Category Archives: migration

Recent Historiography of Homesteading

From Homesteading the Plains Toward a New History, by Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), Kindle pp. 12-15:

Scholars have described homesteading as deeply flawed or unimportant or both; what’s the basis for their being so critical and dismissive? Their negative view is based on several shared understandings about homesteading—some scholars would call these characterizations “received wisdom,” lawyers would call them “stipulations,” and social scientists would term them “stylized facts.” They are what everyone “knows” to be true or agrees to treat as true, a simplified presentation of a perhaps more complicated train of empirical findings that adequately serves most purposes. Stylized facts operate as the preamble or premise, not the targets, of analysis. As we document in detail in succeeding chapters, scholars have adopted four findings about homesteading as stylized facts:

  • Homesteading was a minor factor in farm formation; most farmers purchased their land.
  • Most homesteaders failed to prove up their claims.
  • The homesteading process was rife with corruption and fraud.
  • Homesteading caused Indian land dispossession.

If these four assertions are true, it is easy to see why scholars would have a censorious view of homesteading and treat it as a minor factor in settlement.

The first stylized fact is that while homesteading has received a lot of popular attention, it was unimportant in creating actual farms; the historical reality, it is said, is less dramatic or romantic, and it is that most farmers simply bought their land. For example, mid-twentieth-century historian Fred Shannon declared that “less than a sixth of the new homes [i.e., farms] and a little over a sixth of the acreage [was] on land that came as a gift from the government. Eighty-four out of each hundred new farms had to be achieved either by subdivision of older holdings or by purchase.” In 2000 historians Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher asserted, “Most western settlers, it turns out, were not homesteaders.” The last generation or two of scholars have used the presumed unimportance of homesteading as reason enough to ignore it, increasingly treating it as a kind of ephemera of the period, like the Grange or utopian communities—once considered important but now receding in more sober retrospection. Why spend time and attention on a minor land program?

Scholars have moved on to other western topics and issues, and we can see their abandonment of homesteading in their college textbooks. Every scholarly discipline tends to express its “consensus” views in its textbooks—authors want instructors to adopt their books, and they know that to gain acceptance, their books must in general reflect the profession’s prevailing views (hence the often-lamented “lack of originality” in textbooks). Indeed, the common style is to omit source citations (except credits for reprinting copyrighted material) because, it is assumed, all the discipline’s practitioners “know” this information. When we examine college textbooks of American history, we find that homesteading has largely been written out of them, and in at least one case, it has been completely forgotten. Another way to see current historians’ marginal interest in homesteading is the absence of research articles on homesteading; we searched article titles in the leading American history journal, aptly called the Journal of American History, from 1965 through 2015, using JSTOR; JAH published no articles on homesteading during that fifty-year span. Homesteading, with its stylized facts, is no longer open to debate nor is it an appealing subject of research. One result of this abandonment is that virtually no one has worked to reconfirm or challenge the assertions and findings of the great mid-twentieth-century public land scholars like Benjamin Hibbard, Fred Shannon, Paul Gates, and Gilbert Fite, so when today’s scholars cite homesteading-related statistics in support of the first stylized fact, they almost always have to rely on decades-old compilations or calculations.

The second stylized fact, that most settlers who tried homesteading failed at it, is also deeply entrenched in the scholarly literature. Fred Shannon, the most forceful proponent of this point, defined “failure” as an entryman who failed to prove up and receive his or her patent—that is, someone who abandoned his or her claim. He then provided a statistical analysis as proof, and a long line of scholars adopted his work as authoritative. His writings remain the most frequently cited authority on this topic. Echoing (though not citing) Shannon, historian Alan Brinkley in 2012 declared, “The Homestead Act rested on a number of misperceptions. . . . Although [many] homesteaders stayed on Homestead Act claims long enough to gain title to their land, a much larger number abandoned the region before the end of the necessary five years.”

