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What would a map of French colonial Algeria or the American Midwest look like if we took a humanistic epistemological approach? How would such a map change if it took into consideration the humanistic notion that space is a construct influenced by perception (of travel times, of fear, of violence, of land rights, of agricultural production, of relations with one’s neighbors, etc.)? What kind of information would such a map yield?

What if we could create maps that represented settler’s perception of space and Indigenous perceptions of that same space? What might such a comparison offer the scholar of settler colonialism?

This brief post is a thought experiment based on Johanna Drucker’s thought-provoking article, “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display” (2011).  Drucker calls into question the uncritical application of data visualization tools to humanities projects. The digital graphical displays in common usage have been developed for and by social and physical scientists and therefore reflect epistemologies in direct opposition to those of the humanities:

Realist Assumptions & Epistemology Humanist Assumptions & Epistemology
Observer-independent Observer-dependent
Data (given information, facts) Capta (information taken, interpretations)
World as-it-is World as a construction
Knowledge is fact – based on observer-independent, verifiable, unalterable data Knowledge is constructed – based on observer-dependent, subjective, interpretations of information

Consequently, Drucker argues,

“what is needed is not a set of applications to display humanities ‘data’ but a new approach that uses humanities principles to constitute capta and its display. At stake … is the authority of humanistic knowledge in a culture increasingly beset by quantitative approaches that operate on claims of certainty. … The digital humanities can no longer afford to take its tools and methods from disciplines whose fundamental epistemological assumptions are at odds with humanistic method.” (Paragraph 6, emphasis in the original)

I would like to take her argument a step further. It is essential to apply humanistic epistemology and methods to the display of capta, and, especially for scholars of colonialism, to incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing and seeing in digital visualizations. It is this idea that prompted my earlier pair of questions about how settlers and Indigenous peoples viewed space, and it is a question I am currently tackling in my dissertation.  A graphical depiction of each would greatly assist a textual explanation.

For instance, I could use a series of maps of Vincennes, Indiana and the surrounding territory during the last quarter of the eighteenth century to demonstrate how French settlers, Indigenous inhabitants, and newly arrived Americans perceived this space, what influenced their perceptions, and how their views changed over time. In 1776, the village was comprised of roughly sixty French and French-Indian families who saw its borders as permeable and perceived their town as one among a network of French and Indian (and French-Indian) communities, connected by kinship ties, trade, and the navigable river system. However, when Americans arrived in the region, they often fortified their towns, erected visible borders in fences and gates, and created defensive cultural boundaries between themselves and the French and Indian inhabitants. American perceptions of the same space focused on their isolation from the states and from centers of American political and cultural activity along the Atlantic coast. Their perceptions were also influenced by the notion that they were surrounded by hostile Natives on all sides and therefore involved in a common (American) defense of land they viewed as rightfully and legally theirs.

While Indigenous views of land were initially expansive and porous, they soon began to shrink in the face of American encroachments and increasing racially-based violence.  Under the perceived persistent threat the Americans posed, Native civil and military leaders’ perceptions of their territory shrank to parallel American views. Cartographic depictions of notions of shrinking space, of military and cultural isolation based on increasing violence, and the threat Indigenous, French, and American communities felt in proximity to the others would be a powerful presentation of documentary evidence and would complement the textual argument. Such graphical displays would also honor my intention to demonstrate Indigenous perceptions, in addition to those of the settlers, to move beyond black-and-white portrayals of good/evil actors toward a complicated and empathetic understanding of the motivations, hopes, and fears of multiple actors in this shifting colonial landscape.

How scholars define the Digital Humanities is as ongoing and fraught conversation. Here I offer a simple working definition to continue the conversation about its definition and present my own approach to the field. It is not meant to be exhaustive or all-encompassing.  Please share what you believe to be the essence of DH in the comments section below!

DH is the study, exploration, and preservation of, as well as education about
human cultures, events, languages, people, and material production in the past and present
in a digital environment
through the creation and use of dynamic tools to

  • visualize and analyze data
  • share and annotate primary sources
  • discuss and publish findings
  • collaborate on research and teaching

for scholars, students, and the general public.

Stay tuned for Day of DH 2014 for a new batch of definitions! This will be hosted by MATRIX: Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences (Michigan State University). Check either the MATRIX website or CenterNet for updates.

“Settlers are not born. They are made in the dispossessing, a ceaseless obligation that has to be maintained across the generations if the Natives are not to come back.” — Patrick Wolfe.[1]

"Map of Kentucky, Drawn from Actual Observations by John Filson," 1793

“Map of Kentucky, Drawn from Actual Observations by John Filson,” 1793

In this post, I examine how American colonists became settlers through the process of invoking their perceived sovereignty to dispossess the Indigenous population and claim rights to land in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley. In the North American British colonies,  settlers moving west across the Proclamation Line of 1763 onto Native American lands necessitated the Treaty of Fort Stanwix of 1768 (as well as subsequent treaties) and increased tensions between American colonists, Indigenous communities, and the British imperial administration. American desires for land both prompted rebellion from their own sovereign and motivated the newly forming United States to become a settler colonial state in its own right.

The American exploration of Kentucky (which contemporaries also referred to as Kentucke) began in 1767 when John Finley, a trader from North Carolina, and others traveled through the territory. Two decades later, contemporary historian John Filson, described Kentucky as  the “Dark and Bloody Ground,” or “Middle Ground” due to the violence that erupted over its possession.[2] After conflict arose between the Anglo-American traders and their Native trading partners, the American colonists were forced to return home.  Upon arriving at his homestead in North Carolina, Finley relayed his discovery of the Kentucky territory to Daniel Boone, a veteran of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), militiaman, frontiersman, and explorer. Boone later set out with other adventurers to explore the Kentucky territory in 1769. Despite the deaths of his companions due to illness and Native American attacks, Boone remained in the region until 1771. Filson observed that at about the same time:

Kentucke had drawn the attention of several gentlemen. Doctor Walker of Virginia, with a number more, made a tour westward for discoveries, endeavoring to find the Ohio river; and afterwards he and General Lewis, at Fort Stanwix, purchased from the Five Nations of Indians, the lands lying on the north side of [the] Kentucke [River]. Col. Donaldson, of Virginia, being employed by the State to run a line from six miles above the Long Island, on Holstein, to the mouth of the great Kenhawa [River], and finding thereby that an extensive tract of excellent country would be cut off to the Indians, was solicited, by the inhabitants of Clench and Holstein, to purchase the lands lying on the north side of the Kentucke river from the Five Nations. … [3]

While the language of “purchasing” lands from the Native inhabitants would seem to imply a recognition of Indigenous land rights and sovereignty, the purchases were no more than a gloss of legitimacy to cover the questionable means used to secure Native land for American settlement. Often, Americans treated with Native leaders who had no claim to the lands they sold to speculators. In the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, for example, the Six Nations (Iroquois Confederacy) sold lands that included Shawnee and Delaware territory to the Anglo-Americans without the consent of these tribes. Consequently, these communities were outraged when Americans began settling on their hunting grounds, claiming they had a right to be there. The appearance of a legitimate sale was enough justification for the settlers who moved onto Shawnee and Delaware lands. Not only did the sale validate their claim to land rights, but it also affirmed (in settlers’ eyes, at least) their sovereignty. Settlers encroaching on Indigenous lands viewed their reprisals as grounds for attacks on Native communities. Settler counter-attacks were often unsanctioned by the government but conveniently presented opportunities to compel greater land cessions, as happened in Lord Dunmore’s War in 1774 and the subsequent Shawnee land cessions.

