Indian Country and the Origins of the United States: An Excerpt from “Seeing Red”

The following is an excerpt of SEEING RED: Indigenous Land, American Expansion, and the Political Economy of Plunder in North America by Michael John Witgen (published with our publishing partners at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture) which is now available in paperback wherever books are sold.

Finalist, 2023 Pulitzer Prize in History

2023 James A. Rawley Prize, Organization of American Historians

“A searing account. . . . [Witgen’s] incisive and deeply researched study lays bar the mechanisms of this historical land grab.”—Publishers Weekly

Book Cover for Seeing Red: Indigenous Land, American Expansion, and the Political Economy of Plunder in North America by Michael John Witgen

Indian Country and the Origins of the United States

On April 1, 1840, the state legislature of Michigan created Unwattin County out of 573 square miles in the middle of the Lower Peninsula. Unwattin was the name of an Odawa ogimaa, a chief, who signed the 1836 Treaty of Washington. This treaty between the United States and the Anishinaabe doodemag, bands of Odawa and Ojibwe people living in the Upper and northern Lower Peninsula of what had been designated by the United States as the Michigan Territory, ceded approximately thirteen million acres of land to the Republic. In return, the United States agreed to an annual payment or annuity of $30,000 for twenty years. This treaty also provided a one-time payout of $300,000 to traders who claimed the Anishinaabeg owed them money for goods provided on credit that they had failed to pay back through trade in processed animal peltry. Finally, it allocated $150,000 to mixed-race Anishinaabeg as compensation for their part of the land cession, offering them a cash payment instead of the creation of a land base reserved for them in their home territory.

The 1836 Treaty of Washington was one of a large number of treaties that the United States negotiated with the Indigenous nations of the Northwest Territory, the name that the United States assigned to the region that would become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The treaty process in the Northwest Territory provided the United States with a largely peaceful means of forcing Native nations to cede their homelands to the Republic, even though the Republic already claimed dominion, or sovereignty, over them. The logic behind this claim derived from a semantic distinction; although the U.S. government recognized that Native people held title to their lands, it insisted that they had failed to take possession of these lands as property and therefore had never established sovereignty over them. These treaties, which established U.S. dominion over the Northwest Territory, represented a massive transfer of wealth from Native peoples to the citizens of the United States. Native peoples ceded title to their lands to the federal government, which then converted this territory into the public domain of the United States. The federal government, acting as the sole proprietor over this land base, made it available for purchase as private property to settlers. These settlers were almost exclusively white, and they took possession of this land at a subsidized price in exchange for settling Native homelands and making them part of the U.S. Republic. In doing so, they entered into a social contract with the United States. They would not be colonists settling a foreign territory for the mother country; rather, they were citizens creating homesteads and settlements in Indian country, which their government had deemed unsettled land over which it exercised dominion. Those settlements would be organized politically as territories administered by the federal government, and when the population grew to sixty thousand white settlers, the territories could seek admission to the union as states.

Treaty making between Native nations and the federal government was an involuntary or coercive process.

The treaty process in the Northwest Territory not only represented a massive transfer of wealth from Native peoples to white American settlers but also created a massive infusion of money in the form of specie into the regional economy. The federal government consistently spent more money meeting its treaty obligations than it allocated for the development of western territories. These treaties resulted in annuities or cash payments, which, though designated for Native peoples, mostly wound up in the hands of traders, territorial officials, and local merchants. Many of the white settlers, traders, and officials who claimed this money were able to do so because they had married into the Native communities that were being forced to bargain with the United States. These white interlocuters, who most often had Native wives and mixed-race children, facilitated the negotiation of treaties by acting as interpreters, counselors, and debt collectors to the leadership of Indigenous nations. Representatives of the federal government made it clear to Native leaders that these treaties were their only chance for compensation. In this sense, treaty making between Native nations and the federal government was an involuntary or coercive process. Together, the treaty process, the land cessions, the annuity payments, and the supply of goods and provisions to Native negotiators created a political economy of plunder.

Michael John Witgen (Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe) is professor in the Department of History and the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University.