The third stylized fact, that homesteading was shot through with corruption and fraud, is the oldest point of consensus to be entrenched in the homesteading literature. In the 1880s public lands reformer Thomas Donaldson and GLO Commissioner William Sparks campaigned vigorously—so vigorously that Sparks was fired by President Cleveland—against land frauds. Historians then picked up the theme, and a long line of twentieth-century scholars complained about fraud, including Hibbard, Shannon, Roy Robbins, and Gates. Present-day scholars tend to situate homesteading in the rowdy, expansionist, proudly self-aggrandizing, and corrupt post–Civil War era, where financiers manipulated markets, trusts and industrial combines monopolized markets, congressmen offered themselves for sale, and the government granted to railroad companies immense tracts of public land with virtually no oversight. They found their notion of fraud-infested homesteading fit seamlessly into the same narrative, and they expected to find the same evils perverting it as had led to the theft of other public lands and assets. So historian Louis Warren, perhaps thinking he was expressing nothing controversial, simply noted, “After 1862, the federal government deeded 285 million acres to homesteaders. Half their claims were fraudulent, backed by false identities, fake improvements, or worse.”

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WW2 Internees in North Dakota

One of the books we bought in Lincoln, Nebraska, during our road trip up the Missouri River and back was Nebraska POW Camps, by Melissa Amateis Marsh (History Press, 2014). I blogged a passage from the Kindle edition in November 2018. The author lists North Dakota as among the few states without POW camps during World War II (along with Montana, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Vermont). However, Fort Lincoln in North Dakota did house internees who were designated “enemy aliens” but not enemy soldiers: including sailors from enemy nations, along with selected U.S. residents of German or Japanese ancestry. The Densho Encyclopedia online provides details.

There were two separate populations of Japanese American internees as well as German crews of ships seized in U.S. ports and resident German enemy alien internees. The very first prisoners at Fort Lincoln were 220 German seamen who arrived on May 31, 1941. The U.S. had detained crews from German ships docked in the U.S. since after the German attack on Poland in 1939, most of them at Ellis Island. More German seamen arrived after this initial group, and on December 20, 110 German enemy aliens arrived, most from the West Coast, bringing the population of Fort Lincoln to 410.

The first group of Japanese American internees consisted of over 1,100 Issei who arrived at Fort Lincoln in two groups in February of 1942: 415 from the West Coast arrived on February 9 and 715 more on February 26. Most of these men were immigrant community leaders—Buddhist priests, Japanese language school teachers, newspaper editors, and heads of Japanese immigrant economic or cultural organizations—who were arrested after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor but before the mass roundup of all Japanese Americans on the West Coast. Most came via short-term detention stations such as Tuna Canyon, Griffith Park, or San Pedro. Enemy Alien Hearing Boards convened at Ft. Lincoln in February for the German internees, most of whom were released or paroled afterwards. Hearings for the Japanese internees were marred by conflict between Korean immigrant translators and internees and resulted in three Issei requiring medical attention. Complaints to the Spanish consul resulted in an internal investigation by the INS that found that Issei had been unjustly abused and resulted in the dismissal of two interpreters and the suspension of three INS inspectors. Issei whom the boards “released” were allowed to rejoin their families at “assembly centers” or War Relocation Authority camps in the summer and fall of 1942; those ordered interned were transferred to army-run internment camps such as Lordsburg . By October 1942, nearly all of the Japanese and German internees had moved on, leaving just three hundred or so German seamen. As part of the general movement of enemy aliens from army run camps back to INS run camps in order to make room for the growing numbers of POWs, over 1,000 German enemy aliens moved to Ft. Lincoln starting in March 1943, joining the remaining German seamen and pushing the camp’s population to over 1,500.