Lord Dunmore’s War: The Battle for the Ohio Valley Begins

In January 1773, Virginia surveyor George Rogers Clark wrote to his brother to inform him of the land he had claimed in the region southwest of Fort Pitt and its prospects. The country “setels very fast” and people had already claimed lands down to the Scioto River 366 miles below Fort Pitt, Clark reported. As his survey partner, Roy observed earlier, the land was valuable, and Clark had already received “an offer of a very considerable sum” for his place. Even his surveying endeavors in the region were lucrative.[4] Americans could not wait to get their hands on the fertile Bottomlands along the Ohio River and its valley. Increasing settlement in the western regions of Pennsylvania and Virginia colonies brought more Americans into contact with Native inhabitants. Tensions grew as settlers continued encroaching on Native lands, initiating violence out of fear and growing racialized hostility.[5]

When Virginia surveyors began moving into Kentucky in 1773 and 1774, the Shawnee chiefs admonished the British that they could not be held responsible for what their young men might do when they met the white surveyors on their hunting grounds. Despite the warnings, the surveyors continued their exploration and their plans for settlement, as Clark recounted: “The country was explored in 1773. A resolution was formed to make a settlement the spring following, and the mouth of the Little Kenaway [Little Kanawha River] was appointed the place of general rendezvous in order to descend the river from thence in a body.”[6] Despite rumors of Indian attacks, Clark described “the whole party [as] enrolled and determined to execute their project of forming a settlement in Kentucky.”[7] However, not a single American discussed these plans with neighboring tribes, believing that the Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1768) granted them rights to these lands. Only the Six Nations were signatories, however, and as the Shawnee warnings demonstrate, other nations affected by the treaty protested its injustice. Resisting the Iroquois and American imposition of land cessions, the Cherokee even forced American surveyors to relocate the boundary initially set in the treaty to one Cherokee tribal leaders agreed upon.

From late 1773 through early 1774, Captain William Russell, an early Kentucky settler and part of Daniel Boone’s original entourage, sent out scouts to define this line between the Americans and Cherokee. He instructed that they should first figure out what the Indians’ intentions were. If they were for war, he admonished them to give him the “most speedy Acct thereof.” If they made no such discovery, they were to “find the boundary Line between us and the Cherrokees.”[8] While surveying, capture was entirely possible, a fate Russell was all too aware of, having lost a brother to an Indian attack several years before. Acknowledging this possibility, Captain Russell warned the surveyors to

avoid acting toward [the Indians] in a Hostile manner; unless in cases of the last extremity; because the least Hostility committed by You, at this Time when the Indians appear ripe for War; [would] not only blast our fairest hopes of Settleing [sic] the Ohio Country; and be Attended with a train of Concomitant Evils; but doubtless, involved the Government in a Bloddy [sic] War.[9]

The captain rightfully worried that Americans’ irresponsible, violent actions might stir up a war and impede settlement plans. In fact, his words foreshadowed precisely what he feared.

In April 1774, the threat of Indigenous attacks prompted Lord Dunmore, British Governor of Virginia, to issue a proclamation calling upon the Virginia militia to protect Kentucky settlers against Native raids on the interlopers. His statement also asks the militia to protect settlers’ right to the land which they claimed:

[The] settlement is in danger of annoyance from the Indians also; and it being necessary to support the dignity of his Majesty’s Government, and protect his subjects in the peaceable enjoyment of their rights, I … order and require the officers of the militia in that district, to embody a sufficient number of men to repel any insult whatever…[10]

At about the same time, Dr. John Connolly, who had declared Pittsburg to be under Virginia’s jurisdiction and protection, sent a letter to Captain Michael Cresap

letting us know that a war was to be apprehended and requesting that we would keep our position for a few days, as messages had been sent to the Indians, and a few days would determine the doubt. The answer he got was that we had no inclination to quit our quarters for some time. That during our stay we should be careful that the enemy should not harass the neighborhood that we lay in. But before this answer could reach Pittsburg, he sent a second express, addressed to Capt. Cresap, as the most influential man among us, informing him that the message had returned from the Indians that war was inevitable, and begging him to use his influence with the party to get them to cover the country by scouts until the inhabitants could fortify themselves. The reception of this letter was the epoch of open hostilities with the Indians.[11]

Two days later, on April 27, Captain Cresap’s force pre-emptively attacked a small band of Shawnee at Pipe Creek, killing and scalping one and incurring one significant injury among themselves. Several days after that, a number of Cresap’s force led by a man named Greathhouse murdered a group of innocent Mingo, including members of Mingo War Chief Logan’s family at Yellow Creek, launching events that would lead to the outbreak of Lord Dunmore’s War.

Some scholars maintain that Lord Dunmore and John Connolly intentionally planned the massacre to incite an Indian war in the Ohio Valley and open up more land for settlement. While wars between Anglo-American colonists and Native Americans offered a pretext for the colonists to punitively expropriate more land in the peace negotiations that followed the battle, the evidence does not suggest that Lord Dunmore and Connolly intentionally coordinated settler attacks to instigate a conflict for this purpose.[12]  However, though they may not have masterminded the attack against Logan’s family, their actions set the stage for, and took advantage of, the violence that ensued. Dunmore called up the militia and Connolly set American nerves on edge with rumors of Indians on the warpath. Sources on the ground, including Captain Russell and his scouts, made clear that while Indian communities were watchful, there were no plans in place to launch attacks against the American settlements. At the same time, Captain Russell alluded to the possibility that one act of violence against the Indians could ignite a war. The atmosphere was ripe for violence, and Lord Dunmore and Dr. Connolly took advantage of it, knowing a war might give them the grounds necessary to “terminate the presence of [the Shawnee and Delaware] in Kentucky and western Pennsylvania.”[13]

Pennsylvania newspapers and correspondence from the contested lands reported the results of Shawnee and Mingo retaliations against the settlers:

  • May 30, 1774: “The Shawnese have raised 20 warriors to strike the Virginians, who sat off last Monday. I fear all the traders are killed at the Shawnese towns, as there was a party of Mingoes gathered for that purpose.”[14]

  • June 12, 1774: “We have great reason to be no longer in suspense concerning a war with the Indians, as they have already been guilty of several massacres; on Saturday, the 4th inst. were killed & scalped by them one Benjamin Spear, his wife & six children, on Duncard Creek; and the Monday following one Henry Wall, within sight of a fort that is built on Muddy Creek; one Keener, near the same place; and one Procter, near Grave Creek; there was also one Campbell, lately from Lancaster county, killed & scapled at New Comer’s -Town by the Mingoes.”[15]

  • June 22, 1774: “…When the News of the peoples being killed at Copper creek proved false several of the militia were assembled to go over there, and it was said they were sorry, exceedingly so, that it did prove false. So desirous are some of them for an Indian War; tho I can’t help fearing that it is the most worthless…”[16]

Events finally came to a head at the inaptly named Point Pleasant on October 10, 1774, where about 1000 militia had encamped several days before. Believing themselves safe and “a terror to the Indian Tribes on the Ohio,” the gathered forces of Shawnee, Mingo, and Delaware nearly caught them off guard.[17]

After hearing a good S[e]rmon Preached by the Rev. Mr. Terrey went to Repose [wit]h Our G[u]ards Properly Posted at a Distance from the camp as usual[,] little Expecting to be attack[e]d by any Party of Enemys as we looked upon them to be so much inferior to us in Number, but they taking the Advantage of the Night the[y] Crossed the Ohio on Rafts & [Posted] themselves Within one mile of our Camp where the[y] lay till morning[18]

However, a small hunting party discovered the Indians’ encampment before sunrise on the morning of October 10;  one man was killed, but another escaped to warn the militia.

So fierce was the fighting that most accounts number the Native forces between 800 and 1000, but Captain John Floyd estimated their number to actually be closer to 500 based on the footprints left behind after the battle and the number of rafts reported on the river. Colonel William Christian arrived around midnight the night after the battle, collected stories from officers and militiamen and sent a report to Colonel William Preston, observing:

From what I can gather here I cannot describe the bravery of the enemy in the battle. It exceeded every mans expectations. They had men planted on each river to kill our men as they would swim over, making no doubt I think of gaining a complete victory. Those over the Ohio in the time of battle called to the men to ‘drive the white dogs in’. Their Chiefs ran continually along the line exhorting the men to ‘lye close’ and ‘shoot well,’ ‘fight and be strong.’ At first our men retreated a good ways and until new forces were sent out on which the enemy beat back slowly and killed and wounded our men at every advance  Our people at last formed a line, so did the enemy, they made ma[n]y attempts to break our lines, at length our men made a stand, on which the enemy challenged them to come up and began to shoot. …Our men could have forced them away precipitately but not without great loss, and so concluded to maintain their ground all along the line. Which they did until Sundown, when the enemy were supposed to be all gone. Our people then moved backward, scalping the enemy and bringing in the dead and wounded…Late in the evening they called to our men that tomorrow they [would] have 2000 men for them, to fight on for they had 1100 men as well as them. They damn[e]d our men often for Sons-of-Bitches, said ‘Don’t you whistle now’ (deriding the fife) and made very merry about a treaty. [19]

Despite the displays of bravado, the allied Native forces retreated with as many of their dead and wounded as they could carry.  They scalped or buried the rest of their dead compatriots on the battlefield, or threw them into the river to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Then they disappeared into the night.[20]

Within a week of the Battle of Point Pleasant, Virginia’s colonial governor, Lord Dunmore reported that he had concluded a treaty with the Shawnee chief Cornstalk. With the combined might of his and Captain Lewis’ forces, Dunmore marched to the Shawnee villages on the Scioto. Through the machinations of British Indian agent, William Johnson, the Native confederacy that the Shawnee had orchestrated broke apart, leaving them alone and outnumbered. Faced with few alternatives, the Shawnee agreed to Dunmore’s peace terms and ceded their territory southeast of the Ohio River.[21]

By April 1775, George Rogers Clark reported to his brother that he had found employment as a Deputy Surveyor under Captain Hancock Lee. He was “to lay out Lands on [the] Kentuck for [the] Ohio Company at [the] rate of 80£ per year and [the] privilegde [sic] of Taking what Lands [he wanted].”[22] His missive of July 1775 is representative of many settlers’ response to the Kentucky territory. Clark observed, “a richer and more Beautifull Cuntry than this I believe has never been seen in America yet … I am Convinced that if [Father] once sees [the] Cuntry he never will rest untill he gets in it to live.”[23]  Glowing reports of the beauty and fertility of the land encouraged increasing numbers of American colonists to cross the mountains and seek out their own piece of this land of opportunity. As they crossed the Cumberland Gap and claimed a plot of ground as their own, American colonists became complicit in Indigenous dispossession and were thenceforth transformed into settlers.

Conclusion

Following the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768, the Shawnee, Delaware, and Cherokee protested the illegality of the Six Nations’ supposed sale of their lands. Their response indicates the heterogeneity of Native American tribes, which is important to keep in mind when contemporary Americans lumped all Indigenous peoples together under the misnomer, “Indian”. It also reveals the divisive and competitive nature of land cessions among Native communities as each jostled for greater protections of their own homelands at the expense of others’ through the early 1770s. (As the threat became more widespread and it became apparent that none were safe from avaricious American speculators and squatter-settlers, Indigenous leaders began to seek a united Native front during and, especially, after the American Revolution.)

Heedless of the significance of Indigenous protestations, Anglo-American colonists moved onto Native lands between 1768 and 1774 using the Treaty of Fort Stanwix as a “legal” justification for their claims. Believing the treaty affirmed their sovereignty over the region south of the Ohio River and backed by Lord Dunmore, American militias formed to protect their claims against Native efforts to repossess their own lands. Over the course of these six years, Anglo-American colonists became American settlers through the process of dispossessing the Native communities of Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley territory.

Through this transformation, they acquired a distinct identity that scholars today can retrospectively define as “settlers,” but also one they themselves defined at the time. Their understanding of themselves as Americans and not as British colonists, did not come about until the British-instigated Indian raids of 1777 and 1778. Nevertheless, prior to 1777, they understood that crossing the Cumberland Gap and making homes in the backcountry distinguished them from their peers who remained on the eastern side of the Alleghenies. They were “frontiersmen” (and women) and “adventurers” who embraced a simpler life and established democratic forms of local government, policing, and justice as an expression of political ideals and as models for their eastern cousins. They were willing to risk everything, even their lives, and confront any obstacle, including competing Indigenous claims for the material wealth and security that the western lands promised.

