was the punishment and solution for a variety of social ills. English monarchs, their counselors, and colonial promoters believed that the transportation of large groups of people to new colonies would reform those convicted of crimes, suppress rebellion, support claims to territory, and mitigate poverty while funneling laboring men and women to North America. English traders took thousands of Africans into bondage in the English colonies, in part by defining them as removable. In the colonies themselves, English migrants used removal once again as they attempted to dispossess Native people.

Whether forced, coerced, or free, transatlantic migrants entered a Native world that had also been in motion long before Europeans appeared. In the early thirteenth century, Mississippian societies—characterized by concentrated towns surrounded by villages and centered on maize agriculture—had predominated across the Eastern Woodlands for centuries. On the eve of European arrival in the Americas, those centralized communities had begun to disperse and form new confederacies that would dominate the eastern half of the continent by the seventeenth century. Those polities already sought to expel outsiders to their benefit. When the English set foot in what is now Virginia, the Powhatan Confederacy was in the process of replacing rival chiefdoms along the Chesapeake Bay’s coastal plain with those they had subjugated. Haudenosaunees would similarly displace outsiders, broadening the boundaries of Iroqouia in what is now New York. Up and down the Atlantic seaboard, seventeenth-century Native people fought English colonization and defended their borders by keeping colonial settlements to the coasts. For Indigenous people, as for transatlantic migrants, who moved and where had enormous consequences.

Before the United States appeared on any map, removal had an extensive history in North America. British imperial officials relied on it as an instrument of colonization. Fueled by removal, the British Empire expanded dramatically by the eighteenth century. Removal made population serve the growing empire. Later, it would come to inform early national debates about population and who constituted the people in the new United States. British precedents lay the groundwork for those early national debates.

Early modern English thinkers vaunted removal as a crucial tool of governance—a way to harness population to the ends of state building. Accounting for population, however, had not always been important to how the English made sense of the world. Before the seventeenth century, European writers debated whether counting people was desirable or even useful. The first censuses taken in Europe were accounts made after the plagues of the Middle Ages, as societies sought to comprehend the devastation of epidemic disease. More routine curiosity in population only emerged later, in the seventeenth century. Colonization drove an interest in demography—a field for which European writers had no name. In an era of Atlantic connection and migration, counting people suddenly seemed important. What Molly Farrell has called “human accounting” lay at the center of English ventures in North America. As Native people grappled with the arrival of Europeans on their shores, they also used population counts to make sense of the changes the outsiders brought with them. Counting people provided a way to comprehend the vast new epidemiological, political, and cultural worlds that Europeans, Africans, and Natives had created by the seventeenth century.

Sixteenth-century English colonial promoters took advantage of this newfound preoccupation with counting people to propose North American ventures as solutions for the social ills they associated with high population density. Between 1560 and 1600, England’s population increased from three to four million people. Enclosures, poor harvests, and declining wages prompted the long-distance migration of people from rural areas to towns. English thinkers argued that these changes caused poverty and criminality, two mounting social ills that needed to be managed. Most dangerous in their eyes were those they called vagrants, the able-bodied poor who traveled looking for work and opportunity beyond their home counties. Vagrancy had been categorized as a criminal offense in the fourteenth century, but vagrancy statutes proliferated as long-distance migration became more prominent. From the late sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries, a series of thirteen poor laws defined the poverty of the able bodied as lawlessness.

Samantha Seeley is assistant professor of history at the University of Richmond.