The second group of Japanese Americans at Ft. Lincoln arrived in early 1945 and were mostly young Nisei and Kibei who had been incarcerated at Tule Lake. This younger group were among the 5,400 at Tule Lake who, under duress, renounced their U.S. citizenship, enabling the Department of Justice to intern them in DOJ camps as “enemy aliens” and to deport them. Reasons for renouncing varied, ranging from anger and protest against the country that imprisoned them, to fear of being forcibly relocated again without a job or housing or community support while the war with Japan raged on. While an initial group identified as leaders of community resistance in Tule Lake were sent to Santa Fe, there was not enough room there to accommodate all. With the numbers of German enemy alien internees and German seamen down to about 700, less than half of the peak, there was room at Fort Lincoln. As a result, about 650 were transferred from Tule Lake on February 10, arriving at Ft. Lincoln on February 14. One hundred more renunciants were transferred from Tule Lake to Ft. Lincoln in July 1945. The U.S. prepared to deport two-thirds of this group in November and December 1945; however, many had changed their minds about renouncing and going to Japan. With the aid of lawyer Wayne Collins, most were able to avoid deportation and to eventually recover their U.S. citizenship. The last of the German internees were sent to Ellis Island in February 1946. The last to leave were 200 of the Tule Lake group, who left on March 6 for Santa Fe. In total, 3,850 internees passed through Ft. Lincoln.

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Homesteaders vs. Land Speculators

From Homesteading the Plains Toward a New History, by Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), Kindle pp. 8-10:

A second pressure forcing the government to divest itself of its land were speculators, or less pejoratively, land investors, who were a continual presence. Squatters took action right on the land, but speculators operated everywhere, not only on the ground but in nearby cities like Omaha and Denver, in fashionable New York and Boston offices, and in the halls of Congress. The Nebraska City News in September 1867, for example, noted that “seven thousand acres of land lying west of Lincoln were entered by a gentleman from Pennsylvania” and the Kansas Farmer groused that the worst land monopolists used agricultural college scrip to gobble up vast tracts. Although it was (and is) easy to focus on the few immensely successful and therefore notorious speculators, the truth was that nearly every landowner tried to profit from rising land prices. Indeed, many players both large and small invested in land, a long-established activity that was hardly dishonorable. Aside from Henry George and the Single-Taxers, no serious effort was made to prevent people from profiting from the rising value of their land, for the simple fact that it was widely assumed to be the landowner’s right, and besides, so many hoped to benefit.

Stories of speculators profiting from insider dealing, fraud, and outright theft provoked great outrage because most people distinguished between those landowners, labeled “speculators,” who were only interested in profiting from the rising value of their holdings, and the quicker the better, and other landowners, “actual settlers” in the words of the Homestead Act’s title, who wanted land as a long-term holding on which to build a farm and create a lifetime livelihood. The St. Paul Weekly Pioneer, observing that two whole counties had nearly been gobbled up by speculators using agricultural college scrip and military bounty warrants, thundered, “These two counties had far better have been visited by the locusts of Egypt or the grasshoppers of the Red River than by these speculators.” The fact that some actual settlers did not succeed, and others changed their plans after the hard experience of trying to make a farm in hostile conditions, did not change matters. Moreover, as Gilbert Fite has noted, “Despite the fact that millions of acres fell into the hands of corporations and speculators who held them for profitable prices, there was no real lack of good land on the Minnesota, Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas frontier in the late 1860s and early 1870s.” Nineteenth-century farmers were said to be perpetually overinvested in land, betting that land prices would rise, and as historian Roy Robbins explained, “Many settlers had invested in lands on credit hoping to pay out of the increase in the value of their holdings. . . . Some were able to do so but many were not.” Investors who grabbed title to public land simply to profit from its rising price were widely disliked, although they had much influence in the halls of Congress and other power centers.

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Preemptive Homesteaders: Squatters

From Homesteading the Plains Toward a New History, by Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), Kindle pp. 7-8:

Even if the federal government had not wanted to distribute its land, it would have found it nearly impossible to avoid it—indeed, in those instances where it tried to restrict settlement, it almost uniformly failed. The first pressure it faced was the constant rush of squatters onto public land. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many people eagerly sought land in the unsettled regions of the public domain to make farms for themselves. Like the flow of illegal immigration today, squatting was pervasive, insistent, unstoppable, and enjoyed considerable public sympathy. Attempts to hold off unauthorized settlement proved futile, whether in the Military Tracts, the Black Hills, or Indian lands elsewhere. The modern eye might see nineteenth-century government land programs as similar to today’s real estate projects, say, a new housing development where interested buyers show up to consider purchasing property that has been clearly defined and laid out. But squatting meant that the process occurred in reverse order: settlers moved into an unorganized region and claimed land, and the laws and surveys and titles raced to catch up.