In settlers’ minds, their hard work to build homes, break ground, and cultivate fields entitled them to the lands they claimed according to squatters’ rights. Ignoring the fact that the land they acquired was already carefully managed and therefore value-added, settlers maintained that their improvements validated their sovereignty. Their confrontations with Indigenous inhabitants proved their mettle, their worthiness to settle the land, from which grew the myths about the hardy, independent backwoodsmen whose interactions with the Native population transformed them into Americans, according to nineteenth-century historian Frederick Jackson Turner. However much or little these Americans resembled their Native neighbors, it was the act of continual dispossession that resulted in the transformation from British colonists to American settlers.

The veneer of legality that the Treaty of Fort Stanwix was believed to provide the expropriation of Indigenous lands falls apart under scrutiny. However, it created the myth of American land rights. That was enough to prompt adventurers, land speculators, and families in search of economic advancement to stake and defend their land claims. The Battle of Point Pleasant did not end the contest for the Ohio and, later, the Wabash River Valleys; it was the opening salvo. The Shawnee land cessions in 1774 allowed more settlers into Kentucky, enriched Virginia land speculators, and provided the British with a pretext to encourage their Native allies to attack the American frontiers during the Revolution.

NOTES:

[1] Patrick Wolfe, “The Settler Complex: An Introduction,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 37, no. 2 (2013): 1.
[2] John Filson, The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke (Wilmington: James Adams, Printer, 1784), 7.
[3] Filson, 7-8.
[4] GRC to Jonathan Clark, Ohio River Grave Creek Township, 9 January 1773, in IHC VIII, 2
[5] Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America (W.W. Norton & Co., 2007).
[6] George Rogers Clark to Samuel Brown, 17 June 1798, in IHC VIII, 5.
[7] Clark to Brown, 17 June 1798.
[8] Capt. William Russell to Scouts. No Date [1773 or early 1774]. Draper Mss. 3QQ18. In Reuben Gold Thwaites & Louise Phelps Kellogg, Documentary History of Dunmore’s War (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1905), 5.
[9] Capt Russell to Scouts, in Documentary History of Dunmore’s War, 6.
[10] American Archives, Fourth Series: Containing a Documentary History of the English Colonies in North America from the King’s Message to Parliament of March 7, 1774 to the Declaration of Independence by the United States, I, (Washington, D.C.: M. St. Clair Clarke and P. Force, 1837), 283.
[11] George Rogers Clark to Samuel Brown, 17 June 1798 in IHC VIII, 7.
[12] Anthony F.C. Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans (Harvard University Press, 1999), 7; Thomas P. Abernethy, Western Lands and the American Revolution (New York: Russell & Russell, 1959, 113-115.
[13] Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians, 7.
[14] “Delawares Friendly, Shawnee on Warpath: Extract of a letter dated Pittsburg, May 30, [1774].” Printed in the Maryland Journal, Saturday, 18, June 1774, in Documentary History of Dunmore’s War, 28.
[15] Extract of a letter from Fort Pitt, 12 June 1774. Published in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 22 June 1774, in Documentary History of Dunmore’s War, 36.
[16] Col Wm Christian to Col Wm Preston. Dunkard Bottom, Wed morning 22 June 1774, in Documentary History of Dunmore’s War, 43.
[17] Captain William Ingles to Colonel William Preston, 14 October 1774, Point Pleasant, in Documentary History of Dunmore’s War, 258.
[18] Captain William Ingles to Colonel William Preston, 14 October 1774, Point Pleasant, in Documentary History of Dunmore’s War, 258.
[19] Col William Christian to Colonel William Preston, 15 October 1774, Point Pleasant, in Documentary History of Dunmore’s War, 264-5.
[20] Colonel William Fleming to William Bowyer, no date, in Documentary History of Dunmore’s War, 256-7; Captain William Ingles to Colonel William Preston, 14 October 1774, Point Pleasant, in Documentary History of Dunmore’s War, 259.
[21] Jack M. Sosin, “The British Indian Department and Dunmore’s War,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 74, no. 1 (January 1966), 47.
[22] George Rogers Clark to Jonathan Clark, Stewards Crossing, 1 April 1775, in IHC VIII, 9.
[23] George Rogers Clark to Jonathan Clark, Lees Town, Kentucke, 6 July 1775, in IHC VIII, 9-10.

WikiMedia, Used under Creative Commons License

In this post, I briefly explore the ways in which settler colonialism shaped relations between tribes and how relations between American colonizers and Indigenous communities changed during the American Revolution. This short case study also exposes Indigenous dispossession and the establishment of hierarchical relations between imperial agents and those they sought to conquer as the heart of the American settler colonial project.

In late September 1778, a letter arrived at British-controlled Fort Detroit containing an unexpected message from a regular sender: the tribe of the Chicksaw. While such communication between tribes was not unusual, both the message and the relationship between these tribes demonstrate the gravity of its contents. The Chickasaw lived primarily in present-day northeastern Mississippi and were almost continually at war with the Miami, the recipients of their message. Nevertheless, they charged Charles Beaubien, a British agent and interpreter, to deliver the message to the Miami and “all the people of the Ouabach [Wabash River Valley].” In the early years of the American Revolution, conflict intensified between the Chickasaw and the Miami and Wabash tribes as communities chose opposing sides in the war between the Americans and British. At about the same time that the Chickasaw message was conveyed and delivered, small bands of Wabash Indians moved to Spanish territory on the west side of the Mississippi River.  These bands, comprised of Kickapoo and Mascouten, agreed to act as Spain’s mercenaries, raiding the Chickasaw and Osage.[1] Perhaps the Spanish shared the same opinion as American Lieutenant Colonel George Rogers Clark, who viewed the Chickasaw as “the most potent nation” south of the Ohio River and wanted to pre-empt attacks from that quarter. Thus, the Spanish exploited the conflict between the Chickasaw and Wabash tribes even as the former sought Indigenous unity to oppose American colonization

Lt. Col. Clark, on the other hand, worked to keep the Chickasaw and Illinois tribes neutral and sent emissaries to procure peace agreements. The Chickasaw response was “cool and answered no great purpose,” at least not to the Americans: “Take care that we dont [sic] serve you as we have served the French before with all their Indians, [and] send you back without your heads.”[2] To the Miami and Wabash Nations, however, the Chickasaw sent a very different message and a plea:

My Beloved brothers!

