New study investigates plunder of Native American land
A poster advertises an upcoming sale of stolen Indigenous land by the United States Department of the Interior in 1911. | Library of Congress

In its first six decades of existence, the U.S. created a trail of treaties that led to a massive transfer of Indigenous wealth. Michael John Witgen’s second book, Seeing Red: Indigenous Land, American Expansion, and the Political Economy of Plunder in North America, published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press, documents how the U.S., during that period, coerced Anishinaabe nations living in the Great Lakes and northern Mississippi River valley regions to surrender tens of millions of acres of land. This new book should be read in sequence with Witgen’s first book, An Infinity of Nations, a study of the same region in an earlier period of French and British colonial influences. Each book will unsettle what you think you know about the history of Indigenous-U.S. relations.

Shifting power relations between the U.S. and Anishinaabe peoples were signaled by the flip to Euro-American demographic dominance in Indigenous spaces. Up to the 1830s, the U.S. feared bloody and costly conflict with Native nations and possible British intervention on behalf of the Anishinaabe. The country’s generally weak military and financial condition forced it to resist the idea of outright invasion. Further, the U.S. government wanted to manage the distribution of land stolen from Indigenous nations as caretakers for capitalist development.

A hallmark of this weakened condition is symbolized by the first major international treaty negotiated with Anishinaabe and Dakota nations at Prairie du Chien in 1825, which concretized Indigenous sovereignty and nationality. Some of the first U.S. military operations in what it called the Northwest Territory forced many white settlers to leave until the land came under the control of the U.S. government. This early period of U.S. intervention into Native lands around the Great Lakes rested on Indigenous ability to successfully fight the threat of U.S. invasion and draw on support from European and Indigenous allies.

After the population ratios shifted to white majorities and British imperialist strategy turned to Asia, the U.S. changed course. In the process, U.S. officials created what the author calls “the political economy of plunder,” a process of land expropriation that aided the creation and expansion of U.S. territory. Essentially, the treaty system produced what participants called the “Indian business,” establishing a system of payments ostensibly as compensation for land. Instead, vast quantities of the payments went to traders who claimed debts incurred by Indigenous people for food, ammunition and other goods, and to fund mission schools. Indeed, the treaties essentially oversaw the transfer of immense Indigenous wealth in land and natural resources to the U.S. government to be sold at inflated prices to settlers.

This transfer of wealth and annual payments scheme was “the engine behind the economic growth that made it possible to create and economically develop new states,” Witgen writes. Before traders, speculators, missionaries, Indian agents, and others took their cut, the total compensation to Indigenous people amounted to pennies per acre for Native territories. The treaty procedure was propelled by threats of war, forced removal, and simply taking the land without compensation.

Whole cities and towns were created through this process of plunder. Once the land title was transferred to the U.S. government for pennies per acre, it would typically be sold to traders, Indian agents, Eastern land speculators and investor groups for about 10 to 15 times as much. Traders and federal Indian agents turned into land speculators. They manipulated the 1819 and 1836 treaty processes and used their economic power over Indigenous bands and tribal nations to persuade them to accept U.S. conditions of land cession. Tens of millions of acres of what would become Michigan were taken in these two treaties.

In the meantime, those traders and agents grew wealthy. Traders, agents, and land speculators bought thousands of acres of the choicest plots of land. They then sold that land to prospective settlers and municipalities for three to five times the original purchase price, generating massive profits. From pennies per acre to the Anishinaabe, newly available land could be sold for $7 or $8 per acre, making “frontier” traders the wealthiest and most influential people in the territory. On some occasions, land speculators convinced Anishinaabe bands to buy back their land at inflated prices to protect themselves from white settlers.

Settler ideology

The political economy of plunder flowed from what Witgen calls “settler ideology,” which served as the basis of liberal democratic theories of liberty, white racial supremacy, and capitalist development. Essentially, European and Euro-American ideologues and politicians—John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Thomas Jefferson, and Lewis Cass, for example—pretended the land they invaded was empty and unused. Contradictorily, they argued that while Native peoples unquestionably held title to the land, their racial inferiority shaped their refusal to develop the land into privatized property, favoring communal ownership and use rights instead.

This massive difference between Indigenous people and Europeans justified the latter’s claim to “dominion,” and any effort to create a treaty and compensation was more than what they considered ethically necessary to take control of the land, the people, and the resources. Euro-Americans could not imagine not taking the land they claimed as their own, nor could they imagine the possibility that the people living there could be incorporated into their social contract as equals.

The process of settler colonialism shaped the racial project of the U.S. as well. The expansion of the slave system in the U.S. South depended entirely on the acquisition of new land and the violent elimination of Native peoples through frequent wars, mass killings, and forced removal. In contrast, economic development in the Northwest and even the process of plunder itself contradictorily depended on the persistence of a Native presence. Success in the fur trade, which created the conditions by which Euro-American capitalists would claim Indigenous people owed them tens of thousands of dollars, required that Anishinaabe bands—the folks who performed the labor of the trade—be allowed to live in their traditional way, including seasonal migration and limited agricultural activities.

This lasted until the fur trade collapsed in the 1830s. First, the fur trade and then the land speculation business in the Northwest became a basis for capital accumulation that supported new investments in the extraction of cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco in the South. Thus, the exploitation of African labor and people was intimately connected with the appropriation and control of Native lands.

Map of Anishinaabe Aki including Nishnawbe Aski in Ontario, 2009 / Jaawano. | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

By then, Great Lakes Indigenous people had lived with Europeans and Euro-Americans for about 200 years and adopted many of their cultural and religious practices as forms of diplomatic engagement and Indigenous kinship practices. Still, Euro-Americans deluded themselves into believing that Native people refused to accept European ways of living and thus were not worthy of maintaining sovereignty and autonomy. Witgen shows how this racist project connected to Euro-American ideas about African peoples living in the U.S. As early as 1804 and 1805, Euro-American politicians expressed fears that escaped enslaved Black people were finding refuge in Indigenous-controlled spaces in the Northwest Territory.

The first Euro-American settlers in the Northwest generally favored a “free soil” concept. This ideology closely linked freedom to racial whiteness, and they rarely believed in the full humanity of Indigenous or Black people. The fear of Black and Native alliances in pockets of freedom in Indigenous territory caused alarm that reminded them of slave rebellions in the Caribbean and long, bloody wars with Native nations. To foreclose those possibilities, they hurried the process of land expropriation and created massive barriers to Black migration into the Northwest. While they could not countenance a slave system in the Northwest, the Black Codes they created enforced racial indentured labor systems and a fugitive slave law. Along with these rules, the demand for onerous proof of freedom and the denial of civic participation based on race enhanced white political and economic privileges, underpinned the federal slave system, and enforced white supremacy.

Witgen’s research builds on his excellent historical study of Anishinaabe history since colonialism. It provides new insights into what historian Tiya Miles calls the “settler-colonial complex” and what Gerald Horne characterized as the “apocalypse of settler colonialism.” This book is a fascinating study of U.S. law, political theory, and capitalist development contradictions. It reveals that the development of the U.S., as it is, was not inevitable but rather did depend on its willingness to lie, cheat, and steal its way to colonial dominance in North America.

Michael John Witgen
Seeing Red: Indigenous Land, American Expansion, and the Political Economy of Plunder in North America
University of North Carolina Press, 2022
384 pp.
Hardcover ISBN 978-1-4696-6484-2
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-4696-6485-9


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).