The long history of preemption mapped this phenomenon. “Preemption” was simply a euphemism for legalizing squatters. Starting in 1830, Congress periodically passed preemption acts which, recognizing the reality on the ground, forgave intrusions by squatters and allowed them to legalize their claims. These bills in effect said that squatting was wrong, but as with medieval papal indulgences, the sin could be forgiven by payment, in this case usually $1.25 per acre. Preemptors had the first right to purchase land once it was surveyed, and since squatters typically arrived first to stake the best land, the preemption price was often a bargain. In the 1841 Preemption Act, Congress abandoned the idea that squatting was trespass and wrong and authorized (future) preemptions, but attempted to restrict them to already surveyed lands. By 1853 Congress had abandoned this restriction, too, in recognition of the fact that squatters just moved in wherever they wanted, whether or not the land had been surveyed. Many factors contributed to the momentum to legalize preemptions, but the most basic was simply the impossibility of stopping the flow of people onto the land.

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How the U.S. Disposed of 1.4B Acres

From Homesteading the Plains Toward a New History, by Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), Kindle pp. 6-7:

Homesteading was one way in which the federal government transferred parts of America’s enormous public domain to private ownership. The U.S. government acquired nearly 1.5 billion acres in the lower forty-eight states between 1781 and 1853, through the Revolutionary War treaty, the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican War cessions, the settlement of boundary disputes with the British over Canada, and a few other minor acquisitions. From the outset many individuals, whether landless or the mightiest land barons, mining companies, and speculators, eagerly looked on public land as a source of potential riches for themselves. But the government was also interested in moving public land into private hands for a variety of motives that shifted over time. Initially it sought to use land sales to fund the federal budget, but later it distributed land to stimulate canal and railroad growth, to occupy remote regions and thereby forestall threats from foreign powers, to populate the West in order to foster private economic development, and to create a land-owning, small-farmer middle class that would sustain a democratic society.

We can trace in broad terms the disposition of this 1.442 billion-acre public domain. The national government today continues possession of about 26 percent (380 million acres). It transferred approximately 22 percent (328 million acres) to individual states, most of which was sold, and homesteaders claimed about 19 percent (270 million, or possibly as much as 285 million, acres). The balance, roughly 32 percent (between 449 and 464 million acres) was transferred to private owners through sales, grants to railroad corporations, veterans’ bonuses, agricultural college grants, and other distributions, or it was stolen, misappropriated, reserved, or otherwise caused to disappear from the public land rolls. Homesteading accounted for between a quarter and a third of the public land transferred by the federal government to private owners.

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Photos of NRHP Sites in the Dakotas

When the Far Outliers take road trips in the U.S., one of our hobbies is finding sites on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) that do not have photos in their Wikipedia entries. If and when we find those sites, many of which are well off the beaten track in rural areas, we take photos and upload them to Wikimedia Commons, then link them to the articles about those sites.

One of our unexpected finds on this trip was the small Assyrian Muslim Cemetery and mosque in tiny Ross, Mountrail County, North Dakota, on our way from Minot to Williston, ND. According to a plaque on its exterior, the diminutive mosque was originally built in 1928, fell into disrepair, and was rebuilt in 2004. Most of the cemetery headstones faced east, toward the cemetery gate, but one impressive gravestone set apart from the others faced north. The cemetery was placed on the NRHP in 2018, and stories about it have appeared in the Minot Daily News and the New York Times.

Mountrail County and Williams County (around Williston) are said to be two of the richest counties in North Dakota, thanks to the plethora of oil wells on the large tracts of farmland. The farthest point on this roadtrip was just over the Montana state line at historic Fort Union Trading Post.