We have long desired to see you but the Virginians have occupied us, & we know that they intend to go to you.  We pray you not to receive them but tell them to withdraw from your lands, &c. If you would defend yourselves we will help you — we are worthy of pity, we are not in the enjoyment of an inch of ground for hunting, and if you give them your hand you will be also like us obliged to work the land for a living.  We tell you in the name of all the nations our neighbors,

You know that for a long time we have worked, that all the brown skins should act as a single man to preserve our lands.  We have made peace with all the nations; you are the only ones who will be deaf, you see now, however, that we only work for a good thing; we hope my brothers that you will listen to us.[3]

According to historian Colin Calloway, the Chickasaw were a fearless and independent nation, but  by 1778,  even Chickasaw chiefs were effected by American encroachment and feared for their homelands as well as their people’s safety.[4] The above message may also indicate the state of nearby nations who had not been able to hold out as successfully against the settlers. Despite the tensions between them, the Chickasaw emphasized their unity of purpose with the Miami and Wabash tribes and their common objective to safeguard Indian lands against American incursions. In fact, they pled with these tribes to hear and receive their warning in a spirit of Indigenous unity. Yet, the Chickasaw message fell on deaf ears, and various factions within the Kickapoo, Miami, Piankeshaw, Wea, and Illinois supported the American cause between 1778 and 1781. Their alliance with the Americans did not pay off. In just a few years, white settlements began to grow and became more difficult to rebuff. In the wake of Clark’s conquest of British forts in southern Indiana and Illinois in 1778 and 1779, settler attacks on their Indigenous neighbors increased.

By 1781, the alliance between these nations and the United States began to disintegrate and dissolved almost completely by 1783 after the Treaty of Paris revealed the United States’ intention to take over Indian lands in the Old Northwest Territory.  Between 1781 and 1783, the Americans attempted to dominate the Illinois and Wabash tribes to pacify and settle these contested lands. In November 1781, Lieutenant Valentine Thomas Dalton, artillery commander at Vincennes, Indiana sent a letter to Lt. Col. Clark concerning American-Indian relations in the region.  He reported that he had promised to

take the Kickapoes [sic] by the h[and] upon Conditions of their delivering me their [w]ar ax Belt &c. Rec’d from the English and assurance of their future fidelity to Us, and for their true performance I expect the Piankeshaws to be answerable to me for their Conduct hereafter &c.[5]

Dalton’s paternalistic stance toward the Kickapoo and Piankeshaw is representative of the American position toward Indians in the Old Northwest Territory in the early 1780s.  Even though he was only a local commandant in charge of the artillery brigade, Dalton felt empowered to dictate the terms of US – Indian relations and expected these nations to acknowledge his perceived authority and his demands.

The core traits of settler colonialism are exposed in the fears expressed in the Chickasaw message and the arrogance of a low-ranking military commander: Indigenous dispossession, settlers’ perception of their own superiority, and how settler colonial structures flattened settler social hierarchies by raising male settlers’ social position in relation to Indigenous inhabitants. This story does not end here, however, and one should not think the Illinois and Wabash Valley tribes ignorant or naïve. Indeed, tribal leaders were making calculated judgments about their alliances, while navigating conflicting movements and sentiments within their own communities and hedging their bets by remaining in dialogue with both the British and Americans.

This case study highlights the essential features of settler colonialism I explore in my dissertation and foreshadows later American actions to obtain Indigenous land. Moreover, it offers a window into Indigenous resistance and showcases Native American leaders’ perceptiveness and flexibility in their response to the threat American settlement posed. In the larger work, this case study is woven into the first chapter, which examines the American conquest of British forts in present-day Indiana and Illinois during the American Revolution. Additionally, this chapter compares American and Indian perceptions of the overthrow’s meaning and reveals how Indigenous peoples of the Wabash Valley and Illinois Country navigated alliances during the war to place themselves in the best position to maintain their homeland and life-ways.

___________________________

[1] Helen Hornbeck Tanner, ed., Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, published for the Newberry Library, 1987), 92.

[2] James Alton James, ed., George Rogers Clark Papers, 1781-1784 (Springfield: Illinois Historical Society, 1926), 136; Draper Mss 47J1; “Chickasaw Talk to the Rebels,” May 22, 1779, Library of Congress transcriptions form Public Record Office, Kew, England, Colonial Office Records, 5/81: 139-41; also in Papers of the Continental Congress, reel 65, item 51, vol. 2: 41-2 in Colin Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 226.

[3] “Speeches Brought to Detroit by Mr. Beaubien,” September 27, 1778.  Haldimand Papers [B122 p 196] in Michigan Historical Collections, vol. 10, pp. 297-98.  Ohio Valley-Great Lakes Ethnohistory Archive, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

[4] Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 225.

[5] V. T. Dalton to George Rogers Clark, St. Vincents, 3 November 1781. Clark Papers. Missouri Historical Society. Ohio Valley-Great Lakes Ethnohistory Archive, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

Why Constantine?

Taking Constantine

Taking Constantine

What was the big deal about Constantine? Why was France willing to expend thousands of French lives in two separate campaigns (1836 and 1837) to take the city?

Prior to the first French military campaign to conquer the province of Constantine in 1836, parts of Captain Saint-Hippolyte’s notes about Constantine were incorporated into a military report and sent to the Minister of War on August 30, 1836.

Mitchell Map of N Af 1852

In the introduction, the author writes that “Of the three Beyliks of the Algerian Regency, the most extensive, the richest, and the most important was that of Constantine in the East,” which was bordered by the sea, the Jurjura Mountains and salt marshes, and the Regency of Tunis.[1]

Not only was it important to give General-in-Chief Bertrand Clauzel a sense of location and prominent geographical features, it was also vital that he understood the value of this province. With coastal access to the north, an eastern border with Tunisia, and the desert to the south, Constantine was a hub of trade networks that connected sub-Saharan Africa, eastern North Africa, and the Mediterranean. The report observes, “Farther away is the desert whose solitude is frequently [broken] by caravans coming from the center of Africa toward Tunis and Tripoli in particular, which having frequent enough relations with Turkey, offers an avenue to products from the Tropics.”[2]

Abundance of ConstantineFrench military commanders and travelers, alike, repeatedly described the province of Constantine as the most extensive, richest, and most important of the three beyliks of Algeria, and foremost among them in the production of wax, honey, butter, wheat, barley, livestock, and coral.

It was a coveted gem and one that French administrators believed to be the linchpin of their colonial strategy and ultimate success.[3] It was therefore essential that the French conquer, survey, map, and claim as much of this territory as possible.

The French were successful in their second attempt, breaching the wall and overwhelming the city.  Their depredations in Algiers and Bône were well known to the citizens of Constantine, who preferred to risk their lives rather than try to protect their property from the avaricious French soldiers and officers.

