On this day in 1626 Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan Island from a Native American tribe known as the Canarsee. According to legend, all it cost him was $24--quite a deal by modern standards.
This agreement was only the beginning--by the time the twentieth century rolled around, nearly all the land in what is now the United States had been transferred from Indian to non-Indian hands. One school of thought has it that the transfer was accomplished through a series of transactions between consenting parties; another contends that the land was seized by force. What‚s the answer?
Well, both. According to Stuart Banner, author of How the Indians Lost Their Land, neither the "consent" narrative nor its "coercion" counterpart is sufficient to describe the actual processes by which Native Americans ceded their territory. Rather, the shift in ownership was accomplished in large part through a complex series of legal machinations on the part of settlers, predicated on conflicting understandings of just what „ownership‰ meant. In short:
every land transfer of any form included elements of law and elements of power. No non-Indian acquiring Indian land thought himself unconstrained by Anglo-American law. Whites always acquired Indian land within a legal framework of their own construction. Law was always present, but so was power. The more powerful whites became relative to Indians, the more they were able to mold the legal system to produce outcomes in their favor˜more sales, of larger tracts, at lower prices than would have existed had power relationships been more equal.
How the Indians Lost Their Land does justice to the complexity of this tragic story. It does not let whites off the hook; rather, it sets the record straight on just how the colossal transfer of land was accomplished. Banner puts it this way:
In the end, the story of the colonization of the United States is still a story of power, but it was a more subtle and complex kind of power than we conventionally recognize. It was the power to establish the legal institutions and the rules by which land transactions would be enforced. The threat of physical force would always be present, but most of the time it could be kept out of view because it was not needed. Anglo-Americans could sincerely believe, for most of American history, that they were not conquerors, because they believed they were buying land from the Indians in the same way they bought land from each other. What kind of conqueror takes such care to draft contracts to keep up the appearance that no conquest is taking place? A conqueror that genuinely does not think of itself as one.