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How They Handled European Settlers

From Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Liveright, 2022), Kindle pp. 261-263:

After several generations of interactions with Europeans, variously violent and peaceful, the Six Nations knew how to manage anxious, land-hungry settlers. In 1742, at a large summit in the statehouse in Philadelphia, the Onondaga sachem Canassatego addressed the Lenapes as junior allies, relegating the English to a secondary role. “Cousins: Let this Belt of Wampum serve to Chastise You,” he reprimanded the Lenapes in sharply gendered language. “We conquered You, we made Women of you, you know you are Women, and can no more sell Land.” Canassatego ordered them to “remove immediately” from ancestral Iroquois lands. The settlers were mere spectators of the Six Nations’ power politics. The next year, another summit was held to defuse the mounting tensions between Pennsylvania and the neighboring Indians. The Six Nations envoy Zillawoolie focused on the Catawbas, promising to “persuade and charge them to be of good Behavior everywhere”—something Pennsylvania’s timid settlers dared not try. The Iroquois also demanded a right to travel through Virginia as they pleased, and they reasserted their dominance over the Delaware and Ohio Valleys.

Had they been present in Philadelphia, the Catawbas would have denounced the Six Nations’ presumption. The Great Trading Path between the Chesapeake Bay and the Piedmont continued to channel English trading parties to Catawba towns, keeping them prosperous and powerful. As ancient residents of the Piedmont, the Catawbas thought they could simply stay put and wait for goods to flow into their towns. In exchange for their precious deerskins and furs, they received guns, powder, lead, metal tools, cloth, blankets, luxuries, and rum. Certain of the strength of their position, they were aloof to the point of becoming arrogant and outright offensive. When the talks resumed in Philadelphia in the summer of 1744, the Catawbas sent a cutting message informing the Iroquois that they “were but Women; that they [themselves] were men and double men for they had two P——s [penises]; that they could make Women of Us, and would be always at War with us.”

In an era when pushing the colonists back into the sea was no longer a possibility, the Catawbas kept the settlers in a state of uncertainty: Europeans feared that the Indians might launch a war any day. The colonists’ nervousness about the Catawbas set that Indigenous group apart from the Iroquois and their artful diplomacy, and from the Shawnees and the strategic mobility they used to keep the settlers at a distance. The Catawbas knew that eventually they would have to adapt to new circumstances, compromise, and enter into negotiations with the Europeans, but they would hold on to their independence as long as they possibly could. They were determined to preserve Indigenous sovereignty in the face of unprecedented odds and to rebalance Indigenous power on the continent.

Other nations east of the Appalachians adopted a more counterintuitive approach. They relied on accommodation and compromises that required a new mindset: Indians should embrace the colonists—at arm’s length—to survive colonialism. When colonial frontiers inched toward them, they would meet the settlers on the borderlands between the two parties. This strategy demanded numbers, political gravitas, and delicate diplomacy. The Muscogee, Cherokee, and Chickasaw leaders in the Appalachian foothills and Trans-Appalachian West pursued this strategy. Tucked between French and English realms, these three Native nations were already fluent in colonial methods when the English began to push their farms and settlements uphill. The Indians left the Europeans alone, playing Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania off against each other and extracting gifts, weapons, and manufactured goods from all. The Indians were careful not to attach themselves to any single colony. The settlers thought that the Indigenous confederacies—most notably the Six Nations—had divided into pro-French and pro-English factions, but those divisions were more circumstantial than fixed. Operating in a different geopolitical landscape west of the Appalachians, the twenty-thousand-strong Choctaws divided into “Eastern,” “Western,” and “Sixtown” villages to engage with various colonies more flexibly.

By European standards, the Muscogees, Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Choctaws were dangerously decentralized and their leaders hopelessly weak, but therein lay the genius of their political systems. Most of their leaders commanded small groups, which threw the settlers off-balance: there was no single person for the Europeans to co-opt—just a multitude of seemingly ineffectual potentates who were useless to the settlers’ aims. But those leaders knew how to manage European newcomers.