From his perch on the cliffs at Constantine, Jean-Joseph-François Poujoulat recorded with horror the human toll of the 1837 French conquest of this Algerian stronghold:

‘I stooGorges of Rhummeld on the edge of the terrifying ravines and stared at the sloping peaks over which thousands of men and women, trusting the abyss more than the mercy of the French victors, sought to escape. Their means of salvation were ropes attached to the upper walls of the rocks.  When these ropes broke, human masses could be seen rolling down this immense wall of rock.  It was a veritable cascade of corpses.’[4]

Following the collapse of the Constantinois resistance, thousands of men and women sought escape into the gorges of Rhummel. Hundreds fell to their deaths when frail ropes snapped, and many more lost everything they had when they abandoned their property to the French, who confiscated it for the public domain.
Following the initial invasion, the French parliament insisted on at least a modicum of legality in land appropriations. The next post will explore some of the ways in which France sought to rationalize its land policies through legislation.

[1] “Expédition de Constantine: Notes extraites des Mémoires du Capitaine Saint-Hyppolyte.” 30 Août 1836. 80 MIOM 1672, no. 1. ANOM.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Note de M. Lebois-Lecomte à M. Thiers sur la situation de l’Algérie au 1er octobre 1840. F80/1673 2, Archives Nationale d’outre-mer (ANOM).

[4] Jean-Joseph François Poujoulat, Voyage en Algérie: Etudes Africaine (nouvelle edition) (Paris: Librairie d’éducation,1868), 244. Translation from Mahfoud Benoune, The Making of Contemporary Algeria, 1830-1987 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 38.

As a Cultural Heritage Informatics fellow, I am taking the first step toward making information about two prototypes of settler colonization – the United States and French Algeria – available for high school and undergraduate students and educators, as well as early-stage researchers and the general public through a website, entitled “Settler Colonialism Uncovered.”

This project will focus on where, how, and why settler colonies developed in these locations and will allow users to explore the regions’ geography, how the landscape and demographics changed over time due to the influx of settlers, and how colonial administrators, settlers, and Indigenous communities experienced these changes.  Using the geospatial and temporal visualization capabilities of either Omeka/Neatline or VisualEyes, the interface will be an interactive temporal map of the focus regions with a narrative text and underneath, collections of primary sources, including sketches, news articles, treaties, transcribed speeches, correspondence, and selections from military reports and memoirs. It is my hope that this site will eventually serve as a repository for oral histories from colonized Indigenous populations so that their voices may be heard (literally and figuratively) alongside text-based sources that have historically been produced primarily by the colonizers. Thus, this project will be one step toward decolonizing historical memory and present the story of settler colonialism as it unfolded in two significant regions from multiple perspectives to encourage users to think critically about the past, especially that which feels most familiar, and develop informed perspectives about present socio-political debates.

Check out my Cultural Heritage Informatics tab above to read more about this exciting new outreach project.

Why do a comparative study? Why choose these two very different and seemingly unrelated regions? I’ve received these questions often enough that they merit an explanation. Please bear with me as my response is a little lengthy. This is a complex project! I’ve added subheadings to make navigating this post a little easier. Please ask questions or pose suggestions in the comments section below!

Why a comparative study of settler colonialism?

Little is known about how or why settler colonies formed, but as scholars of colonization, we need to understand the factors that motivated the formation of settler colonies and the processes by which they formed. Therefore, the two archetypes of settler colonialism – the United States and French Algeria – provide excellent case studies for this purpose.  Secondly, even though the métropoles chosen underwent different political transformations during this time, both were in transitory states as they sought to make or remake themselves, and the colonies in the Midwest and in Algeria were an important part of these changes.  In addition, the two regions chosen for this study possess similar geographic characteristics and were strategically significant in the colonization process.  Finally, the process of colonization proceeded through similar stages in both regions and analogous colonial structures emerged, despite the differences in demographics and metropolitan governments.

North America was one of the first early-modern settler colonies, and this study examines its evolution from a European settler colony into an American settler empire and argues that the United States also became an important model for modern settler colonialism and Indigenous policy. [1]  Likewise, Algeria has long been considered a model for settler colonialism but the process of its formation as such has not yet been studied in depth.[2] It is hoped that the comparison of these two archetypes, then, will yield powerful insights into how and why they formed that may also help us understand the development of other settler colonies.

Why the United States and French Algeria?

Both the French conquest of Algeria and the expansion of the United States into the Old Northwest Territory, the present-day “Midwest” region, marked the beginning of new colonial eras for both métropoles.  For France, the conquest and subsequent settlement of Algiers inaugurated its “second colonial empire.” As the United States fought for its own independence from England, Americans began an assault on Midwestern Native American tribes, their land, and the British who claimed the territory.  As in Algeria, settlers moved in on the heels of the military, and the young United States government became the political head of both a confederation of states and a nascent settler empire. Thus, the “conquests” of these regions marked the commencement of two settler colonies as well as significant periods of metropolitan change.  In recognition of the importance of founding moments, my study will compare the inception of these settler colonies with the understanding that they were also highly significant for the métropoles, even if recognized as such only in retrospect.

Why this time period?

In this study, I will analyze the foundational eras in the establishment of settler colonies in the American Midwest (1778 ~ 1830) and French Algeria (1830 – 1871). These periods were dynamic, characterized by substantial political transformations and encompass conquest/occupation, initial settlement, and the development of stable settler governments.  The United States metamorphosed from a colony into an independent nation whose political character changed appreciably between the Revolution and the 1830s. France, a monarchy in 1830 under the Restoration government of King Charles X, was soon overthrown by the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe d’Orleans (1830-1848), which was, in turn, ousted by the Second Republican government, and finally (for this study’s purposes) replaced by the Second Empire (1852-1871) under Napoleon III four years later.  The transformations that took place in both the métropoles and the colonies affected each other to varying degrees and in different ways in each location, but the relationship proved important in the development of the settler colonies, the establishment of settler governments, and the shape of each.

Why the American Midwest and Constantine, Algeria?

The Algerian province of Constantine and Illinois/Indiana in the United States provide an interesting and useful comparison. Both were recognized as vital to American and French colonization efforts.  Geographically, both bordered other imperial territories at the time of occupation and colonization, and both were fertile inland territories that were significant sites of agriculture.  They were also strategically significant for military purposes and provided access to lucrative commercial networks.  The indigenous populations in both areas practiced extensive agriculture, were already culturally, linguistically, and religiously diverse, and had long-established relations with the colonizers through trade.

Comparing Colonization Methods:

Preliminary research indicates that the colonization of each location proceeded in a similar manner. Colonization began in both before the métropole gave its official assent. The colonial governments were therefore left to acknowledge the colonies and craft legislation ex-post-facto, which suggests that these settler colonies began from bottom-up impulses and processes, making the actions of the settlers, Indigenous populations, and the military even more significant.