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Early French Métissage in Louisiana

From Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Liveright, 2022), Kindle pp. 226-228:

The Natchez war had shown, with graphic immediacy, what disregard for Indigenous sovereignty, traditions, and needs could bring: cataclysmic violence, massive loss of life and property, the utter collapse of colonial institutions. The violence discouraged French investments in the colony and impeded France’s empire-building in the lower Mississippi Valley. It also taught the colonists how little they could do without Native approval. In Louisiana, Indigenous customs prevailed, turning a colonial space into a hybrid one. Choctaw, Illini, Quapaw, and Apalachee societies were all intact, and they expected the French to comply with their traditions. The consequences for Louisiana were far-reaching. Métissage—cultural mixing—became the norm, shaping the most intimate aspects of the colonists’ lives: sexual practices, gender roles, and child-rearing. The French in Louisiana came to realize that to survive in North America, newcomers needed to embrace its Indigenous inhabitants and convince them to become allies. The French had been doing so elsewhere, and by the early eighteenth century, all the European empires had grasped, if not necessarily accepted, that reality. They had also learned that the most effective way of building alliances was generosity and trade, which could turn enemies into kin.

In the wake of the war and loss, French officers set out to appease the Indians with gifts and goods, creating a robust frontier exchange economy that stabilized French relations with the Indians. A new and improved French-Indian alliance centered on the Choctaw Confederacy, which, even after losing hundreds of its members to South Carolina slave raiders, numbered more than twelve thousand people and could mobilize five thousand soldiers. The Choctaws commanded more than twenty-five thousand square miles, overshadowing the neighboring Quapaws, Alabamas, Chickasaws, Taensas, Tunicas, Natchez, and Houmas. Their own slave-catching and -trading had garnered for the Choctaws a sizable arsenal of guns, turning them into a domineering military power in the lands between the lower Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. They also welcomed a regular flow of English trading parties from the east. Weakened Native groups on Choctaw borderlands found shelter in their fortified towns, and the French asked the Choctaws to help restore order to Louisiana. The Choctaws punished the Chickasaws and Natchez, whose raiding operations destabilized the colony and disrupted trade; the Choctaws wanted an economically viable French Louisiana that could continue to supply them with guns, powder, lead, tools, and other goods.

The Choctaws were fighting for themselves. As much as the French officials wanted and needed to claim suzerainty over them, they could not deny that the Choctaws were the masters of the lower Mississippi Valley. When traders from the newly established colony of Georgia visited, the Choctaws welcomed them and their goods—to the dread and embarrassment of French officials. The Choctaw Confederacy had become Louisiana’s last best hope—a humiliating role reversal that the commandant of the New Orleans troops was forced to accept. He called the confederacy “the bulwark and security” of the colony and admitted that “none of those who have come to the country fail to be aware of the impossibility of keeping a country as vast as the one we occupy with the few troops and colonists who are there and who would soon be obliged to depart from it if the Choctaws refused us their assistance and decided to act against us.”

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New France Expands, 1700-1750

From Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Liveright, 2022), Kindle pp. 214-215:

In the winter of 1704, a multiethnic party of two hundred French, Mohawk, Wyandot, and Wabanaki soldiers attacked the town of Deerfield in Massachusetts. The soldiers entered the town from three separate points before dawn, surprising the sleeping inhabitants. The attackers knew exactly what to do. They captured Eunice Mather Williams; her husband, pastor John Williams; and their five children—confident that they could expect a healthy ransom for their redemption. Overall, forty-one English colonists were killed, and more than a hundred women, men, and children were taken captive. The Williams’s daughter Eunice, seven years old, spent seven years in captivity, her story becoming a sensation in the English colonies and New France. She was adopted into a Mohawk family, converted to Catholicism, married a Mohawk man, had three children, lost her English, and became known as Kanenstenhawi. She did not want to be redeemed. She died in Kahnawake, near the Saint Lawrence Valley, at the age of eighty-five.

The attack on Deerfield announced the revival of French confidence and expansionism in North America. Emerging from the shadow of the Five Nations, French colonists, traders, and officials slowly picked up where they had been forced to stop in the 1680s. The outbreak of the War of Spanish Succession—which involved France, Spain, and Great Britain—instilled further urgency in French maneuvers, and the early decades of the new century saw the Saint Lawrence Valley quickly become safer, richer, and more crowded: its population of fifteen thousand in 1700 would more than triple by 1750. Fantasies of a New Jerusalem drew in colonists and soldiers from France, and a continuous strip of riverfront farms stretched for more than two hundred miles on both sides of the river. Native peoples from the interior trekked with their goods to Montreal, Trois-Rivières, and Quebec, and many of them were willing to fight with the French to keep the English at bay.

New France was becoming a realm of hard colonial power. The most obvious manifestation of its aggressive stance toward Native Americans was Indian slavery. The French began purchasing captives, mostly children, from Odawas, Ojibwes, Potawatomis, Miamis, Meskwakis [aka Fox], and Wyandots [aka Huron] in the interior. Code Noir, established to regulate slavery in France’s Caribbean colonies, was now applied in New France. Soon the colony had hundreds of Indian slaves working as millers, field hands, dock loaders, launderers, and domestics. Some were forced to labor as ship crewmen, and Indians with more skills were assigned to shops and factories. The French called the enslaved Indians Panis, a label of obscure origins that connoted loss of freedom, as well as slave status, that erased all ethnic identities. Some female slaves became concubines, and some married French men. Almost all were subjected to intense religious indoctrination and struggled under the demands made by their owners. The average slave entering the colony was just ten years old and died by the age of eighteen.

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Pueblo Revolt and Aftermath

From Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Liveright, 2022), Kindle pp. 185-186, 188-189:

Like the wars waged by the Powhatans and Wampanoags in the East, the 1680 Pueblo insurrection was at once an act of self-preservation, cultural revitalization, and spatial reimagination. Attesting to strong intergroup attachments that transcended Spanish-imposed boundaries, many Apaches and Navajos fought alongside the Pueblos. The allied Indians killed nearly four hundred colonists and twenty-one friars, and they routed a thousand Spanish soldiers, sending them to El Paso, the colony’s southernmost town. The leaders of the rebellion set out to restore the physical and sacral landscape of the pre-Spanish era. Churches were to be demolished, their bells were to be shattered, and images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary were to be destroyed. Alien crops were to be torched, and corn and beans planted in their stead. Not one Spanish word would violate the restored Indigenous soundscape. Even horses began to vanish from the Rio Grande valley. Repulsed by horses’ tendency to trample cornfields and by their elevated power, which symbolized Spanish might, the Pueblos embarked on vigorous horse trade with the outlying nomads and pastoralists. It had to be as though Spanish colonialism had never happened.

DESPITE THE PUEBLOS’ DESIRE to erase Spanish colonialism from their memory, it had, of course, happened, and its legacy proved sticky. As frail as Spanish dominance over the Pueblo world had been, Spanish colonists had profoundly altered Indigenous life in the Rio Grande valley. To reinstate the old cultural order—to turn back time—the Pueblo leaders issued sweeping decrees that bound all Pueblos. In order to purge Spanish influences, the Native leaders claimed all-encompassing dominion over the Pueblo world. But a single Pueblo world was a foreign fiction. Before the Spanish invasion, the Pueblos had lived in more than 150 communities that shared a general cultural outlook but possessed no central governing structures. When the colonial edifice dissolved, local identities resurfaced. In the 1680s, the Spanish built a buffer region of presidios and missions to keep European rivals away from the abandoned colony. They called it Tejas, a Spanish spelling of the Caddo word taysha, meaning “friend.”

Four generations of colonial presence had left a deep imprint on Pueblo life, and many had grown to see certain Spanish imports as natural. Renouncing the Franciscans and colonists roused little controversy; pigs, sheep, woolen textiles, metal tools, and spouses taken in matrimony were another matter. When droughts spoiled harvests, the already delicate Pueblo coalition began to disintegrate. Civic leaders, medicine men, and soldiers competed for authority within communities that soon descended into civil wars. Towns fought over diminishing resources and raided one another for grain. The Apaches, incensed by the collapse of trade relations, took what they needed through force.