During colonization, both Constantine and the American Midwest became important sites of Indigenous resistance.  However, a number of powerful competing Native groups resided in both places, some of which saw advantages to accommodating and allying with the colonizers against neighboring Indigenous communities. French and American colonizers employed comparable methods and sought to capitalize on these divisions to achieve similar objectives. Each wanted to populate the territory with small freeholders, generally as quickly as possible by legal (treaties) or extra-legal means (forcefully acquiring land).  However, France never achieved a colony of freeholders, unlike the United States, which provides an interesting point of comparison between the two.

The nature of initial settlement, the settlers themselves, and the circumstances surrounding conquest and occupation suggest that the founding moments were important to the development of each settler colony. Colonists migrated to the American Midwest to farm, but many settlers in Algeria took advantage of the extensive trade networks and established themselves in urban communities. It is unclear in the secondary literature how many settlers in Constantine chose to farm or chose to settle in the cities. Both sought to abolish Native communities’ communal land rights by instituting various measures to force the division of land into individual holdings and developed reservation systems for Indigenous societies (in Algeria, called cantonnement).

How similar were they, really?

One important contrast between the two colonies was the significance of land to individual settlers.  While a small number of Europeans bought large tracts of Algerian land, a majority of individuals and families settled in towns, as opposed to the American Midwest, where the majority of the settlers bought land to farm.[3]  The obvious reason for this difference was the availability of houses in extant Algerian cities, which did not exist in America in the same way.[4]  Only sections of a relatively narrow band of land about 200 miles wide along the coast of Algeria was available for farming and since the military launched total war on the land and its people, hundreds of acres of trees and crops were destroyed, making it less appealing for those who sought quick returns on their investment.  There were also fewer barriers to entry into commercial networks in Algeria than there were in Indian Territory and former Indian lands.  This calls into question scholars’ assumption that land was the primary motivating factor in settler colonialism.

In the American Midwest, settlers eventually outnumbered the Indigenous population, but this was a rare occurrence in Algeria. The Indigenous cultures in each location differed from each other in significant ways, from community and family structures to their life-ways and the extent of Indigenous urbanization. Regardless, similar colonial structures developed in both places, which implies that each métropole faced similar problems in governing the territories and the people in them.

Is this comparison synthetic or organic? Did 19th c. Americans or Frenchmen draw such parallels?

In a word, yes. This study is not the first comparison of these two regions.  Nineteenth-century Frenchmen were equally interested and debated how alike (or not) the two colonial projects were.  In addition to Tocqueville’s initial study, Democracy in America, Michel Chevalier traveled to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century to compare its development with that of French Algeria, and found Algeria sadly lacking in terms of immigration and the development of industry.  However, Algerian Governor-General MacMahon wrote a rebuttal to Chevalier’s stance, which was presented before the Senate in 1870.  MacMahon maintained that, given the immense Indigenous population the French faced in Algeria, their colonization was proceeding well by 1870:

On arrival in America, the Europeans found there a territory of immense expanse, inhabited by a population, which by comparison, was insignificant.  Understanding the advantages of colonization, of civilization, they were able, without great injustice, to repel the hunters who were before them in the vast forests which covered a part of the country, forests in which these people were able to continue to live by hunting as they had in the past.

It is not the same in Algeria, where the Europeans found a limited territory, inhabited by a population of 2,500,000 inhabitants of a proud, energetic, [and] militant race, who in every case had the enjoyment of all of the country’s land, and who, moreover were supported more or less directly by the Muslim country which neighbored it. …

I regret that M. Michel Chevalier, who reported to us very interesting documents from the United States, has not I believe been obliged to visit our colony.  I think that if he had traveled not only the cities in the Littoral, but the agricultural centers of the interior, he would have had better impressions of the state of the country.  I believe it to be true to say that these centers, with the exception of a very small number, which were established principally in less-viable and unfavorable conditions, are in a satisfactory state.  The occasional hardships through three years of drought and from diverse scourges are today in great part repaired and the villages are in a state of prosperity equal at least to that of the villages of France.[5]

Thus, to understand how the French viewed Algeria, determined how to proceed with colonization, and measured their progress, it is essential to understand the process and initial results of the establishment of settler colonies in both locations.


[1] Lisa Ford, Settler Sovereignty: Jurisdiction and Indigenous People in America and Australia, 1788-1836. Harvard Historical Studies 166. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2010), 21.

[2] John Ruedy, Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 51.

[3] More than 60 percent of settlers in Algeria lived in urban areas. (David Prochaska, Making Algeria French, 11).  For this reason, Constantine is especially important because it was one of the largest cities in Algeria, and as Prochaska notes, “whoever controlled the urban centers, especially the major cities of the littoral, controlled to a large extent what went on in the colony itself” (Ibid).

[4] Although some American frontier homes resembled Indigenous structures, settlers would not have lived in Indian homes, even if they had had the opportunity. However, there were few occasions in which they would have been able to make the choice, as many Indigenous structures were portable and thus migrated with the Indian communities or were destroyed during frontier warfare.

[5] Patrice de Mac Mahon, duc de Magenta, “Discours au Sénat du duc de Magenta sur une pétition relative à la constitution de l’Algérie” (Paris, 1870), pp. 4-5. Centre des Archives d’outre-mer, Aix-en-Provence, France. File: F/ 80/ 1681. Translation Mine.

As you begin a project, consider what your goals and target audience(s) are. What story do you want to tell with your data or material? A project’s goals should motivate next steps and the decision about which tools to employ rather than tools driving the work.  That being said, here is a quick roundup of tools we discussed for research and teaching at THAT Camp Caribe 2012:

  • Sonnet generator!
  • Check out vinegarhillproject.org to see @schuyleresprit‘s work with GIS and Visual Eyes to show change over time
  • Cmap:
    • Use it to figure out how to position yourself theoretically or historiographically
    • Export the concept map as text to help compose arguments
    • Use color coding to organize and display connections between ideas
    • Helpful to sort out what one knows and how those ideas are interrelated
    • Great tool to start out with when ideas are “fuzzy”
  • Scrivener
    • Drafting tool
    • Can drag and drop files into Scrivener
    • Breaks down a large project into smaller ‘steps’ or pieces. Can see all components of larger project.
    • Robust metadata
    • Can keep all drafts together
    • Block-out screen
    • Confidence tool as much as productivity because of word counter
    • Split screen to compare drafts or chapters
  • Mellel:
    • Works within Styles – for instance, italicizing titles of books, name the stye “titles of books” => when you move to a new style that requires book titles underline, change the style to underline, and then everything switches.
      • Foreign words italicized
      • Block quotes
    • Integrates with Bookends (citation software)
    • Only crashed once in 4-5 years, whereas Word crashed numerous times when integrating EndNote references and using diacriticals
  • BookEnds – Citation manager
  • Zotero
    • Zotero’s Paper Machines topic modeling plug-in: bit.ly/PS5gTx.
  • Evernote
  • DevonThink: similar to Evernote but with more focus on storing and organizing the material
  • Omeka.net: Digital publishing platform. For those who would like more customizability and more plugin options, look into setting Omeka.org up on your own server.  Both versions allow you to both display and interpret items through robust metadata and the option to create exhibits and showcases.  For examples, see:
  • Neatline: An Omeka plugin that allows users to create timelines and maps with metadata about your items
  • Prezi: Presentation tool
  • WordPress: Set up your own class or academic blog!