While the Pueblo people struggled with lingering colonial legacies, the Spanish struggled with the legacy of Pueblo resistance. The Pueblo uprising had proved contagious, triggering a series of rebellions against Spanish rule from Coahuila to Sonora and Nueva Vizcaya. Janos, Sumas, Conchos, Tobosos, Julimes, and Pimas attacked colonists and destroyed missions, towns, and farms, rolling back Spanish colonialism across a vast area. The Spanish seemed paralyzed in the face of this explosion of Indigenous hatred and power. Colonial officials sentenced four hundred Native rebels to ten years of forced labor.

Vargas extinguished the second rebellion with a focused war of attrition, but the rebellion proved crucial for the future prospects of the Pueblo people. Vargas reinstated colonial rule in New Mexico, but it was not the colonial rule of old. Traumatized and exhausted by the latest rebellion, the Spanish accepted smaller landholdings than before, and they replaced the slavery-like encomienda labor system with the repartimiento system, under which the amount of required work was regulated. They appointed a public defender to protect the Pueblos against Spanish abuse, and Franciscans turned a blind eye to the previously banned Pueblo ceremonies—a concession that was made easier by the Pueblos’ token acceptance of Catholic sacraments. The colony had shrunk conspicuously.

The administrative apparatus of the Spanish colonial state remained in place, but the social distance between the Spanish and the Pueblos narrowed through intermarriages, quasi-kinship institutions such as compadrazgo—co-godparenthood—and multiethnic towns. The Spanish and the Pueblos remained distinct people separated by sharp disparities in power and privilege, but unwavering Pueblo resistance had forced the Spanish to enter a shared world where the colonists were allowed to reestablish only a drastically reduced version of their grandiose imperial project. Like Juan de Oñate a century earlier, Vargas had tried to create a bounded colonial state with carefully regulated commercial channels, and like his predecessors, he had encountered an Indigenous world that refused to bend to a rigid imperial logic. The Pueblo resistance proved contagious, igniting a series of rebellions that spread across northern New Spain. The terrified governor of Nueva Vizcaya insisted that all captured Indian rebels should be sentenced to ten years of enslavement.

The Pueblo Revolt—also known as the Great Southwestern Rebellion for its virulence and scale—changed the history of the region irrevocably. It cut the Spanish colonists down to size and emboldened the Indians—not just the Pueblos but also many other Indigenous nations—to challenge Spain’s imperial claims. During the decade after the rebellion, numerous uprisings and wars broke out between the Spanish and the Indians: Tarahumaras, Conchos, Pimas, Sobaipuris, Sumas, Jocomes, Janos, Opatas, Apaches, and many others fought to contain, punish, and kill the Spanish, and keep their territories inviolate. Their systematic mobile guerrilla war had confined the Spanish to their northwestern frontier.

By shaking up ancient traditions and practices, the war changed the Pueblo world from within by giving Pueblo women new avenues to express their religious ideas and spirituality; they began to explore Catholicism more deeply and to question ancient traditions. The most important geopolitical change came when the Pueblos started selling Spanish horses to neighboring nomads in the plains and the surrounding mountains. The horse trade ignited a technological revolution that reconfigured several Indigenous worlds within a generation. An ancient trade corridor in the Rocky Mountains became a conduit for the spread of horses far to the north. The Shoshones acquired horses in about 1690 and, emboldened by their suddenly supercharged capacity to move about, hunt, and fight, they pushed into the bison-rich northern plains. Others even farther away traced the flow of horses back to the source in the upper Rio Grande valley. In 1706 the residents of Taos Pueblo in the northeastern corner of New Mexico reported the arrival of strange people from the north. These newcomers, Nu–mu–nu–u–—“the people”—were rumored to be preparing an attack on the town. The Comanches had entered the Spanish consciousness as a shadowy frontier menace.

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