Check out: dirt.projectbamboo.org for a nearly comprehensive list of digital tools!

If you attended THAT Camp Caribe and I’ve forgotten a tool we discussed, please add a note about it in the comment section below. Thanks!

If you weren’t able to attend our panel at the American Studies Association Conference (November 15-18, 2012) in San Juan or if you were and would like a second look at my presentation, the links to the paper and PowerPoint are included below.  Please note that the PowerPoint is intended for illustrative and educational purposes only.

Civilization, American Indians, and the Noble Savage Myth in French Colonial and American Discourses
Copyright, 2012, Ashley Wiersma, All Rights Reserved, research in progress, reproduction for nonprofit, educational purposes only.

ASA PowerPoint 2012

If you have suggestions or questions, please use the comments section below to continue the conversation!

Today one often hears talk about “civilized” conduct or standards of civilization, but what do we mean by these terms and ideas? When and how did come about? and why?  More importantly, why does it matter?

First, I should clarify that there are two distinct meanings of “civilization”:

  1. It is a noun, which describes both the process and result of an individual or community becoming “civilized.” The Modern Oxford English Dictionary defines it as follows: “A particular culture, society, and way of life as characteristic of a community of people; (also) a civilized society; the comfort and convenience of modern life, as found in towns and cities; populated or urban areas in general.” [i] In this series of posts I will clarify what “civilized” meant to the French who first coined the term “civilisation” and offer a few ideas on why this remains an important concept.
  2. It is a value-laden normative concept by which “others” are judged (i.e. the “standard” of civilization)

The idea developed, like many others, during the Enlightenment and appeared first in French (1756) and three years later in English.[ii]  In my upcoming presentation at the American Studies Association conference (November 15-18), I will delve into the etymology of “civilization” and related words.  For now, a brief summary of my argument will suffice to explain how and why the concept developed when it did:

After the Valois victory in the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, it became increasingly important to define a distinct and unifying French identity as the monarchy attempted to unite France beginning in the mid-fifteenth century.  Contact with “others” in Africa, the Americas, and even the Far East provided different people and cultures with which to compare their own.  As populations previously unknown to Europeans, Native Americans provided particularly powerful images. They either embodied everything that was not European and therefore deficient, or served as exemplars of the “Natural Man,” or were used to critique the decadent and corrupt French social and political systems.

I argue that French philosophers refined ideas about civilization and barbarism through contact with Native Americans.  The coining of the new term “civilization” in the mid-eighteenth century marked its significance in contemporary discourse and served to identify and define in positive terms an extant concept, previously subsumed in the meanings of sociabilité (sociability) and politesse (politeness).

By 1771 the recently invented word civilisation had come to incorporate a number of common ideas.  It referred to a group of people who were sociable, civil (polite), tractable (compliant & governable), able to live in community with one another because they recognized their religious and moral obligations to God and others, and who lived in an ordered society that was governed by laws and sovereign authority.

From the sixteenth through the eighteenth century, French explorers, missionaries, statesmen, and scholars often defined civilization by what it was not and employed accounts and images of Native Americans either to support the superiority of French society and norms or critique the decadence of French culture.  In their writing, certain markers of civilization stand out. Hygiene, “politeness,” religion, and gender norms were among the most common measures of civilization by which Frenchmen judged Others.

In early modern France, to be civilized was to be Christian and to be Christian was to be civilized. However, a number of Enlightenment intellectuals, including Diderot, Rousseau, Condorcet, and Englishman Adam Ferguson, worked to separate the concept of civilization from religion.  They connected the ideas of civilization and progress to develop secular theories about the stages of human development from primitivism (hunter-gatherers) to European Enlightenment.[iii]  Their use of civilisation expanded its definition to include the “advancements in comfort, increased material possessions and personal luxuries, improved [and expanded] education, ‘cultivation of the arts and sciences,’ and the expansion ‘of commerce and industry.’”[iv]

At the same time, French and Scottish philosophers used the life cycle as an analogy to create a history of mankind’s progress from “savagery” to “civilization.”  In his 1777 work The History of America, Scottish historian William Robertson established a model for American intellectuals, as he employed the French concepts of “civilization” and the progression of mankind through stages of development to describe American Indians’ place in history. His work was foundational in shaping early American leaders’ understanding of Indians and a nascent American identity. In his analysis of Indian origin hypotheses, Robertson clearly ranks Indians’ level of civilization on a social hierarchy, as did the French, using the same definition of civilization that developed in Enlightenment France. To be civilized was to be unified socially, to exhibit social “norms” necessary for civil life, to exchange complete liberty for life in community with others and therefore be subject to government and its laws.  Furthermore, a community must understand property rights, express its culture in the arts (as Euro-Americans defined them), and have established industry to be considered “civilized.”[v]  Thomas Jefferson took many of his ideas about Indians from Robertson and other Scottish philosophers who argued that “circumstance” (rather than environment) created character, as well as the French philosophes’ notions of civilization and human progression through stages of development.[vi]

In the next two posts, I will examine the role this concept has played in colonial efforts, particularly those of France, and why it remains important today.

Finally, I would like these posts to serve as conversation-starters. Please ask questions and offer constructive feedback in the comments section below.  If you choose to use any part of this work in your own writing, cite it. [See citation information below.] Thank you!


[i] “civilization, n.”. OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/33584?redirectedFrom=civilization (accessed November 09, 2012).

[ii] Brett Bowdwn, The Empire of Civilization: The Evolution of an Imperial Idea (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 31.

[iii] Jean Starobinski, Blessings in Disguise; or The Morality of Evil, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 4-5.

[iv] Starobinski, 3 in Bowden, 30.

[v] William Robertson, The History of America (London: Printed for W. Strahan, T. Cadell, and J. Balfour, 1777), vol. I, pp. 282-3

[vi] Roy Harvey Pearce, Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, [1953], 1965), 92-96.
Citation for this post:
Ashley Wiersma, “What is ‘Civilization’?” Weblog Entry. Colonialism Through the Veil. 9 November 2012. <http://colonialismthroughtheveil.wordpress.com/2012/11/09/what-is-civilization/&gt; (Accessed [date]).